Beyond Ripe: A Risk-Filled Romance with American Persimmons

Hunting for a wild and difficult native food like a persimmon gives us something more than calories.

It was my mom, of course, who introduced me to persimmons. Persimmons are perhaps the most embarrassing fruit to collect from public places. Much worse than black walnuts, which at least have the courtesy to look like nuts, even with their outer husks still on and greenish-brown, though they do stain your hands dark brown if you aren’t careful. No, persimmons are a different matter, because what you are collecting looks like rotten fruit, something that should not be eaten, or at least should have been eaten some weeks earlier.

You may have seen Asian persimmons in a grocery story. Those lovely orange orbs are another story. They look like something exotic, sure, but they do appear similar to other things you have eaten. The American persimmon, a native tree, is different. First of all, the trees are spindly and not so lovely on their own. In the south, where I live and grew up, ice storms often break off the thin branches closer to the ground. I suspect possums and raccoons also help, as they hunt after the sweet fruits at the narrow ends of boughs. (They are sometimes called possum apples!) And when the fruits are ripe, they hang off the barren branches, their leaves having already fallen to the ground. They look sort of pretty up there, a dusky orange against a cold blue sky.

Note the persimmon smash on the road. That’s the best way to find a ready tree as you are driving through the country.

But those high-up and pretty fruits, though ripe, are not the ones you want. In fact, a ripe persimmon is an inedible persimmon. Many folks in the south can tell you about the time someone, an older sibling perhaps, tricked them into biting into a firm, orange persimmon. The fruit at that stage are so astringent and full of tannins they will suck any moisture right out of your mouth, leaving you swearing off the very idea of gathering food from nature forever. If you’ve had this experience, you won’t soon forget it.

No, the ones you want are beyond ripe. They have been on the tree a while, after the first frost for sure. They have softened up quite a lot, called bletting, and when they are ready to eat, they fall to the ground. They are tender now, and wrinkled, and because they have fallen to the ground, they may have smashed a bit. They may have dirt on them, and they are lying next to seeds that have very likely been rejected by a raccoon, or by other persimmons that have been pecked by a bird or bitten by some other animal. They are probably still attached to twigs. They are, in fact, rotting slightly.

Don’t eat the pretty ones

And, of course, you are a young teen, probably, and mortified by anyone seeing you do anything weird, which is to say doing anything at all with your parents. What you are doing now is picking up squashed and dirty fruit by the side of a road and putting it into a grocery bag. If you didn’t happen to have a bag in the car, then you are holding gooey fruits in your hands, trying not to look like you are collecting poop from some unfortunate wild animal.

Even as an adult, trying such a fruit for the first time might be a bridge too far. As you break one open in your hands, you’ll find them full of large, dark brown, inedible seeds. But something about that rich amber pulp, now soft and similar in texture to the inside of a blueberry, is enticing. If you do take the risk and touch your tongue cautiously to the flesh, you’ll find a deep sweetness. To me, they taste like fall, like they have already had nutmeg added to them. Like an autumn fig. Like a secret forest treat.

You know you want to try it.

Maybe it’s the risk that makes them so special. You have to find a tree first, best located by an orange-y slick on the road below a skinny tree. No one I know cultivates American persimmons. You have to time it right, and the harvest day will be cold. Picked too early and the taste is terrible. Indeed, eating unripe persimmons can cause a woody phytobezoar, or foodball, to develop in the stomach. (Fascinatingly, these can be dissolved by Coca-Cola of all things!). So don’t snack too soon! From the look, to the tannins, to the embarrassment of collecting food by a roadside, it is easy to be dissuaded. Yet, when ready, they are truly delicious. A persimmon cake with buttermilk frosting tastes like the very best day in November. Persimmon pudding is an old-time favorite. For me, the absolute best way to use persimmon pulp is in a cheesecake. It’s enough trouble to make that I save it for Thanksgiving and make it on the Wednesday before.

I spoke with my class this week about the Slow Food movement, and they thought slow food might not be achievable in the U.S., where fast food and convenience reign. But I think hunting for a wild and difficult native food like a persimmon (or a mushroom or dandelion greens) gives us something more than calories. It connects us to our place, forcing us outdoors and into paying close attention to nature. It slows us down. It makes us take a risk, touching our tongues carefully to something that might not be quite right. You can’t commoditize an American persimmon, because it’s already past ripe. It’s instability forces us to eat here, now. When I took my daughter with me this year to pick them up off the ground, they connected me to my childhood and my mother. There’s no way to eat more locally than to eat a persimmon. It can be tricky to learn to love the fruit, but the rewards are great.

Local and lovely

Here’s my recipe for Persimmon Cheesecake, which I adapted from the America’s Test Kitchen’s Spiced Pumpkin Cheesecake.

Thanksgiving favorites

American Persimmon Cheesecake

9 whole graham crackers
3 T sugar
½ t ground ginger
½ t ground cinnamon
¼ t ground cloves
6 T melted unsalted butter

1 ¼ cup persimmon puree
1 T vanilla extract
1 T fresh lemon juice
½ t baking powder
1 1/3 cup sugar
1 t ground cinnamon
½ t ground ginger
¼ t grated nutmeg
¼ t allspice
¼ ground cloves
½ t salt
24 ounces cream cheese at room temperature
5 large eggs at room temperature
1 cup heavy cream

Brown Sugar and Bourbon Cream

1 cup heavy cream
½ cup sour cream
1/3 cup light brown sugar, packed
1/8 t salt
2 t bourbon

To make the crust, combine the dry ingredients in a food processor until evenly ground. I’ve also used a ziplock bag and crushed the graham crackers with a rolling pin. Add the melted butter and stir until combined. Press into the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan. Bake at 325o for 15 minutes. Set aside to cool.

For the filling, process the persimmon puree by removing the seeds from the over-ripe persimmons and pressing through a food mill. I have also used a strainer and a spoon, mashing the pulp through the holes. Don’t worry about removing the skin. Mix the pulp with the vanilla, lemon juice, and a little baking powder (if desired). Set aside.

Mix together the sugar and spices in a small bowl. Beat the cream cheese in a stand mixer (or with an electric beater) until smooth. Add all the spice mix in three additions and blend until well combined. Add the persimmon puree. Note that it has congealed! Mix well. Add the eggs one at a time and mix well. Add the heavy cream. Mix well, using a spatula to scrape the sides and bottom to fully combine. Pour the filling into the springform pan.  Wrap the springform pan with foil on the base so that the water bath won’t seep in the sides. Set that pan in a large roasting pan. Add boiling water (about a gallon) to the roasting pan until it comes halfway up the outside of the springform pan. This water bath will help the cheesecake cook evenly. Bake at 325o for 1 ½ hours, until a thermometer reads 150o in the center of the cheesecake.

