The Bamboo Cooks

by Habib, O'Brien,
ISBN: 0679308377

The Little Italy Cookbook

296 pages,
ISBN: 1895629721

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Sense of Food Place
by Ted Whittaker

My wife and I eat out a lot, in restaurants good and grim. Living in Toronto, we have dinnered in scores of Italian rooms and have bellied up to the same menu and meal (or nearly), on evenings beyond count.
So where lies the thrill any more? It's in encountering a meal so familiar yet cooked with such love for the raw materials, such attention to technical detail, such hospitality and general bravura, that all boredom flees away. (Which doesn't happen often.)
Some of the Italian culinary repertoire is over-familiar. It is no longer news that the Italian repertoire is classic, say, to the French baroque; that its strengths lie in restraint, not in the excitement of elaboration. Because what we see in Italian restaurants in this country and in cookbooks sold here are usually heightened versions of home cooking, many of the same dishes appear everywhere in public, the gussyings delimiting several levels of cost and sophistication
The same emotions arise at the sight of yet another Italian cookbook. There are too many. In most instances, the same recipes appear. Set The Little Italy Cookbook alongside the best work currently available in English, that of Hazan, Bugialli, del Conte perhaps, or, looking back a little, even Boni or Artusi, and it's distinctly limited.
The dishes mentioned do come from all up and down the Boot, sure enough, but not all that many are mentioned. Italian cuisine does have a public (trattoria, bistretto, ristorante) face and an aristocratic side to it, but we don't see much of those here. (This is not a fault; we must grant the writers their subject.) And the bias of the text is toward the south, most convincingly. The reasons for this are obvious. Although recipes have been credited to cooks living in New York and other American cities and even in the old country, The Little Italy Cookbook has primarily a homey, Hogtown feel to it. Praise be. Postwar immigrants from southern Italy have until recently defined this city's experience of their native cooking. Maria Pace narrates the book and she received Toronto Italian cuisine as a birthright.
Fact: you can find recipes as clearly written, more succinctly phrased, with proportions and foodways just as sanely considered in more than a few other Italian cookbooks these days (the Little Italy pesto recipe is almost identical to Marcella Hazan's)-but the words under review here spring from our soil.
The anecdotes and annotations, then, are the most important part of the book.
When Pace was growing up in what's still called, a mite picturesquely, Little Italy in Toronto (downtown, west side), a mark of working-class Italian-and later Portuguese-sensibility was the excavation and extension, wherever possible, of the basement of the old, set-back, semi-detached house to form a wine cellar or cantina beneath the new cement porch. (When I moved here-late '60s-most of this retro-fitting was complete; you rarely see it south of Bloor Street these days.) Another signifier was the annual tomato seethe and preservation in a backyard vat set over a propane-fired ring. (Where have all the pomodori conservati gone? Gone to Woodbridge, or other 'burbs, every one.) Pace writes lovingly about this stuff, writes about the heady fall smell of empty, fly-blown grape crates stacked for curbside pickup.
Her recipe leads are often small essays, unfortunately not always giving a sense of place to the dish described or to its creator: does Mrs. Salute Azzano live in Toronto or in the States or in Italy? Her Braised Veal and Pork Skewers-what's their provenance? We're not told. No matter, they sound wonderful; and Pace does provide a sidebar telling how to cut veal scaloppine (sharp knife, cut across grain, cover meat with plastic wrap, pound to desired thinness).
So far, so similar, as concerns the technical details, to those presented by other splendid writers about Italian food, but those local intimacies, set in burgundy type, are winning hands, laid down every few pages. Pace gives, for example, the flavour and history of the quintessential Toronto Italian street food-meatball sandwiches (competent recipes follow the genealogy of the dish). Or, along with the nostalgia for the blank, purple-stained boxes on the sidewalk, we're given a wine-making recipe from her brother. This is not for the chicken-hearted: he suggests fermenting with no more sophisticated a contamination barrier over the top of the carboy than plastic wrap with a pinhole stuck in it.
I avoided reading this book when it first came out, which was an error. It isn't just another Italian cookbook; every Italian chef and restaurateur and their pupdogs publish those. Pace and Scaini have given us in one sense, as much a good bathtub read as a working cookbook. The amateur anthropology anecdotes whet the experienced cook's appetite for the recipes (which are usually sound, though-duffers beware-in need, at times, of copy-editing; the instructions for tiramisu contradict themselves as to whether the ladyfingers should be sogged with rum and coffee or not, early in the construction of this sadly ubiquitous pud).
The annotations and little tricks should be treasured as guides to the perplexed. They sound as if they come straight from Nonna, many of them. "Adriana Dametto, who learned this from a Pugliese friend, always adds a pinch of flour to the boiling liquid [for Mushrooms in Oil] to keep the mushrooms from discolouring."
At their best, Pace and Scaini have, for Italian Canadians, frozen time. Forget Proust and his bland little bicky. Consider what a wealth of sensations could be summoned forth at the first bite of Wild Fennel with Ditali Pasta, Polenta with Mascarpone and Stewed Veal, or (the pinnacle, on a cool, sunny autumn afternoon) Grilled Sausage and Onion on Crusty Bun.
The BamBoo Cooks! presents readers (and reviewer) with the same problem as The Italy Cookbook. Take away the ground from a text, what's to figure? I don't go to clubs; never have. I've eaten in the BamBoo, a carefully crappy-looking dive on Queen West, once (details below). No matter. Despite the BamBoo's historical importance to the street-and-music life of Toronto during the past fifteen years, a host of people living elsewhere in Canada and reading this notice or the book written by the club's founders and owners have not seen and may never bother to experience the noisy, spicy delights of that cheerfully grotty lounge.
