When food journalist Toni Tipton-Martin’s career took her to Cleveland, Ohio, she met test cook Vera Beck. The encounter changed Tipton-Martin’s life. Beck was “a self-taught kitchen genius armed with recipes handed down through word of mouth through generations of rural Alabama cooks. Her talent flowed from a photographic memory and her five senses.”
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In 1938, cooking teacher, restaurant proprietress, and vegetarian Fania Lewando published a Yiddish-language vegetarian cookbook. Vegetarish-Dietisher Kokhbokh: 400 Shpeizn Gemakht Oysshlislekh Fun Grinsn or, the Vegetarian-Dietetic Cookbook: 400 Recipes Made Exclusively From Vegetables, was the first Yiddish-language vegetarian cooking manual published Europe.
Shortly after Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Vilna fell under Soviet Union rule. The Nazis invaded soon afterward. We know Lewando and her husband Lazar tried to escape and were caught by Soviet soldiers. They were never heard from again.
It took three tries to figure out what all the excitement was about. An ardent lover of Chinese food, I drooled my way through Fuchsia Dunlop’s three cookbooks on the subject. Two of them are devoted to Sichuan cookery, a cuisine famous for its extensive use of chili and Sichuan peppercorns.
Dunlop’s rapturous descriptions of the Sichuan peppercorn’s mysterious tingling and numbing effects piqued my curiosity. My quest took me to the local 99 Ranch, the West Coast chain of Chinese supermarkets. No Sichuan peppercorns. I did, however, find a dusty canister at my local American market. When I opened it, I found what looked and tasted like brown woodchips. I tossed them, rooted around in another market, bought another packet. More woodchips. On my third attempt I ripped open the tiny bag and popped a couple into my mouth while unloading groceries.
Mussels in Cider comes straight from Nigella Lawson’s Nigella’s Kitchen, a cookbook I go on about, but it sees a lot of action in my kitchen. Forget Lawson’s recent bout of public scrutiny: the woman can cook. I’ve never had a recipe of hers go awry, even when baking, my weakest point in the kitchen. And Mussels in Cider, as she puts it, is a recipe that “doesn’t begin to convey the luxe-for-less-time gloriousness of the feast”.
I actually test drove this recipe on a time-crunched Saturday night, but “Saturday night test drive” lacks alliterative punch. But Lawson is right: the results far outweighed the crazed five minutes of prep (truly, I was frantic) and the one pot I needed to wash afterward. I used Price Edward Island mussels, which my fishmonger sold cleaned and debearded. Five dollars worth amply fed two.
In the many food blogs that appear to be overtaking the internet, one never sees a mistake.
Nobody, it seems, in their perfectly appointed kitchens, has ever charred a chicken, torched a tomato, or just plain ruined a recipe. Nosiree, everything out there in internetland is gorgeous, parsley-flecked, and perfectly ready to eat.