Remove the roasting pan to a cooling rack and let cool there for about 45 minutes. Then remove the springform pan to the cooling rack to come to room temperature (about 3 hours). Wrap springform with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight. Serve with the Brown Sugar and Bourbon Cream.

To make the cream, combine all ingredients but the bourbon and whip until combined. Chill for at least four hours. When ready to serve, stir in the bourbon and whip until fluffy and about doubled in size.

Biscuits, My Mom, and Edna Lewis

If I had to choose a single page in a single cookbook that was the most precious to me, I would choose this one.

If I had to choose a single page in a single cookbook that was the most precious to me, I would choose this one: the recipes for cornbread and biscuits, written in my mother’s own hand, in a spiral bound composition notebook.

Stained from countless uses, it doesn’t actually have any instructions for the biscuits, save the temperature and how long to bake them. That knowledge didn’t need recording on paper for me. My mom wrote just five pages of recipes in this little notebook she gave me some time after I graduated from college. She later gave me a larger three-ring binder of Xeroxed recipes, also written in her own hand, from her own composition notebook with many more recipes that she’s felt the need to record over the years. It used to have a colorful collage she made glued on the front, but that has since been torn off from the number of times I pulled it off my cookbook shelf. I do have the black-and-white copy of that image on the first page in that notebook, along with her inscription to me.

That inscription bears a strong resemblance to the one she wrote in Edna Lewis’s classic cookbook, The Taste of Country Cooking. There she wrote:

My Big Queen

Have a wonderful time with this book – I have.

Love Mom

I grew up in Richmond, Virginia, but neither side of my family was recently from the south. My maternal grandmother grew up in Memphis, but my mom had been raised in Kansas and New England, and my dad’s family was firmly from New York, having immigrated from Eastern Europe as Jews fleeing the pogroms and persecution at the turn of the 20th century. Nevertheless, my childhood memories of food are tied to the south, in large part because of my mom’s love of food and what food could tell you about a place. I recall a drive we made once, a rather significant drive in my memory, to a place that sold Lebanese food in rural Virginia. I tasted zaatar for the first time there, and remember the taste of their feta, so unlike what we bought in the grocery store.

We made a pilgrimage to Freetown, Virginia, as well. It was a good two hours from where we lived (it’s faster today with improved roads and someone who is not my mom driving) but it was the childhood home of Edna Lewis, the descendent of formerly enslaved people who founded the town once they secured their freedom. She wrote the recipe Mom used for biscuits, stewed blackberries, and a wide range of other dishes. The community wasn’t much to look at then. Mostly a post office and fields, really. Most folks had moved away. Indeed, Edna Lewis wrote in her introduction that after reminiscing with her siblings about gathering and preparing food:

I realized how much of the bond that held us had to do with food. Since we were the last of the original families, with no children to remember and carry on, I decided I wanted to write down just exactly how we did things when I was growing up in Freetown that seemed to make life so rewarding.

She wrote to preserve that connection to her ancestors, to the people who taught her about food and family and place. Her book is filled with stories, not just recipes. And the recipes reflect just who her people were in times of celebration. This is a book of Black joy if there ever was one.

Emancipation Day Feast

While I was a kid, my mom’s work on voting rights, restitution for forced sterilizations, and abolishing the death penalty had opened my eyes pretty young (for a white girl) to the depths of racism and anti-Blackness in Virginia. Her love of food and culture, though, shared the other side of the coin too. Her work allowed us to violate the apartheid of the south in the 1970s and 80s, and so I saw celebration and everyday living. And I learned about biscuits.

In my south, biscuits need to be right. They need to be able to be opened without a knife, just by pulling apart while still warm. They need to be pillowy on the inside and a little crispy on the outside. They often call for lard in the recipe, though I use butter today. My mom made a sign she hung in her kitchen in the early 80s that read: “Everything cooked in real Butter unless Lard is more appropriate.” I must note that my mom has also had long stretches of eating vegan in her life, so this sign is not truly representative of her today. But you get the picture.

Like Edna Lewis, food ties my family together. My brother shares my tastes and food memories, and our favorite dishes come from our mom’s handwritten notebook. This morning as she ate these biscuits, my daughter sighed and said, “I have eaten some good food in my life.” For her, biscuits will have to be right too. Cornbread as well, which we only eat with butter and molasses. It’s almost not worth eating them without the molasses in our household. Biscuits should be served with butter and local honey or homemade jam. Today’s jam came from our neighbor, who made it with the figs from the tree of our neighbor on the other side.

Fig Preserves, with oranges
With honey, my favorite

I should note that the biscuit recipe that I love, that ties me to my mom, differs from the one that appears in Edna Lewis’s book. Perhaps I have a different version than my mom had. You’ll also see that my mom has many versions of it based on the size of your crowd. I’ll write the instructions for the one scaled for a family of four. Of course, mine is a family of three, so I cut them to come out with nine biscuits, for fairness. You’ll do what is best for you.

The last one is always odd

The way I make the biscuits has changed over time. My mom used to make them without any kneading, just dropping them into a pie dish, where they rose in the oven to touch their sides together. Now we both knead them three times and cut them. I use a drinking glass, though I own biscuit cutters, because I like them a certain size. Flour that glass, people! No matter how many times I’ve made these, I always think of my mom as I do it. Same with pie crusts. I learned how to make food right from her. I got my tongue from her – my tastes are her tastes. My sense of scale with cooking belongs to her – too much is always better than not enough. People at your table should feel like they can eat as much as they want. And my style of appreciation of food came from her too. One should exclaim – often – about the food we eat. If people aren’t raving, it’s probably not good. (This one is not especially a good lesson, I admit. Don’t follow this one! But I can’t be truly friends with someone who hasn’t been ecstatic about my cooking at some point. It’s a character flaw on my part, I know, but you can blame my mom.)

As I pass this recipe along to you, I’m passing along my love of my mom. Biscuits are love transformed into nourishment. They are particular, they are personal, they are place that can be carried with you when you move. Don’t thank me for this recipe, thank my mom and Edna Lewis.

Buttermilk Biscuits

2 cups all-purpose flour

3/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

2 teaspoons cream of tartar (find this with the spices in your grocery store)

1/2 cup unsalted butter or lard

3/4 cup buttermilk

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Mix the dry ingredients; then cut in the lard or butter until well combined and the flour looks a bit like cornmeal. I use a food processor these days. Add the buttermilk until just mixed (I do 11-13 pulses with the food processor). Turn out onto a floured surface and knead about three times. Flatten the dough gently with your hand until it is about ¾ inch thick. Cut out with a floured biscuit or a drinking glass. You should have about 8-9 biscuits. Place on an ungreased pan and bake for about 13 minutes until golden brown. Serve hot with butter, honey, and jam.

