Category Archives: learning

From Persia to Paper Packets, Raisins Are the Coolest Food You’re Eating


I didn’t always worship raisins. As a kid, I insisted they were inferior to fruit snacks and fake-cheese filled crackers. Then, one day during breakfast at university, I reached into the opaque plastic cereal bin and pulled out a scoop of Fruit ‘n’ Fibre cereal instead of Crunchy Nut. I converted immediately thanks to those chewy-sweet raisins. Raisins do that to you: they lodge stick themselves into your daily routine.

Have you examined the folds along the raisin’s skin, shrinking as they near the oval ends? Or are raisins simply an afterthought in your cinnamon-spiked bagel? Raisins are more than a snack. Their history, rarity and ubiquity have created lore and merit reverence.

I am not the only raisin freak; raisins boast a global, historic fandom. Persians and Egyptians have enjoyed raisins since 2000 B.C. In ancient Greece and Rome, athletes won raisins in competitions. Residents of China’s Xinjiang province — which borders Mongolia — build Chunche, large, well-ventilated structures for drying mass amounts of grapes. Victorian revellers played Snapdragon — a holiday game that required participants to snatch raisins from a bowl of flaming brandy. Amidst scorched tongues and burnt fingers, a golden raisin waited to assure good luck for one player. Whether inspiring athletic ability, erecting special drying facilities, or causing burns, seemingly simple raisins coerce admirers to toil for ambrosia.

Red Raisin Box

Despite plenty of outlandish raisins tradition, most honour raisins as a delicious food. Take mincemeat — a popular Christmas treat made from raisins, candied fruit and spices. Although cooks once used it to preserve meat for the winter, the rich filling now signals ‘holiday’ for Brits eager for Mr. Kipling’s mini-mince pies to arrive at Sainsbury. Similarly, hot cross buns — a yeasted sweet roll with currants — were once more than a pre-Easter treat. They supposedly kept away mould, maintained friendships and protected kitchens from evil spirits. During Nowruz, Persian New Year, and Mehregan, the autumn harvest festival, cooks feature raisins in cookies and rice dishes to display bounty and thanks. Then there’s China’s polu rice, Austria’s raisin-studded apfelstrudel and Sicily’s raisin-studded pasta con le sarde. For those who think of raisins as a regular snack, these holiday traditions demonstrate that it’s not just cereal that gets us hooked on the dried fruit.

Today raisins aren’t only for holidays. With the snack box, raisins transitioned from treat to daily food. When California began to industrialise raisin production in the late-nineteenth century, growers needed consumers to regard raisins as a common ingredient to ensure a market for their product. Marketing gimmicks, like the Sun Maid Raisin girl, helped. Sun Maid’s founder allegedly saw a gorgeous girl drying her hair in the California sun and decided her smiling face would perfectly represent the raisin ethos. Thus, consumers saw raisins as symbols of life, beauty and health when consumed in regular, bountiful quantities previously reserved only for the wealthy during holidays.

Regardless of the Sun Maid girl’s legacy, raisin demand grew and cultivation practices developed. There were machines that shook grape trees, automatically separating grapes destined for wine from those for raisins. Growers welcomed methods for speeding up the drying process. This industrial growth helped California produce the approximately 1.9 tonnes it grows annually. American and Canadians eat about two thirds of these raisins while Japan and the UK receive most of the remainder for use in curry rice and my beloved cereal. Since the industrialisation of raisin production in the US, the raisin has ceased to be a natural miracle and become an international commodity and daily indulgence.

Pasticceria a Bergamo

But California doesn’t monopolise global raisin production. Turkey, Greece, Iran and Afghanistan are among the largest producers, with Australia not far behind. From Turkey’s golden sultanas and Iran’s green long kashmar raisins to Australia’s packaged Sunbeam raisins and Greece’s Zante currants, there are enough raisin varieties for each country to maintain demand. While the differences between these varieties may seem minute, you don’t need to be a raisin connoisseur to discern between slightly vegetal green raisins and wine-y jumbo Flame raisins.

Then there are the grades and drying methods that mark the difference between stale trail mix raisins and pricey organic boxes. Ranging from Grade A to C, a top grade raisin has 18% hydration and is made from a mature grape. Raisins with 5% sugar and those with 15% sugar and grapes that were either ¾ matured or fully matured are classed separately. Ardent raisin-fans might argue that these unique grapes require distinct drying treatments. Grapes can be: dried on the vine, coated in oil, or sun dried in trays. This means we can variously enjoy and scorn: spongy muesli raisins, gummy-candy like trail-mix raisins and resilient boxed raisins. Even when we don’t taste them, raisins present a host of meanings, ready to be parsed out and analysed, before being gobbled up in pies, pastry and paper packs.

