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SimonThibault.com

Journalist. Food Writer. Producer.

Lost in pages

I can’t decide if the first joy of a cookbook is in purchasing it, reading it, or in cooking the first recipe from it. 

When people ask me about my love for cookbooks, there is a familiar refrain that comes out: I read them like novels.

When I say this, it is to convey the engagement I have with cookbooks:  I read them from cover to cover, pore over the language, and the ideas found therein. I want to convey the love I have for these books: the work that goes into making them, and the work that comes out of from using them. 

People often have bookshelves stationed prominently in their homes. Those shelves can tell you what language they enjoy, what stories, what ideas. Do they prefer a clipped lexicon, direct and forthwith? Are they fans of flowery language, with sentences that run on to the point of droning verbiage? 

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The most visible, accessible, and used bookshelves in my household are filled with cookbooks.  The shelves are organized by (loose) categories: a shelf for baking (this is the most rapidly expanding shelf), a shelf organized by regional cuisines, a shelf for books by cooks/restaurants, a shelf for single subjects, and a shelf for resource materials.  In my bedroom there are shelves for food writing, books to pick at before bed or books to sit in the sun and absorb their information at the same rate as the sun’s rays come down on me. Deliberately. 

The purpose of a cookbook is ostensibly to collate a series of recipes and present them in the best possible manner. Sometimes that manner is direct, with little artifice, and pure information.  Sometimes the manner meanders, wafting through your mind like aromas from warm kitchens. 

What makes a cookbook valuable is more than just the recipe. It is the perfect example of something being greater than the sum of its parts.

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And that brings me to the most common argument I receive when I say that I love and collect cookbooks: I could just look it up online.

Of course you could.

First, let me applaud you. You want to cook, you have a desire to look up a recipe, to try and cook something that is perhaps new to you. Maybe you’ve decided that you want to ameliorate the dish you’ve been making by rote, and are looking for a new way to look at that dish you love. Maybe you are looking at recipes because you need to stretch your dollar as far as it can go. More than anything I applaud the desire to find agency and self reliance, and a respect for the foodstuffs that we have access to, and respect to those who brought them to our tables. 

Online resources abound for the curious cook. There are so many websites that can give you instant, practical, and well-tested recipes. I respect, admire, and even wish to perhaps one day contribute to some of them. (That was a hint, editors.)  But the manner in which we absorb that information - as immediately and as quickly as we plug in our search parameters - ignores the work that brought it to your screen. More importantly, by ignoring that kind of work, we often ignore the work we are about to undertake ourselves.  Or at the very least (or most?) we will view that work as drudgery, a means to an end. 

Search. Find recipe. Execute. Eat. 

Reading a recipe online is like reading an excerpt from a novel - it can be beautiful, it can lead to satisfaction, but it misses so much of the breadth that gives an excerpt heft and gravitas: the words that surround it on both sides of its cut.

It’s a little too utilitarian. It leans towards the gross rather than the subtle.

So allow me to flip the narrative , and give you a gross of subtleties. 

 A glut of rhubarb, roasted with ginger and star anise. 

A glut of rhubarb, roasted with ginger and star anise. 

Think of how you read a novel. You start at the beginning, and allow yourself to follow the story. You will give yourself permission to pause at certain moments, re-read passages that have struck you.  You will follow the narrative flow: Character goes on journey. Character encounters tension. Character resolves issue, completing journey. It is engrossing. 

In a good cookbook, there will be a similar flow. Not all books follow a direct narrative approach, nor do they need to. But they follow a logical order: This is what you are here to learn. Here is the process you can follow. Journey complete. Let’s eat.

Like I said at the start of this piece: I can’t decide if the first joy of a cookbook is in purchasing it, reading it, or in cooking the first recipe from it.  I think the ambiguity and almost Venn Diagram-esque way of measuring this is part of the beauty. Each book is different, each first joy is different, and each brings about their own nuanced manner of introduction.  The recipes don’t stand alone: they stand next to each other, on the pages that precede and proceed. 