Green Chile Casserole – Stay for the Story

I want to share this recipe with you but I want to share Maribeth with you, too.

You can almost smell it, can’t you?

Not everyone is lucky when it comes to mother-in-laws, but I am. I got Maribeth Hill. We both remember our first meeting with perfect clarity. She remembers exactly what we were both wearing, down to our shoes, because that is one of her superpowers. I remember where we ate for dinner.

When we met, I wasn’t sure how we were going to get along. In some ways – ways that are easy to see – we are quite different. Maribeth seldom emerges from her bedroom without lipstick. She always wears jewelry to match her outfit, and had standing nail and hair appointments. I’m not very careful about my appearance, to be honest. She was raised in Enid, Oklahoma, while I came from the East Coast. We were, of course, from different generations. But it turned out that we were very similar in some less visible ways: we both love learning about new people, we can recall details about people’s lives without needing reminding, and we love to explore new foods.

Maribeth and I are quite different kinds of cooks. I like to read four or five recipes and combine them to make what I had in mind. Maribeth once told me, “I’m not sure why that dish didn’t come out – I followed the recipe exactly. I mean, if it tells me I have to stand on my head and chop the onions with my feet, I’m going to do it!” She loved eating what I cooked, though, and always made me feel so good about myself. That’s one of her superpowers too – the ability to make everyone feel seen and valued and interesting.

One of my biggest cooking disasters came quite early in our relationship. I was making Dutch babies (see Dutch Babies and Other Delights) for breakfast, which are cooked at high heat. I forgot that the day before I had cleaned some candlesticks by heating them slightly in the oven. I didn’t realize that some of the wax had dripped into the oven itself. While we were visiting over coffee, I casually glanced at the oven only to see flames leaping inside! I raced in, scooped out the wax, and hoped that no one noticed. Dutch babies remained one of Maribeth’s favorites for me to cook her, enough so that she bought a special pan for them that she kept at her home for when I visited.

That’s another favorite thing about Maribeth: she often planned ahead for my visits. I would get to her house and discover that she had the ingredients all ready for something I had made on a previous trip. It might be Dutch babies, it might be a quinoa salad, or a cocktail or delicious romesco sauce or bleu cheese and kalamata olive spread. I loved cooking for her.

We also went to the grocery store together more times than I can count. On those trips, away from everyone else in the house, we sometimes had our most intimate conversations. We talked about the things that were bothering us or worrying us while we drove to the store and back. We could read each other pretty well and are both gentle about pulling out what the other one needed to talk about. I love that those conversations happened in the most mundane space, the trip to the store.

At home, Maribeth was always moving. Cooking, setting the table with her dishes that delighted her, cleaning up after me. Planning the next meal, thinking about who would be coming over for dinner or a drink. Even when I cooked, she was completely engaged and active. She watched and prepped and suggested. She told me I was working too hard.

We liked going to restaurants together too. She loved to go out for breakfast and when we lived in Arizona, we enjoyed taking her and my father-in-law to fancy brunches at the resorts outside Tucson and Phoenix. They both loved going to places they would never think to try, like to a Mexican seafood spot in Guadalupe or the Cuban tapas place downtown. One of our favorite memories, though, was the time she and I went down to the bar at the hotel where we were staying for her oldest granddaughter’s wedding. The two of us ordered appetizers and cocktails and talked for hours, long after everyone else went to bed. She could tell you what we were wearing.

All of these small moments in food can tell you the story of our friendship, and about the person that she is, and was. Maribeth loved food as she loved life – with curiosity and vigor. She is at the end of that beautiful life now, suffering from terminal lung cancer. I have cooked my last meals for her. When we went for a visit in December, I made her a cherry pie although she had a failing appetite. She had told me that she always asked for the same birthday meal as a child: fried oysters, French fries, and cherry pie. And she ate that pie. When we couldn’t tempt her with anything else, she would agree to the pie. She agreed to several French 75s as well. She likes a fancy cocktail. Now, as she is fading, we – her family – take comfort in what she has decided to eat each day. The burrito bowl day was a good day. The day she sampled each flavor of ice cream offered reassured us.

On that visit in December, I asked her what dishes she thought she was most known for among her family and friends. She immediately said chile relleno casserole and her guacamole. Later, she told me that she’d have to add Yummy Potatoes to that list also. Last night, my 13-year-old daughter made her MeMe’s chile relleno casserole for our family for dinner. I’ll share that recipe below.

Z and MeMe

I wanted to share this recipe with you but I want to share Maribeth with you too, and my love for her. When people complain about having to scroll down to a buried recipe, they forget that sharing stories of food, sharing food experiences, is the motivation for most women who write food blogs. We write the story because the story is the point. The relationship is the point. The experience and the learning and creativity is the point. Food is culture, people, and always made in community. And every time I eat this chile relleno casserole, I will think of my beautiful, warm, fun-loving, and loving mother-in-law, Maribeth Hill. She is the reason I’m sharing this with you.

Chile Relleno Casserole

  • 1 27-oz. can of whole green chiles (if you can get fresh roasted, do it!)
  • 1 lb Monterrey jack cheese (we used queso fresco last night)
  • 5 eggs
  • 1 ¼ cup milk
  • ¼ cup flour
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • Dash of fresh ground black pepper
  • 4 cups (1 lb.) grated mild cheddar cheese

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Drain the can if you are using canned green chiles. Slit the green chiles lengthwise and remove seeds. Slice the Monterrey jack or queso fresco into ¼ inch thick slices and place inside the chiles, laying them in a 13×9 inch ungreased pan. Mix the eggs, milk, flour, salt and pepper until smooth. Pour over chiles. Sprinkle the top evenly with the cheddar cheese. Bake for 45 minutes until browned.

Grateful Cake

The combined loveliness of two acts of friendship seemed to cry out for a celebration.

In May and June of 2014, I took a group of college students on a study trip along the U.S.-Mexico border. They had all taken a course with me about cultures of the borderlands, and they were an amazing group of young women. Today, they are scattered around the country, but they keep in touch with me and with each other. As we read about the border in the news over the years, we all recall what we learned together.

This week, I got a present from one of them. She lives in Tucson now, working with refugees. She sent me a bag of mesquite flour made from beans she collected by the Santa Cruz river, and a jar of olives, also collected around town and cured herself. In this time of relative deprivation due to COVID-19 – deprived of friendship and of easy access to food – her gift felt like a little miracle. Both products took effort and planning, making wild plants into precious food. In both, the gratification from collection to consumption is quite delayed, but is all the more delightful because of the wait.