Raisins aren’t a quotidian snack. Raisins are a complex food, evolved over millennia to display wealth, fortune and culture. We should realise this. We should realise that this seemingly ordinary food never ceases to induce awe. From the intricate folds to the intricate history, raisins capture the wonder of society, science and culture in less than a gram.


Second image: Flickr via JD Hancock

A Trip to the Museum

Louvre Pyramid

You’re in a room, surrounded by pots. The walls are off-white grey, the floor a cool putty tile. These pots, or amphorae as they’re described, are old, but their meticulous preservation belies their years. You should look as good at 5,000 years old. Or is it 1,000? You amble over to the nearest display case and count five — no, wait! seven — specimens studiously exhibited. In between the matching jars sit various attractive artefacts whose utility remains obscure to the modern eye. A quick glance at a nearby placard — the same silvery-putty as the display’s base and the floor — reveals that the amphora in the upper left hand corner dates back to 420 B.C. from the Greek colony of Lucania in Southern Italy. And that small, colourful who-knows-what? It’s a carved gem from 350 B.C. Welcome to the museum, home to history, hidden wonder and society’s shifting cultural priorities.

We visit museums to absorb our material past, thereby engaging in a dialogue with humanity’s values. Stroll through the galleries at the Met, British Museum, Hermitage or Rijksmuseum and you see society’s prized possessions: we saved this, this matters to us. These ostensibly immortal relics allow us to believe that we, too, could live forever. Every pot and painting possesses a creator who, like us, once ate, drank and slept and continues to speaks their descendents. Once categorised in a display case, the trajectory toward eternity seems simple; exist, make something, die, exist through object. Yet, as the museum-goer circles in search of the galleries they want to see realises, the linear path from artefact to immortality is a tortuous maze.

Despite the museum’s unique ability to curate a vision of humanity across temporal, spatial and cultural boundaries, they’re battling to stay relevant in a spectacle-obsessed world. New York’s Museum of Modern Art highlights stunt installations to draw drama-ready crowds. The Met creates blockbuster costume exhibits to fashion an Instagram-friendly museum experience. As Jerry Saltz argued in his article on the new Whitney building for New York , modern museums must make sure their galleries and exhibitions are hospitable to social media-minded visitors in order to gain the free publicity necessary to ensure their financial viability. From advance ticketing to comically long queues, the modern museum boasts the crowds of a pre-Christmas shopping trip. On one hand, this could illustrate a broadened appreciation for connecting with history and culture. On the other hand, the hype may hide a superficial interest.

Art Museum, Berge

If we visit museums, in part, to increase our social capital and fulfil our duties as good citizens, then we can say that the museum’s space is as important — if not more so — than the works on display in crafting our artistic experience. As the recent debate on the introduction of a Guggenheim in Helsinki reveals, a museum has the potential to change the mental geography of a city’s inhabitant, rendering them variously more open and closed to money, politics, and power in addition to aesthetics. The same tension exists within the galleries, which dictates the flow of people through the space. Walk through the central rooms — well funded with prime real estate and culturally pertinent artefacts — and you battle for floor space. Stroll around the periphery and you commune privately with the lesser-known artists, whom the local economy and political and cultural beat has forgotten. This struggle between excitement and emptiness suffuses today’s discourse on museums; it’s the struggle between maintaining integrity and winning public attention.

Some museums may effortlessly woo crowds with their compelling and popular artefacts, but most — as Helsinki’s Guggenheim debate displays — must rely on something else to generate interest. There’s the thrill of corroborating Munch’s The Scream against the pervasive imitations. There’s the awe at seeing Michelangelo’s David in its towering, marble glory. But most museums can’t boast grand cultural touchstones and no museum packs every room full of stunning, recognizable works. In the absence of in-built awe, the museum attendee must unite their personal interests, the museum’s collection and what history has to present through whatever means are at their disposal.