It could be the location where you sit and read said book. The book may act as a balm to a busy day, helping you leave the world behind, as deeply as you would fall into a novel.  It can be even more engrossing than fiction, because unlike fiction where you must imagine the reality, with a cookbook you can forge that reality: at your fingertips, at knifepoint, in the well of a spoon. 

There is something to be said for finding that book you’ve been looking for, an author whose name has been repeated to you. For you, it could be an old paperback copy of Elizabeth David, or an out of print tome that you already own, but wish to purchase so that you can give it to someone else.  These are two distinct pleasures on their own. Sometimes that book is one already sitting on your shelf, something you picked up because you feel you should own it, or something someone gave you, because they felt you should own it.

For me, the most recent that book was Nigel Slater’s Tender.* Reading it was like listening to that friend who you call when you’re stuck on what to cook next. The one who gives you all the good ideas, and then you actually feel like you can make them happen.  At the time of this writing,  it’s summer, and I find myself at the edge of a glut: the berries have just begun to appear, and I am at the edge of where I am almost tired of rhubarb.  But I don’t wish to be in the case of the latter, and I wish to be prepared for the former. 

 Yes, it would be easy to type in a few letters and find the most popular recipe for said ingredient.  But an algorithm will not tell me what is already in my home, nor will it be able to predict that I will find much more satisfaction in doing my own digging, than letting someone else do the work for me.  The satisfaction of looking for the book that holds the recipe for the dish you’ve always wanted to make, or the dish you never thought of making.  

This is how you end up with a rhubarb flavoured with amaro. Rhubarb roasted gently with fresh ginger and star anise. Rhubarb baked into various forms of coffee cakes, with various flours to see which works best.  I see possibilities, not culinary doldrums.

 100% whole grain flour coffee cake with rhubarb roasted with ginger and star anise, and an oat and oat flour streusel.

100% whole grain flour coffee cake with rhubarb roasted with ginger and star anise, and an oat and oat flour streusel.

This is how your fridge is emptied. This is how you become emboldened. Like a novel that leaves you with hopes and ideas, a cookbook that has been read from cover to cover can arm you with knowledge and inspiration.

Because you allowed yourself to once again get lost in pages.

 

 

* I could link to an online retailer here, but really, if you care about books as much as I think you do, you could ask your local retailer to order it for you, or at the very least, check it out of your local library.

For the love of libraries

Last year, Halifax Public Libraries asked me to be a part of a series of videos about how the library has impacted people's lives.  As someone who has hosted talks at the library and even done radio stories about using it's massive cookbook collection, I was more than happy to be a part of it.

The video came out a couple weeks ago and has been shared and promoted on social media to a really wonderful response. I invite you to check out the rest of the videos, as well as more about their new campaign called Tastes Like Home. 

I've written about my love of cookbooks before, but this was a wonderful way to talk about how my own career path started with a book I borrowed from the library.  Check it out below, and support your local library. 

Plating it up

In 2010, I came across a rather interesting video. It was produced by Daniel Klein and Mirra Fine, a couple who had left the hustle and bustle of NYC to start chronicling the lives of food producers in their home state of Minnesota. The name of their video series and website: The Perennial Plate

Their first video was a heck of an introduction - Daniel purchases a live turkey from a farmer, and dispatches it himself for Thanksgiving dinner. Mirra would soon become a vegetarian. 

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Daniel and Mirra may have started telling stories from food producers all over Minnesota, but they soon expand to all over the United States, and eventually they started telling food stories from around the world. They learned about everything from  making noodles in Japan, to showcasing snippets of culinary life in Morocco.

They were nominated for, and won, multiple James Beard Awards for their work.  In 2017, they created a Kickstarter campaign called "Resistance Through Storytelling" to use social media - and the algorithms found therein - to tell and highlight the stories of immigrants in the United States.

And then in September of 2017, they came to Nova Scotia to tell stories about this part of the world.

 Daniel and Mirra from The Perennial Plate framing up a shot.

Daniel and Mirra from The Perennial Plate framing up a shot.