Mesquite pods ripening.  Photo Credit: Elissa McDavid

On our trip in 2014, the students tasted and ground the flour themselves for the first time. We sought the shade of a mesquite to do the work, and touched the flour to our lips cautiously. I recall what a pleasure it was to see their astonishment at how very sweet the beans are.

Anna grinds beans while we hide in the shade

We looked for mesquite trees for their shade often on that trip, relishing the cool they bring to the desert.

A lovely old one

Almost on the same day, a friend bought me wheat flour and yeast at the grocery store because she knew I had been unable to find either for weeks. I brought her a bouquet of flowers from my yard and a bunch of cilantro that I could easily spare. We made the trade in her driveway, keeping our distance. First, she put her goods on her car and retreated; then I approached and took hers and left mine. We sat about 15 feet apart and talked for a few minutes in the sun. Seeing each other’s living face, unmediated by a machine. I’m so grateful for that moment and for my former student, now friend, who thought of me in this dark time.

The combined loveliness of these two acts of friendship seemed to cry out for a celebration. I turned, of course, to From I’itoi’s Garden, a cookbook I have written about before. I knew the Tohono O’odham would have some good ideas about how to use mesquite flour. The Tohono O’odham people ate mesquite beans as a snack off the tree, or ground them into flour. The flour could be made into a porridge or into balls by mixing with water and drying in the sun to save for later. Today, the flour is used for all kinds of goodies with recipes in this great cookbook. I’m sharing their unaltered recipe here for the cake, though I modified it by making a layer cake and using an orange buttercream frosting. That was all me.

The decoration was also me

Almond Mesquite Cake

2 1/4 cups flour
3/4 cup mesquite flour
2 ½ teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup softened unsalted butter
1 1/3 cups sugar
2 eggs
2 teaspoons almond extract
1 1/3 cups milk

Preheat oven to 350°F. Mix dry ingredients together in a small bowl. Cream sugar, butter and eggs, and almond extract in a mixer.  Alternate adding dry mixture with milk  to the butter mixture in three additions each. Pour batter into two buttered and floured (and I used parchment paper) 9″ cake pans. Bake for 30-35 minutes.

Orange Buttercream Frosting

1/2 cup softened unsalted butter
3 cups confectioners’ sugar
Zest of one orange
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 teaspoons orange extract
3-4 tablespoons fresh orange juice

Slivered almonds, toasted

Beat together butter and  orange zest. Gradually beat in sugar until blended. Add liquids and beat. Taste for orange. I like it tangy.

Frost the cake and decorate with toasted slivered almonds. I put on a lemon blossom for prettiness.

We ate this sucker up.

Enjoy while thinking of your generous and glorious friends.


On the Importance of Growing Herbs

There’s a reason I don’t cook as much in a strange kitchen: they don’t have what I need.

I love traveling, as you know, and as I have grown older I’ve found that I like having a home base in a new country. I like being able to stay a week or so somewhere and rent a house or apartment for that time. I like having my own little kitchen, to be able to make coffee without having to get dressed and fix my hair in some fashion (you would understand this if you saw my hair in the morning), just to eat a little something with my coffee. You could save money this way too, by cooking for yourself instead of going to a restaurant. I find, though, that I seldom cook real meals while in these places.

Of course, one of the reasons for this is that I travel to eat local food. Honestly, it’s one of the things I like best about a new place – trying new food. Sharing food is a great way to connect with other people (please read How to Eat Like a Costa Rican), allowing them to teach you through offering what they value most. Certainly, eating the food introduces you to so much about a culture and environment. So cooking at home loses some of it’s allure for me when traveling.

Local cheeses, sampled outside Bellagio, Italy

But there’s another reason I don’t cook as much in a strange kitchen: they don’t have what I need. Is there a little known law prohibiting sharp knives in rental places? There must be! All pots must be dented and thin, and non-stick pans must be dangerously peeling. In one house in Costa Rica, there was no more than a single example of any given drinking vessel, meaning that each person’s cocktail or coffee was a radically different experience. There will be a colander, but it will be located in a dubious spot, like the laundry room or the bathroom, giving you pause about using it for your pasta.

Staple foods may or may not be there. Sugar is a big maybe, cooking oil may not be the freshest if it’s there at all. Anything other than that, salt, pepper, and some mysterious hot sauce in the fridge, is going to be absent.

I can handle that. I don’t mind buying oil at a market and leaving the remains behind for whoever cleans the place to take home. I like shopping at foreign markets, so this is fun too. But my cooking just doesn’t taste as good in a strange kitchen, and I know why: I depend on fresh herbs.

Parsley, garlic, thyme, oregano, and cilantro, all from my garden

I want you to start growing some herbs. When I lived in apartments, I kept herbs in pots on the window sill. When I rented a room in someone’s house in New Mexico, I begged to start a little garden in their back yard and they let me. I immediately put in some perennial herbs, like thyme and mint and oregano. When we were in Italy for a month, I bought a basil plant and kept it on the window sill and it’s the only reason I cooked at home. I grew a little basil plant in my first apartment in Arizona, and someone stole it off my porch and I cried some bitter tears, I tell you. (I may have written about this trauma elsewhere (The Terrifying Truth about Pesto), but I repeat it here because it was so cruel. If I live to be 100, I’ll be telling this story.)

The first garden I planted in my extremely ample yard, which was entirely grass when we move in, was devoted to herbs. My quart-sized rosemary has grown to a behemoth that shelters small animals, probably six feet in diameter today. My thyme and oregano have migrated around the garden, dying in one area and establishing themselves in another. The lemon balm may have been a terrible error, but I just can’t bring myself to eradicate it completely because it smells so good. I read a book years ago whose title and plot has entirely faded from my memory. My only recollection of it is a character who always planted gardens that were more than visually pleasing – they had to have a scent or a taste to accompany the leaves and flowers. My lemon balm reminds me of that book.

There is nothing I love more than running out to my garden, even after dark or in the snow, to fetch an herb I need for a recipe.

I shook the snow off these . . .

To add to this beautiful dish

Obviously, not everyone has the time or space or resources for a garden, but you might have it for your window sill.

If you do have room for a little herb garden, then I want to tell you about my pollinators. My herbs are a huge draw for a wide variety of bees, moths, butterflies, and caterpillars. In this age of insect decline, I am delighted to create a tiny, healthy environment for insects. I’ve watched swallowtail caterpillars decimate my parsley and fennel (they grew back), and seen little bees and wasps in my plants that I see nowhere else in town. Observing that one type of wasp come back every year to my leeks is a reward only matched by the beauty of their flowers.