Take a spectacular Bucchero drinking-cup on view at the British Museum. To a modern mind, this Etruscan bowl-like mug looks relatively ordinary, apart from its large handles and odd etchings scrawled on the smooth black surface. Nothing about the mug immediately belies its 2,600 years nor suggests the importance of its written engraving for Etruscan scholarship (the Etruscans are notoriously mysterious in part because they left behind no written record apart from what’s found on artefacts). Stop, read and contemplate: there are cultural marvels hidden in the mug’s form. The online description says the etching reads, ‘mi repesunas aviles’ or ‘I belong to Avile Repesuna’. Although it might be useful to know that Avile was a common name for the Etruscans and that Repesuna was a family name, these facts seem secondary to the object’s underlying truth: 2,600 years ago this cup was an important object for someone as alive as you and I are right now. It belonged to someone who felt it important enough to write out the name of their father/master/husband/other relation on their drinking cup. More than a purely aesthetic representation of past cultures, the British Museum’s Etruscan Bucchero drinking cup incites us to reflect on our humanity and our relationship with posterity.

Marithuis, The Hauge

Yet our sparse knowledge of the works on display prevents us from engaging in personal reflection in museum galleries. In The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton argues that the ability to ask questions about our surroundings enables us to bridge spatial, temporal and physical barriers. Unfortunately, short token descriptions of amazing objects detract from the visitor’s ability to ask questions and relate a foreign object’s historical context to their contemporary web of meaning. A black handled chalice might inspire perfunctory awe, but understanding how the Etruscan’s favourite mug developed into your extra-large Cath Kidston-flower bedecked drinking vessel requires complex consideration. Perhaps increasingly entertainment packed exhibitions and emphasis on social media prevent the individual from seeing the wondrous division between their current existence and the human history of the objects on display.

The tension between knowledge, interest and relevance characterises the pressures on today’s museums, which must find new ways to engage those accustomed to spectacle while celebrating the artefacts on display. Whether we’re asked to take selfies or analyse thought-provoking exhibitions, today’s museums ask the visitor to for a new sort of participation in forming their art experience. Given this interaction between individual, space and object, the museum teaches us not only about humanity’s history, but also about our current social climate. It is the museum’s ability to display a spectrum of history that demands they participate in current viewing trends. As art’s social role shifts, the museum must react to the shifting viewpoints of its patrons.

Curry Powder, Culture and History

Saag salad from Indikitch

Pep, spice, and zing together in a handy container: curry powder is the Western cook’s shortcut to bold Indian flavour. But there’s more hiding in the little jar than just turmeric and ginger. Although curry powder imparts an Indian aura onto ingredients, the spice blend is a recent Western invention born from the home cook’s desire to add a dash of exotic to an otherwise routine dinner. Curry powder shouldn’t be regarded as a relic of colonialism. Cultural adaption has integrated curry powder into Western culinary tradition, allowing chefs and eaters to appropriate the ‘other’ through a nation’s widely recognized dishes and emblematic ingredients.

Curry powder is a pre-packaged blend of spices, leaning heavily on turmeric for colour, cumin for flavour, and dried chillies for heat. Since the introduction of the first British-produced curry mix in 1780, manufacturers have added and subtracted spices for a profile that suits their nation’s current cultural taste and goes well with the most popular dishes. While the mix should taste noticeably ‘Indian’, throwing some seasonings into a jar and labelling them curry powder is a distinctly Western habit, absent in India and other curry consuming countries. Whereas an English recipes call for varying amounts of curry powder to make Butter Chicken and beef curry, Indian recipes list the specific spices required to flavour a specific dish. When an Indian cook reaches for a spice blend, they’re likely grabbing garam masala: a combination of peppercorns, mace, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, nutmeg and other spices.

Curry paste

In the same way that the notion of curry powder is uniquely Western, ‘curry’ as a term for a soupy, stew-y main is absent in India’s culinary lexicon. Curry is likely an Anglicism of kari, a southern Indian Tamil word indicating a spiced sauce for meats or vegetables (and, possibly, spice tree).[1] Evidence suggests that dishes resembling the modern curry have been cooked in region surrounding modern India for approximately 4,000 years, making curry one of the longest continually prepared dishes.

Curry’s European history is shorter, but not without its mysteries. Portuguese traders may have brought the dish from their colonies in Indian to Europe during the 17th century. Others argue that curry was an English invention, dating to the 1747 when Hannah Glasse included a recipe for a rabbit or fowl stew with coriander and black pepper in The Art of Cookery (later editions included ginger and turmeric as well). The term has existed in English since 1390 when Richard II commissioned The Forme of Curey, with ‘curey’ coming from French cuire, to cook, and referencing a stew-like dish. In a 16th century account of a trip to India, a Dutchman describes a sauce-y fish recipe as a carriel. Given the dish’s varied origins it makes sense to examine curry as a Western dish largely independent of Indian tradition. This perspective removes the tricky notion of authenticity, allowing each curry-infused dish to exemplify a European way of interacting with foreign cuisine.