So what will help us conjure what we're missing? Recipes apposing mainly the best-known dishes from three regions or cuisines: Caribbean, Indonesian, and Thai (the BamBoo must sell a lot of beer); a potted history of the past generation of a few Toronto boomer clubs; as many of the Toronto artist Barbara Klunder's jaunty cartoons, with calligraphy, as you could possibly want at one sitting, all at once and in colour.
"We have always envisioned a club that would be very relaxed, Third World and low tech," the authors remember, adding right away their thanks for the mob loan (sounds like) -"at one hundred percent interest"-that helped get the doors open. From the beginning, the room has attracted many excellent musicians, from all over the world, playing in a great fan of styles.
From the beginning too, the taste as much as the sound has defined the BamBoo, at home and away. (Catherine O'Hara, down in Los Angeles, is always hyping the place, she claims in her opening blurb; and David Bowie heads there when he comes to town.) O'Brien and Habib deserve credit for being able to spot and nurture culinary talent. The first cooks, Vera Khan (Caribbean food) and Wandee Young (Thai cooking), put their stamp on this book, perhaps more than anyone else. It's a bit chocked up anyway, with informative and often funny in-crowd sidebars and recipe heads by and about former and current employees. This gossip, this, well, clubbishness-there's O'Hara's intro, most typically, and the illustrations, which dance right into the text, turn each page into a visual party-aims to include, not to get snotty and hyper-chic.
As for the food? It's club or party food, certainly, not high-end cookery, but of its sort, not to be scorned at all. The wings at the BamBoo (the recipe's here, Dieu merci) are the best my wife and I have ever inhaled-streets ahead of those from the wing mecca, the Anchor Bar in Buffalo.
A quibble: Some-no, more than some-like it hot at the BamBoo. The recipe testers ought to have included the word optional in prescriptions calling for scotch bonnet peppers or a tablespoon or more of crushed chiles. Some of us are old farts, after all, and even if we aren't, we're Canadian (less heat here, please, less sweat is needed to cool us, north of 44).
Alternatively (and that's what this book is about, an alternative), if you don't live in Toronto, you might not get to Queen West, this year or next. You can still call the fire department, crank up Ziggy Marley or the Mighty Sparrow, and cook Jerk Chicken or Thai Spicy Noodles, those fine provisions, full tilt, in your own once and futurely quiet kitchens, yearning a little for the south or the dark insides of the BamBoo, "deep in the heart of the Canadian tropics"; where, as Catherine O'Hara observes, "it's so far south of the equator it's north," where "winter doesn't even exist."
Finally, a Canadian first, I think. Mark Morton's Cupboard Love claims to be about "culinary curiosities", but it's really about word pedigrees. Most of the words defined are names of foods or are food-related terms, but Morton's interest is primarily etymological, not gastronomic. He's an English prof by day, and perhaps even a gross feeder. (The flyleaf pictures him about to swallow a frog, brooking no argument. At least he's gaping, with his eyes shut; it is hard to determine the state of mind of the intended meal.)
I find it very difficult to keep up with all the food dictionaries and collections of food lore being published. The variety alone is staggering: one finds collections of anecdotes, anthologies of essays, lists of foodstuffs, of methods of preparation. Morton's book is a little different in focus, which gives hope for interest, but his text must be taken with a grain of salt. His opinions about word origins may seem firmer than those of his many sources (cited only in the preface, since the text lacks all conventional scholarly apparatus). It is very important to Morton that he speak with authority and not as the scribes do.
And the title overgeneralizes: the objects referred to by the words "cupboard", "coupon", "mandible", and "ice", to take just a few random examples, are not curiosities in a global sense, much less are they culinarily so. Morton must reckon-and if he does, he's correct-that the origins of many words are odd indeed. He's done his research, in many fat and smart books, dictionaries, most of them-and will give what he reckons, from all his readings and siftings, the best guess among several possible etymologies, if more than one exists. But reasons for preference? Not always, and this is slightly irritating, if you're looking for real scholarly judgement, sentence, and closure.
Again, because Morton has prepared a tasty etymological snack, not a formal banquet, he gives no conventional phonetic equivalents for hypothesized origins, but often wings it: "The ultimate source of grub was an Indo-European word, pronounced something like grobh, that also evolved into the word grave." If you are going to stay the course with Morton, you have to get used to this sort of free-and-easy, whether you trust it or not. I present another kvetch. Morton usually writes small bloc-notes about his subjects, burying clarity of definition in ancillary detail. Newspapers editors would have murdered him at birth. It would not be easy for a Martian to know exactly all we connote by the term "chocolate" from the zealous chat Morton presents about Montezuma's drinking habits. The closest our author gets is "an unsweetened beverage made from cocoa beans".
The reading of all Morton's trivia-on the bus, in bed, on the crapper, or in long lineups-will turn its intense and considerate students into genuinely funny and apparently learned creatures. They must know, however, exactly when to proffer at cocktail parties or dull suppers such tidbits as the one which reveals that Maoris used to refer to human flesh prepared for a feast as long pig-and to retail the speculations thence arising. If they mistake the tone of the gathering, however, and are haled out of town, they ought first to cite their sources, which would put them one up on Morton, for any one of his thousand words and phrases.
Oh yes. Cupboard love or, less prettily, lump-love, is "love pretended to the cook in the hopes that a meal or a snack will ensue".

Ted Whittaker is a Toronto-based book reviewer.


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