A leek ready to bloom

Monarch butterfly and friends in the lavender

Pollinators amongst the rosemary, basil, Thai basil, and lemon balm

I’m writing this on a cold, dreary day in January, but my rosemary has tiny blooms on it, as it often does this time of year. My parsley is coming back and the cilantro volunteers are popping up all over the garden. My oregano is leafing out again under the dead and dried blooms of late summer. These three herbs – parsley, cilantro, and oregano – are the backbone for my chimichurri sauce, a recipe I’ve come up with from trial and error. We serve it on grilled meats and vegetables. Our favorite is on grilled chicken or steak, with chopped avocado, rolled in a warm tortilla. I am going to reward you with my special recipe, which is not at all “authentic” to Argentina, where chimichurri originates. It is tasty, though, and another excellent reason to grow your own herbs.

Add some fresh tomato if you like

Anne’s Chimichurri

¼ cup fresh parsley
¼ cup fresh cilantro
¼ cup fresh oregano
A few sprigs of fresh thyme
½ cup of olive oil
¼ cup of red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon fresh ground pepper
Dash of cayenne pepper
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
1 shallot (about ¼ cup), chopped

Combine all ingredients in a food processor (or use an immersion blender as I do in a mixing cup) and blend until smooth. Taste for salt and enjoy on grilled veggies or meat.

My mouth is watering just looking at you, chimichurri



Dutch Babies and Other Delights

If your guests are not crowing about it’s loveliness, then you need new friends or to coach them in better manners.

Today is my daughter’s birthday, so she planned the menu. I’m surprised that each year she has a new request for her birthday dessert, and a different dinner meal as well. Last year was chicken enchiladas with a chocolate cake that had a thick layer of mint frosting in the center and chocolate ganache on top.

I invented this one!

Other years it is spaghetti with key lime pie. I’ve had to invent a fair number of the desserts, including the cake just mentioned and a s’mores cake. This year her dessert and dinner are easy: snacky dinner (basically a French themed antipasto) and sopapilla cheesecake.

Her requested breakfast, though, has been pretty consistent. First of all, there has to be sausage. My girl loves her some breakfast meat, and link sausages are at the top of the list. And I think I’m not bad at delicious breakfasts, so she really has a list to choose from. My husband, for example, always goes for sourdough pancakes with our fresh blueberries.  My kid, though, always picks a Dutch baby.

Dutch babies are kind of a hit with guests, too. They look very impressive, I think, and they are incredibly simple to make. I use a recipe from James McNair’s book, Breakfast, which I highly recommend.

Smell the butter . . .

I don’t think they are terrible for you, until you put some goodies on top. Which we like to do. The traditional topping for a Dutch baby is lemon juice and powdered sugar. That’s nice, but that is not what we do. We like to have another family favorite with the Dutch baby: stewed blackberries.

Stewing in their own juices

These are so good. If you can convince yourself to freeze some of those berries you picked in the summer, this dish is a wonderful use for them. Of course, you can buy frozen berries at the grocery store too. These also are not so bad for you, so we feel the need to add cream and put lemon curd on the Dutch baby. I mean, that’s a little over the top, I know, but it’s just who I am.

Cream is almost always the right choice.

This trait is probably why you like me, if we are both honest.

Dutch Baby

4 large eggs

1 cup milk

1 cup flour

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

lemon zest

8 ounces unsalted butter

Preheat the oven to 475ºF. That’s going to be a while, so get to mixing! Beat the eggs until they are frothy and then gradually add the milk while beating. Gradually add the flour while beating as well. Mix in the vanilla. Zest your lemon into the batter.


By now the oven should be close. Using a cast iron skillet (mine is 11 inches) or other oven safe skillet, put your stick of butter in the pan. Add the pan with the butter to the oven to melt the butter. Watch it closely, because it will go fast! Remove when just melted and pour in the batter. Don’t freak out about the butter. You won’t eat it all. It just keeps things from sticking and it seasons your pan beautifully. Cook for 10-12 minutes, keeping an eye on the baby. It’s going to puff up a lot!

So beautiful!

Take it out to the admiration of friends and family. If they are not crowing about it’s loveliness, then you need new friends or to coach them in better manners. Serve immediately.


Stewed Blackberries

Boil 1/2 cup water with 1/4 cup sugar and a cinnamon stick for about 5 minutes. Add 4 cups of frozen blackberries (or a 16 oz. bag) and cover. After it simmers, reduce the heat to low and stir occasionally. You want the boil to be gentle.

Serve with the Dutch baby. My husband likes to coat the Dutch baby with lemon curd and then add a little blackberry juice on there for good measure. Others just keep it separate. Both ways are correct.


It looks fancy, but it is truly a breeze to make both of these. You should try it!

Summer. Isn’t. Over.

My garden wants to remind you that we are more than two weeks away from the autumnal equinox, thank you very much.

I’ve heard you all talking. I’ve heard the comments about getting back to school, about Labor Day, about not wearing white. I’ve seen you looking longingly at your sweaters. You’ve been thinking about making a casserole or baking some muffins, admit it. Just give you one cool morning and this is where we wind up.

My garden heard you too, and she is having none of it. She sent me here to correct these false rumors. First, she wants to remind you that we are more than two weeks away from the autumnal equinox, thank you very much. Second, she wants to emphasize that the equinox is just a formality anyway. Haven’t you noticed these nice warm days persist into October? Like, most years? She is going to make the most of it, and she suggests you do it too.


I made a sauce with these to go with grilled salmon tonight.

Actually, she’s been getting a little forceful about this point. Every time I go inside, I feel her saying, “Don’t you turn your back on me! Do you see these okra? When you get back they are going to be enormous and too tough to eat! I had better see you out here EVERY DAY until I say so!”

Those okra. I’ve had actual dreams of going to the garden and the okra had grown into small trees, taller than my head. You have got to watch those suckers every minute.

My tomatoes are a bit more gentle about it. They stop setting fruit when it gets too hot, but they are only too happy to start up again once things get reasonable again. My cherry tomatoes are ripe again and my slicing tomatoes are setting. That means we’ll have fresh tomatoes until the frost comes, which in Arkansas can be into November. And even then you can harvest and fry up the green ones. Such a good idea!

And this is the time when my basil just gets out of control. I have to harvest so much. So much. Basil goes in everything this time of year. The fact that you can eat basil every day is just proof that it is summer.