Chicken Tikka Masala

As a uniquely Western product, curry powder communicates exoticism by subtly shifting the flavour profile of a common ingredient from a given country’s culinary lexicon. Take Coronation Chicken, a curry-infused chicken salad Rosemary Hume created for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. While the dish has earned a reputation as an unwelcome lunchtime intruder, it epitomised worldly Britain when it was introduced. In The Constance Spry Cookbook, Spry remarks on Hume’s deft manipulation of curry powder to produce a sophisticated taste that wouldn’t alienate coronation attendees, ‘I doubt whether many … detected[curry powder] in a chicken dish which was distinguished mainly by a delicate and nutlike flavour in the sauce.’ Spry juxtaposes curry powder — and the curry it evokes —with ‘delicate’ and ‘nutlike’. Spry depicts curry powder without the creamy, sweet trappings of Englishness as strong and brash, qualities that are not to be associated with the young Queen.

Nevertheless — aside from its garish yellow-orange hue — coronation chicken rarely assaults the palate. Hume’s inclusion of familiar ingredients — mayonnaise, raisins, Worcestershire sauce — mollifies British tastes, filtering exoticism through a veil of familiarity. In Coronation Chicken, curry powder signifies mid-twentieth century sophistication, marking potentially threatening foreign flavours as acceptable through secure, English ingredients.

Coronation Chicken Sandwich

Using curry powder to safely re-identify a familiar food as foreign is not solely an English phenomenon: German currywurst pours curry powder over cultural culinary touchstones such as sausage, chips, ketchup and mayonnaise, diversifying what it means to eat German. Invented in 1949 by Herta Heuwer and consumed almost exclusively as fast food takeaway, currywurst stands dot German cities. Like in Coronation Chicken, curry powder and sauce covers the protein; however, currywurst makes fewer gestures at exoticism, highlighting Germany’s traditional sausage. As currywurst remains noticeably German, karrysild — a popular smørrebrød topping of pickled herring in a creamy curry sauce — remains noticeably Danish. Unlike garam masala, which Indians use to complement a dish, Western cooks use curry powder to juxtapose their cuisine’s unmarked, normal, ingredients, permitting them to integrate the other into their cultural discourse while maintaining their culinary identities.

Certain commonalities arise among the use of curry powder in Coronation Chicken, currywurst and karrysild: the spice blend marks the dish, covers a protein, is mixed into a smooth sauce. The contrast between firm protein, smooth texture and curry spices emphasises the dishes’ non-native aspect. In English, German, and Danish cuisine, chicken, sausage, and pickled herring respectively appear in non-sauced versions. If curry is a Western catchall phrase for a sauce-based Indian dish, a creamy, stew-like texture is required to mark these curry powder flecked dishes as Indian-inspired. Whether chicken korma or chana masala, a curry combines a spicy sauce and a protein. Not only do Coronation Chicken, currywurst and karrysild use curry powder for an exotic experience, the dishes combine tastes, ingredients and textures in a similarly marked manner.

Currywurst mit Pommes

Curry powder mania isn’t limited to creamy preparations or Indian-influenced dishes. Cooks enjoy curried squash soup, Thai curry and Japanese curry, but these variances are not integrated into Western culinary vernacular to the extent of the canonical dishes cited above. When a recipe calls for curry paste or curry roux cubes, the country of origin must be specified: green curry paste is Thai green curry paste, curry roux cubes are Japanese curry roux cubes. Curry powder, on the other hand, implicitly connotes Indian food; a recipe doesn’t call for Indian curry powder, the Indian flavour is implied. Although other countries’ curry traditions — along with alternate uses for curry powder — are becoming increasingly common in Western gastronomic tradition, these preparations remain highly marked against Indian-influenced uses of curry powder.

Although curry powder may mark a dish as Indian, the exoticism is superficial, subtly altering the flavour of a familiar texture, condiment or ingredients. The generic blend of spices speaks more to the Western palate. Curry powder doesn’t only create a Westernized vindaloo, it creates explicitly European dishes. Whether Coronation Chicken, currywurst or karrysild, including curry powder in a creamy sauce covering a country’s preferred protein marks a known dish with a subtle, unintimidating, exoticism. With the expanding usage of curry spices in Western preparation and increasing influence of alternate curry traditions — such as Thai and Japanese curries — it is possible that curry powder’s reputation will shift. Instead of being a shortcut for highly marked flavour, curry powder may transform itself, becoming an ingredient that brings back memories of cleaned-up versions of foreign culinary traditions. Curry powder may demonstrate the West’s attempt to dominate the Other, but as the spice blend integrates in Western cuisines, it becomes less exotic, shifting the dynamic between known and other from domination to coexistence.