While researching ideas for films based in this region, Daniel and Mirra approached me to see if I was interested in being a subject for one of their films. As someone who has a deep appreciation for the kind of work they do, I have to say I was incredibly flattered (and more than a little excited) to be a part of The Perennial Plate. Daniel and Mirra, as well as their friend and Perennial Plater Hunter, shot over three days in Halifax, at the Grand-Pré Historical Site, and down in Clare, where I grew up.  

Since Pantry and Palate has come out, it’s been interesting to be on the other side of the microphone. I’m the one used to asking questions, seeking out details, noticing things that are interesting that the subject of the interview may not notice.  Although Pantry and Palate was a chance to look at my own culture in a new and interesting manner, I’m always surprised as to what sticks out to other people, what speaks to them, and why.  No matter what your culture or your family situation, it’s liberating to see that certain things resonate with others: the feeling of comfort in certain foods, or the love found in family. I must admit that I may have gotten a little misty eyed at the shot where my parents and I get to share the screen.  

Thanks again to Daniel, Mirra, and Hunter for giving me a chance to tell a little bit of the story of Acadie. 

Cookbook Love

It’s no secret that I have a bit of a cookbook addiction. Every time I travel, I find myself in a bookstore perusing the shelves, looking for something interesting  - a classic book I have been told I should own, a name or title that sounds familiar, a look at a region or culture I am interested in. 

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Over the past few years, I don’t think I have travelled without coming home with at least a few  new books in my suitcase. I remember the first time I ever went to New York City’s Kitchen Arts and Letters. I packed my suitcase and my carry-on full of books. I got to the airport and was told that my suitcase was overweight. “That’ll be $100 please,” said the agent. I dutifully paid, having learned a valuable lesson. Know your problem, face it, and bring an extra suitcase just for cookbooks. This has become my semi-usual mode of travel.

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But as much as I love digging around everywhere from bookstores dedicated to cookery (hello KAL and Toronto's The Good Egg), second hand bookstores with well selected beauties (Hi Bonnie Slotnick and Balfour Books), and even random junk shops, I do have to say that there are a few books in my collection that I keep pulling out when I am unsure as to what I want to cook.  *

(*A tip: Even though these are books I pull out often, I have an extra trick up my sleeve. Every time I read a new cookbook, I make sure to have a pen and paper with me. As I go through the recipes and notice one that interests me , I write down it’s name and page number.  That little note will serve as a shorthand/reminder of what there is in the book that I have wanted to make before, saving me time instead of perusing throughout the whole book. )

These are the books that have shaped my pantry, the way that I shop, and have led me to dig even deeper into their respective cuisines. Thankfully most of these books are all still in print, and easily available from your local bookseller or online. (But really, do yourself a favour, and order it from your local bookseller. They’ll love you for it, and tend to want to help you find even better books. I’ve known many a bookstore to take suggestions on titles that their customers have suggested to them). 

To be fair to each of them, I am listing them alphabetically by author.

Washoku, Elizabeth Andoh

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When most people think of Japanese food, they immediately go and think of sushi, tempura, teriyaki, or perhaps a bento lunch box special of all three. Although all three of these items are wonderful and thankfully easy to find, this is only a fraction of what there is to offer when it comes to Japanese foodstuffs. The real beauty of Japanese food comes in the breadth of foods known as washoku, or homestyle foods. Washoku literally means “food harmony” but for me, it means comfort.  

One of my first jobs in the food industry was in working at a Japanese restaurant. The menu wasn’t just sushi rolls and tempura lunch specials, it also had an extensive menu of washoku dishes, though they weren’t named as such. It was here that I fell in love with these comforting flavours.  It wasn’t a cuisine that relied on bombast - it opened my palate to the importance of subtlety, and to the many uses of its base flavours (and techniques) found in dashi (arguably the base note flavour in so much of Japanese cookery), mild rice vinegars for acidity, and umami-laden shiitake mushrooms.