Summer eating is simple eating, in my opinion. The flavors of ripe veggies and herbs just want to be appreciated. You don’t really want complex sauces this time of year. You want corn that is barely cooked, with salt and butter. You want a caprese salad. You want green beans cooked just so. Summer cooking doesn’t really need a recipe, does it?

Keeping It Simple

But perhaps you aren’t sure about the green beans. Or how long to cook the corn. For you, I will write some not-recipes. Just in case you wanted them because you did not grow up with someone who made them. These are for you.

Green Beans, Just So

It is all so perfect.

First, snap the beans. That means you just snap off both ends of the green bean. Don’t worry about where and don’t cut them. Snapping, by bending until it breaks, helps you get beans that are fresh. Ideally, you can snap right to the edge. But if they don’t snap until you get close to the middle, you are better off with less of that bean. Flexible, bendy beans are not fresh. You want ’em snappy!

Bring some salted water to boil. Add the beans and boil only until they turn bright green, about 4-5 minutes. Meanwhile, get out a bowl to put those beans in. Crush a clove of fresh garlic and add a dollop of mayo to the bowl. When the beans are bright green, drain them and put them immediately, steaming hot, into the bowl. The heat of the beans will release the scent and flavor of the garlic and make a sauce of the mayo. Add fresh ground pepper and salt to taste.

Now, don’t freak out about the mayo. (I use Duke’s, by the way.) Mayo is oil and eggs. It’s not weird or some kind of chemical. The French make it. Just call it aioli. And if you just can’t abide it, toss with olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. You might want the lemon even if you use the mayo.

So tasty with mayo

Corn on the Cob (Not a Real Recipe)

Seriously, I know you can’t believe you are reading this, but you might want it. First of all, get the corn in the husk and don’t put it in the fridge. I try to use corn the same day I get it. I think that’s the key to having really sweet corn because the cold starts working on the sugars. Husk that corn when you are ready to cook it. Boil enough water that the corn could submerge. Bring to a boil and add the corn. Return to a boil and let boil for one minute. You heard me. Turn the heat off and cover the pot for five minutes. Now it is done. Take it out of the pot and slather with butter and salt. The end.

And for dessert? Maybe you would like a fig.

You probably would like a fig.

So don’t rush into fall! It will get here soon enough and we will revel in winter squashes and persimmons. Just enjoy the now. If you don’t, I’m gonna hear about it from my garden.

Let’s Get Regional

Authentic is the bane of an anthropologist’s existence. Authentic implies one way; it implies the truth and the past. It ignores change and innovation, which all people are allowed.

I do love traveling, don’t you? I’ve been going back to some home places this last month, revisiting favorite parts of the country and, of course, favorite dishes. My journey began with a stop in New Mexico, a state I lived and worked in for a few years. I have to tell you, I love the food in New Mexico. When I was pregnant in Arkansas, all I wanted was ground lamb-stuffed sopapillas with red sauce from Angelina’s in Española, New Mexico. I actually shed tears about this craving. Bitter, bitter tears.

Honestly, Angelina’s is home to a few fabulous dishes, including their chile rellenos.

I am drooling right now.

Some people think that New Mexican food is not “real” Mexican food. Here is a thing I want to tell you about “Mexican food”: It’s not one way. There is not a right way. There can be a way you like, for sure, but do not come at me with “authentic.”

Authentic is the bane of an anthropologist’s existence. Authentic implies one way; it implies the truth and the past. It ignores change and innovation, which all people are allowed. Now, anthropologists would like for people to be allowed change on their own terms and at their own pace, but cultural mixing and trying new things are truly features of being human.

Let’s take tortillas, shall we? I can’t tell you how many times that people in the U.S. have told me that corn tortillas are “authentic” and that flour tortillas are for gringos. In many parts of Mexico, people mostly make corn tortillas for themselves and they grow lots of corn. Lots of it, every spare place, like by the mailbox and in the backyard. Corn really is the thing. “Sin maíz, no hay país,” (without corn, there is no nation) as Francisco Toledo likes to say in his campaign against genetically modified corn in Oaxaca.

Yet in Sonora, a northern state in Mexico bordering Arizona, wheat has been cultivated from early Spanish colonial times. Wheat can be grown in winter and spring, times when corn cannot be grown there, allowing for two productive crops in a year. Indigenous farmers welcomed the introduction of this crop in the 16th century. Today, a specialty of Sonora, and also of the O’odham people, are tortillas sobaqueras. These flour tortillas are huge, stretching nearly from the hand to the armpit (or sobaco). I had these for the first time in Agua Prieta, Sonora, where they were served with local pride. And as a side note, when a Mexican friend ordered a chimichanga in front of me long ago in Nogales, Sonora, I asked naively, “But, are those really Mexican?” She said, “Well, people argue over whether they were invented in Sonora or Tucson, so I don’t know, but I love them.”

When someone at a restaurant asks me what kind of tortillas I want, I always ask, “Do you make either of them here?” And if they do, that’s the one I get. Homemade is always better. When I was working in Douglas, Arizona, right on the border, I interviewed a Mexican-American woman in her 80s. When I left her house, she sent me home with a dozen of her freshly-made flour tortillas. When her daughter heard, she was jealous almost to the point of anger. “Those are gold,” she told me fiercely, “They are like gold.”

My point here is not that flour tortillas are the best. I just want people to be open to difference, and to realize that difference may have it’s own “authentic” history. We had a favorite Mexican place in Little Rock that has closed. The Yelp reviews were full of complaints about how it wasn’t like what the reviewers had in San Diego or Dallas. If you asked the owners, they would proudly tell you what state in Mexico they were from and how their dishes were from that region. Many people claim that they know “authentic” Mexican, and dismiss what is in front of them, without realizing that Mexican cuisine is hugely regional.  Embrace the local versions! Sure, some restaurants cater to Anglo tastes. I always ask what the waiter likes the best, though, and try that. Figure out what they do well and stop pretending that a chile relleno will be, or should be, the same everywhere you go.

In New Mexico, the green chile is king. Okay, someone is going to be mad that I wrote that because red chile sauce is also king. All you have to do is look at the ristras strung up on peoples’ porches and doors to know that. But, the smell of roasting green chile all over the state beginning in August is quite something. Grocery stores have giant drums set up for roasting, so you can get yours fresh. And you should definitely do that.

I’m just going to admit that the way I like chile rellenos best is the way they do it in New Mexico. I don’t even order them in other states anymore and I don’t make them myself. I know what I want when I ask for a chile relleno. I want them a little crispy. I want them with green chile on top. I want the chile itself a little al dente, with some chew to it.

Sopapillas, and some good tamales

And I want sopapillas to come with them. Big ones, with honey. Hot.