[1] There is much discussion over the translation of the word ‘curry’. For more information on its Indian equivalent see here, here and here. It seems evident that the word is an English creole as opposed to a true Indian term.


Image Credits: Me, Sally Crossthwaite via Flickr, Stephen Rees via Flickr, Chris Poole via Flickr, Jessica Spengler via Flickr

Pinterest and the inedible edible

Nutella Crepe

It’s too pretty to eat. Whether uttered in response to an intricately iced cookie or a photo of a vivid soup, this expression shifts a meal’s meaning from nourishment to beauty. Thanks to food porn, and its adeptness at highlighting food’s non-edible meanings, the phrase is increasingly common. From Instagram and Pinterest to blogs and television, contemporary food photography presents dishes as products to be observed like pop art. Rather than depict the meal as a wholesome reality, food porn examines the recipe as a material reality. The dish, which exists within a certain time and place, merits a creative effort previously reserved for high art. When photographed like a portrait, the camera’s gaze shifts the discourse of the dish from eating to gazing. This unflinching examination allows the cook to obsess over ingredients and turn the edible good into an inedible experience. Not only is it too pretty to eat, it’s so interesting it’s gone beyond food.

Society’s objectification of food dominates blogs geared toward high-volume Pinterest clicks. If a successful social media post depends on addressing the user’s emotional and physical needs, a blogger must reference both types of desire to ensure a recipe will go viral on social media. An acceptably attractive photograph of a potato gratin isn’t enough. The creator must layer on social and nutritional meanings — or emotional and physical importance — to acknowledge the user’s identity and humanity in an impersonal digital atmosphere.

Pinterest’s customisable user interface aids the blogger in supporting their audience’s selfhood. The site’s operations are simple: an individual creates a profile, chooses accounts to follow and uploads images to virtual inspiration boards from websites or their computer. Theoretically, this provides a group sourced collection of popular images. Yet, the website presents pins custom chosen for the individual based upon their pinning history and previous pins.[1] With the help of Pinterest, bloggers can target their audience in a personalised manner, presenting their images as selected specifically for the viewer’s interests and needs.

Since visuals drive Pinterest, the pinned photograph must clearly present the key ingredients of a given recipe to prompt an intense reaction and incite a click. Lists of the site’s most popular recipes suggest that a viral dish will present an easy, novel twist on a common recipe or flavour combination.[2] Although the images accompanying Nutella brownies might not be the most enticing, it layers ingredients, innovation and familiarity so that each component is visible. Components that cannot be seen, such as the Nutella in the batter, are either displayed in the background or reinforced through words in the foreground. In this case, pasting the word Nutella onto the image allows the viewer to connect the slick spread to the brownie’s Photoshop-sharpened corner. Citing Nutella allows the product’s intangible qualities combine with the brownie’s physical attributes — fudgy, chocolate-y, rich — to attract the viewer to the supposedly personalised image.

Yet, Pinterest also presents recipes that obscure their ingredients and mimic inedible products to elicit an emotional response and click. Whether it be cupcakes that look like Christmas trees or truffles that resemble like Santa hats, these dishes urge the viewer to consume a cultural construction rather than dessert. There are no carefully edited, beguiling Nutella-thickened brownie corners. Instead, the dish’s adorable appearance tempts the pinner’s aesthetic sense. Bloggers emphasize the look of these recipes over their taste, ‘who could resist a super cute Santa hat cheesecake?’ The edible portion, the cheesecake, becomes secondary to the inedible idea, the Santa hat. Rather than presenting a delicious treat, the bloggers creating these desserts assert the precedence of the expressed notion, suggesting that their food nourishes the mind and identity, not just the body.

The way in which these recipes explicitly state the food’s ornamental purpose highlights the dessert-as-doppelganger trend, ‘these festive Christmas Tree Cupcakes serve a similar function as part dessert, part decoration for your holiday table.’ The inedible signified trumps the edible signifier, though eating remains attached to the treat. Demoting consumption to a secondary attribute pardons statements regarding bounty, typically taboo in regards to food, ‘imagine an entire forest of these edible trees lining your holiday table’. When the food object is no longer edible, social restrictions regarding excessive consumption and immoderate desire are mitigated.[3] Rather than encouraging their drive for destructive excess, the viewer transposes their desire for more onto the intangible experience and emotion the recipe inspires.