Andoh’s book looks at recipes and ingredients in detail without being bogged down by them.  There is an extensive introduction explaining everything from the importance of washoku (U.N. designation) to the hows and whys of ingredients and how they are used in traditional japanese kitchens.  The food is approachable, and deeply satisfying.  I can’t tell you how many times I have made the oyako donburi, or how much I appreciate learning about how to use dash, which is now a staple in my cooking. Don’t know what to make for dinner? Make a dashi, steam some rice. While you’re waiting for the rice to steam, you have enough time to look into your cupboard and fridge, decide what needs to go into a pot/skillet and off you go. 

Home Baking, Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford

Hot Sour Salty Sweet, Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid

I’ve gone on record in saying that Hot Sour Salty Sweet was in many ways the beginning of my interest in cooking and food writing. In the interest of full disclosure, it’s important to say that Naomi Duguid was kind enough to write the introduction to my book, Pantry and Palate.  But before that, Duguid and her former writing partner Jeffrey Alford were, to me at least, two of the best cookbook authors out there.

My copy of Hot Sour is well-loved, with stains on the pages for pho, pad thai, and som tam with long beans.  I learned to appreciate the funk of fish sauce that for a while I cooked almost every meal with it. So much so that my former partner once asked me to make a meal without it for a change. I found myself making pho on a regular basis, and asking friends to drive me to the one store in town that would carry green papaya.  Tamarind became a regular part of my pantry. I’ve been in bookstores and seen people pick up the book, and made a point to go over to them and tell them that if they want to cook southeast asian food, then they have to own that book. 

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As for Home Baking, I was a very novice baker who was mildly afraid of kneading dough when I picked it up.  I didn’t know what a biga and a poolish were (pre-ferments of small amounts of dough that bring flavour to a finished yeasted baked good) at first, but now find myself making them without thinking every time I bake bread. Home Baking tells you all you need to know in it’s title - these are recipes and foodstuffs found in homes, not professional bakeries. These are things that mothers and fathers and grandparents and children have been making for generations. Tested, used, baked, eaten, and repeated. Although I have a respect for other baking books - specific and exhaustive like Rose Levy Berenbaum’s The Pie and Pastry Bible or uber-trendy like Chad Robertson’s Tartine books - this is a perfect introduction for a beginner who wants to learn the basics or the professional who wants to look at baking through a familial lens. It’s unfortunately out of print, but ask your second hand bookseller. I’ve seen copies in stores in Halifax, Toronto, and New York City. It’s worth the search.

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Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, Deborah Madison

Although we now live in a time where vegan food is no longer something that needs to be explained, and vegetarian cookbooks are (rightly) no longer relegated or designated as ‘granola’ cooking, they can still occasionally be a tough sell for your Average Joe.  

Deborah Madison’s book is smart in that it eliminates any possible barriers to its sale or usage by stating on the cover, “If you don't attach a title to your eating style, you can cook everything in this book with meat, fish, or fowl. This is Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.”  Smart move Madison (and your editors). She invites readers and users to not only embrace vegetables, but defeats every excuse you may have to not cook/use a vegetable by giving you tips on buying, storing, and cooking, as well as what kind of flavours and textures to expect. Too much squash sitting at the back of the fridge and tired of making soup? There is something in this book. Your farmer’s market has a stand selling salsify? Not a problem, it will explain what it is, and how to use it. Bored with carrots? Madison will help you out. I pull this book out at least every few weeks.

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Breath of a Wok, Grace Young

I knew I had to have this book when I read a review that explained it’s title. The “breath” of a wok is that flavour, that subtle smoky kiss that comes from a well-seasoned wok that is transferred to the food cooked in it.  I had always been a fan of that flavour, but was unable to replicate it at home.  Now I knew how. I emailed Grace,  thanking her for this book, and how much I had learned from it, and her other books. Young is a consummate teacher through and through, ensuring that you can and will understand how to cook with a wok. She will help you develop more than just your skills behind the stove, but also the patina on your wok, ensuring that your food will also know the beautiful breath of a wok. My own copy of this book was so well used that the binding fell apart on me.  Thankfully, I now have a signed copy.  (Pro tip: if you’re looking for a signed copy, I hear that Bonnie Slotnick often has copies for sale, as Young is a regular at the store.)