Do you know how this is? I don’t order certain things in restaurants. I am always disappointed with gazpacho because it is not MY gazpacho. I like it the way I make it. I would never order chicken piccata in a restaurant. Mine is better, and also, chicken? Why would I get chicken if I could have something else? That better be some special chicken. Life is short, friends.

My strategy, again, is to get regional. Order what they are good at where you are. Get the huevos with the plantains and posole on the side and piñon-atole pancakes.

I mean, hypothetically, because that would be a lot of food.

My father-in-law was born and raised in New Mexico, though he has lived in Colorado for many years now. He is completely particular about his Mexican food. For him, real Mexican food comes from New Mexico. He drives to a certain farm stand in northern New Mexico to buy his fresh and dried chiles. He is not compromising on this issue.

He makes a chile verde, which I will share with you, that is sometimes insanely hot and other times not so insanely hot, depending on the chile. It is what it is. He will serve it to you with corn or flour tortillas, rolled or flat. It’s not the presentation, it is the chile verde that matters.

Rolled with a flour tortilla

He got this recipe from a guy he knew, now passed away, named Jesus. It was a family recipe and he was given it on the condition that he never change it. So don’t mess with it, or Jesus in Heaven will be mad. (You can blame my father-in-law for that one!) He says that, but my husband has an ancient hand-written recipe for chile verde from his dad that is substantially different from the version that his dad put in the fundraiser cookbook for the local ski club. What stays the same are the ingredients – the ratios vary with your taste and the heat of the chiles. So, for god’s sake do not put onions in while you cook the sauce, but you can sprinkle on raw onions when you serve and if you don’t (I don’t) people think there might be something wrong with you. I’m going to share the fancy typed version of the recipe with notes, because I think he has refined his technique over the years. He has also become more fond of a very hot version, and that’s just fine. Pretty much everyone who has this dish wants it again, so I think you’ll like it.

Jim’s New Mexico-Style Chile Verde

4-5 lb pork butt (old recipe says 3-4 lb)

20-25 whole roasted green chiles, a mix of medium and hot (old recipe says “green chiles”)

5-6 cloves of garlic, minced (old recipe says 3)

1 16-oz can of stewed diced tomatoes (old recipe says 28-oz can diced)

Roast the pork butt at 300 degrees for about 3 hours until done (old recipe says 325°). Cool enough that you can remove the hard fat and cut into 1-inch chunks, but reserve the juices. While the pork is roasting, remove the skin and seeds from the chiles and dice them (old recipe says put them in a blender). Don’t wash them too much with water or you will remove some of the heat and flavor. Combine all ingredients, along with salt and pepper to taste, in a large pot on the stove. Add enough water to get things boiling, but you will want to end with a fairly thick consistency. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer for 6 hours, adding more water as necessary.

You cannot eat these without beans. Jim makes them from dried pinto beans and he adds bacon or salt pork to them while they cook.

To serve, you can make stacked enchiladas with corn tortillas. Put down a heated tortilla, add beans and chile verde and cheese, and diced, raw onions, add another tortilla and repeat with chile verde and cheese. You could fix this up in a casserole to serve the family. You can also roll up the beans, chile verde, cheese, and onions in a heated flour tortilla and make burritos. Or you can put the beans in a bowl, add chile verde, and top with cheese and onions, and eat with a tortilla on the side. It’s how you like it!

As you can see, the ratios adjust the heat of the chiles. Cooking this will require tasting. If it’s too hot, you can add more tomatoes. Too mild, add some more roasted chiles. And remember, this recipe won’t be like the other chile verde you have had. It’s a regional dish. Enjoy!

The Terrifying Truth about Pesto

Before I share my recipe with you, I am going to need to tell you something terrifying.

I have seldom been more outraged than when someone stole my basil plant off my apartment porch in Tempe, Arizona. I had raised that little baby from a seed – from a seed – and some monster came and took it from me. Can you imagine? I think it was the same person who stole the tire off my thrift store bike that I used to ride to school there. I mean, why? It was not a great tire. Are you just mean? Anyway.

Pretty much since I’ve been settled anywhere, I’ve tried to keep a little garden and I ALWAYS have basil. When I lived in Tucson, I once brushed off my hands after planting some seeds and a plant sprouted in the well of my orange tree. The regular irrigation and sunshine produced the most enormous basil plant I’ve ever grown, big enough that my husband became worried about the survival of the citrus tree. I ended up lopping off big branches and taking them to trade with our neighborhood Italian restaurant, Fiorito’s, which is now closed. They gave me meals in exchange for it, I had so much. (As a side note, their lasagna was the best ever. If anyone out there knows the former chef, please oh please get me that recipe. I am serious.)

In my garden right now, I have three sweet basil plants growing. I also am confident that I will have volunteer Thai basil come back, as it does each year. I have three plants because I just like to be certain that I will have enough basil for my family’s pesto needs. Our needs are significant, y’all. We also like caprese salads a lot, so I simply can’t mess around when it comes to having sufficient basil.


I am a reader of recipes. When I make a dish, I generally like to consult several cookbooks in advance. Then, I concoct one of my own based on multiple recipes and my own tastes. Happily, this method appears to be what Italians like too. They’ve been gleefully mashing up garlic and pine nuts with olive oil for millennia, apparently, and about 150 years ago started adding basil to the recipe. When we spent a little time in Italy, I tried several varieties of pesto. We had a favorite local delicatessen in Arezzo that carried their fresh version that we brought home regularly. The worst version came from one in which the chef added cashews, incapacitating three unsuspecting allergic diners, including my daughter. I say this not to point fingers, though it was somewhat terrifying, but to show that Italians like to experiment with ingredients too, even with things that are “traditional.”

Ultimately, I came up with my own version that was worthy of writing down, and it’s what I have used and shared for years. Before I share it with you, though, I am going to need to tell you something terrifying.

Terrifying Truth #1: Using the Mortar and Pestle Makes Significantly Better Pesto


I’m sorry. I didn’t want that to be true! I love the food processor and it is what I have used for years and years. Also, when you use the food processor, you get a greater volume of pesto, which means you can save half for the winter months. And that is fabulous! I know all of this, and you can continue to use the food processor. I get it. But ever since we started using the old fashioned method with a mortar and pestle, we haven’t been able to go back. The taste of the pesto is so much better that it is worth the effort for us. And it’s a group effort – we all take turns mashing up the basil and garlic. The reason it is better is because of another terrifying truth.

Terrifying Truth #2: The Basil Screams When You Mash It

Okay, that may be a small stretch of what you would call “truth,” but work with me. Did you know that when plants get munched on by bugs or mammals, they cry out?  Read this amazing story for more detailed info:

The summary is that plants can send chemical signals to other plants or even to predator bugs and those plants and bugs respond. Some even send signals underground or through ultrasonic clicks. I love this science!

So, I am using that science to say that smashed basil releases different chemicals than cut basil. And it releases its beautiful and fragrant oils in a different way. So the metaphorical screams of the basil make for better eating. It makes me slightly sad and also puts me in mind of A Wind in the Door, the sequel to A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. But purge the idea of sentient plants from your thoughts and pound that basil up, friends! Here’s how:

Basil Pesto

2 cups fresh basil, well packed
4 garlic cloves
4 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted and cooled if you feel fancy
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup (or less) olive oil
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
¼ cup freshly grated Romano cheese

Pesto is completely dependent on the quality of your ingredients. Do not use some crappy olive oil. Get the good stuff. Your garlic matters. Your cheese matters. GET THE GOOD STUFF.

In the food processor, process the first three ingredients until finely chopped. Then gradually add the oil and salt until blended. Add the cheeses and pulse a few times until blended. Voila!

By hand (mostly): Put the garlic with the salt in the mortar. Smash that stuff up until it looks more like mayonnaise than garlic. There should be no shape to your pieces. Now add the basil a little at a time and pound the heck out of it. It will start releasing a scent that will make you need to burst into song, so you should plan ahead. I like to listen to Mariza about now. Yes, she’s singing in Portuguese but her gusto matches this phase of pesto preparation very well, I think.

Now, I do use a mini food processor for the pine nuts. Others use the mortar for this too, but I am usually out of room.  I scrape my smashed glory into the processor with the already chopped nuts and add the oil and blend briefly. I use less oil for this version, because it is so juicy. Like even half as much oil as with the food processor version. And when I say scrape, you better do that. I want all the juices. That basil will not have screamed in vain, I tell you. Then add your cheese and pulse briefly until combined. Taste for salt and cry just a little at how good it is.

To serve, put a cup of either version in a large bowl for 1 pound of pasta. Actually, we’ve been loving gnocchi with pesto, so give that a try some time. While your pasta cooks, stir about 1/4 cup of light cream into the pesto and give a few twists to a pepper grinder. Drain the pasta briefly and then toss it into the bowl with the sauce and give it a stir. Serve nice and hot!

Also, you can freeze any prepared pesto easily. I freeze it in one-cup portions for easy winter meals. And yes, the cheese freezes up just fine. Don’t stress about it. Enjoy!


An Anthropologist’s Take on Food

Have you heard that joke about the anthropologist? Her student was preparing to go to her field site, where she had worked many years earlier. As she was giving the novice advice, she said, “Don’t turn down any food they offer! It’s very insulting to them if you say no.” When the graduate student got to the village, she began to ask older members of the community if they remembered her mentor. Oh yes, they replied, we remember her well! The student noticed that they were grinning a bit, and making eye contact over her head. What was so funny?, she asked. Finally, one of the older men burst out, “That woman would eat ANYTHING!” And they all rolled around laughing.


I had been a vegetarian for six years when I started doing fieldwork as a cultural anthropologist. I ate fish and dairy, so I was pretty low down on the vegetarian meter. I was comfortable asking to be accommodated, and although I sometimes dreamed (literally) about eating bacon, I had no intention of changing my dietary practices. I had traveled internationally with no issues or need to eat meat. Then I started working outside my own cultural boundaries.

The first time I ate meat again was at the U.S.-Mexico border. I’d been working with a middle school and had made some real friends there. One friend, who I will call Maricela, asked me if I’d ever eaten a torta.  When I said no, she got excited and insisted on taking me directly to her favorite torta guy for lunch, who had a food truck close to the border fence in downtown Nogales.  As we drove, she explained that a torta was a kind of sandwich on a bolillo, a soft white roll, smeared with avocado, usually some lettuce and tomato and onions and pickled jalapeños, and your choice of meat.

Okay, I thought, maybe there will be some kind of fish option. And if not, maybe this one time I could eat the chicken. As we walked to the truck, I scanned the sign that listed today’s choices. There was no pollo. In my memory, there was only carne, and carne of many types. Standing there with my friend, who was so thrilled to be introducing me to the very best torta, I just couldn’t say, “I don’t eat that.” And as I asked about the different meat options, it turned out that each one had a story of its preparation, a time when you might prepare it at home, who might be invited, a memory of the best one you ever had. All this in a sandwich. I got carnitas that day, I’m pretty sure.

I didn’t change my regular eating habits immediately after that day, but that scene began to repeat over and over again as I fully engaged with ways of living that were not the ones I had grown up in. When I was invited to people’s homes, they had always prepared something very special for me. Often, that included meat. An Arab man in Jerusalem, who I had just met hours earlier, arranged a feast for me that included many small meat dishes. (That led to a very exciting stomach-related adventure the next day, which I will write about if you ask me nicely.) A favorite treat might be a strong cup of instant coffee, served without my usually required cream and sugar. It might be the beans your grandchildren love and say that no one can make just like you do. As people offered me their favorite dishes, I stopped being able to say no or ask how it was prepared on my way to declining it.

Have you heard that joke about the anthropologist? Her student was preparing to go to her field site, where she had worked many years earlier. As she was giving the novice advice, she said, “Don’t turn down any food they offer! It’s very insulting to them if you say no.” When the graduate student got to the village, she began to ask older members of the community if they remembered her mentor. Oh yes, they replied, we remember her well! The student noticed that they were grinning a bit, and making eye contact over her head. What was so funny?, she asked. Finally, one of the older men burst out, “That woman would eat ANYTHING!” And they all rolled around laughing.

I’m not suggesting that I feel the need to eat everything. I’m not suggesting that vegetarian anthropologists don’t do great work. But I do think that food is an avenue into culture in a very deep sense. The memories of eating a particular dish tell us about social relationships. The act of eating together across cultural barriers can bind people in a way that few other social acts can. Sharing and accepting food symbolizes a willingness to engage.

I’m also aware, because of my work as an anthropologist of borders and globalization, of how our food is produced. Many favorite dishes are born of poverty and the need to make do with what was available. Dishes that we think of as “authentic” to a region could only be possible because of global movements, trade, and migration. And the people who farm and harvest our food are among the most exploited people on our planet. (Yes, look for a follow-up piece on another reason I grow my own berries.)



On this blog, I want to share my love and passion for exploring other ways of life through food. Some of the posts will be about the food where I live – Arkansas, in the southern United States. Others will be about food in the places I have traveled and worked as an anthropologist. I hope all of them will entertain, and will help you to entertain family and friends, and to cross cultural boundaries whenever you can.