Much has been made about the social implications of a hyper-connected and personalised digital media society, but these assertions rarely focus on the consequences for food. If contemporary food culture is divided between Big Food convenience and Slow Food idealism, the inedible edible describes the average American’s — or average Pinterest user’s — experience of this tension. They wish to consume more, but understand that experiences should precede food. Big Food remains present in the background of doppelganger treats. This can be as a cultural idea, such as a Santa hat, or as a mass-produced food, such as Nutella. While a regional Thanksgiving casserole or popular newspaper recipe might generate a similar reaction, it would necessarily be localised and unable to generate a wide-reaching emotional impact. To become viral on social media, the ingredient needs Big Food’s wide reaching social capital. Thus, the edible product remains, at least in part, tied to the current food system.

Yet, Slow Food and anti-corporate messages also generate the significance that prompts the viewer to stop scrolling mindlessly through Pinterest and click on an image. If these inedible edibles translate products into shared cultural experiences, they mirror Slow Food’s mission to champion local products and regional traditions. A Santa hat represents the child’s joy of Christmas and elicits the same uncontrollable glee. The Christmas tree cupcake becomes the magical wonder of nature transformed. A highly clickable recipe needs to associate Slow Food significance with Big Food products to pardon a consumerist response to emotional consumption.

Food has eclipsed food. When browsing Pinterest the viewer doesn’t simply consume tempting images, they consume their cultural norms while reinforcing their relationship to the products they love. On one hand, this is an understandable response to a consumption-focused culture. With the opportunity to create everything using anything, the cook can transform the edible into the inedible and vice versa. On the other hand, this response confuses consuming food with consuming social norms and subverts both by being neither. The future of these connotative recipes depends upon the whims of society. In the face of political and economic woes, people likely turn to these inedible edibles to physically possess what may be out of reach either monetarily or socially. As social media becomes an established way to represent food, how bloggers and users communicate and respond to consumption will necessarily change. Whether ideas or taste wins, however, will be up for the clicks to decide.

[1] Buzzfeed, while not undergoing strenuous research, suggests that beer cheese dip, parmesan hash brown cups, giant chocolate chip strawberry muffins, and Nutella brownies, among others, were the most popular recipes in 2013.

[2] The website’s gender, age and location bias also complicates the notion that it’s truly a group source barometer of what’s popular on the web.

[3] Parasecoli, F., (2008) ‘Hungry Memories: Food, the Brain and the Consuming Self’ in Bite Me Bite Me: Food in Popular Culture Oxford: Berg. pp. 15-36.

On cook books, common sense and Lidia Bastianich

The title reads Lidia’s Commonsense Italian Cooking, but the cover picture seems illogical. On the left are some cracked egg shells with the eggs in the centre front and a near-full open carton on the right. Lidia isn’t pictured, but the matronly hands reinforce her presence. This image inducts the cook into Lidia’s brand of Italian ‘common sense’.

At first glance, Commonsense stands apart from Bastianich’s other books. There is no dust jacket. The image is printed directly on the cover, which is divided into two distinct textures. The bottom is matte and slightly bumpy, like a child’s primer. The top, with the photo, has a high-gloss finish. These attractively juxtaposing surfaces invite the shopper to touch the book, their tactile experience transitioning the potential cook from observer to participant. This action mirrors the relationship that Bastianich wants the reader to have with the recipes, ‘these recipes are not written in stone. They are meant to be a guide’(Bastianich, xix). Both the cook and the reader should personalise their experience of Commonsense: the former should add their own inflections to the dishes, the latter should impose their own face onto the book’s images and ideologies. When the individual combines these two perspectives, they enter into Bastianich’s world and assume her logic as their own.

If the reader/cook should customise their interaction with Commonsense and its recipes, Bastianich’s other books are portrayed as overtly hers and, consequently, not open to alterations. The covers of these books give Lidia the authority to be challenged by contextualizing her within the symbolic realm of Italian food. Whether offering up an abundant plate of spaghetti al pomodoro or standing proudly over a kitchen table, her body language illustrates her command. Possessive titles, such as Lidia’s Italy in America and Lidia’s Family Table, reinforce her dominion over these spaces and items. Commonsense cannot blatantly assert the same possession because Bastianich cannot own ‘Italian cooking’. Yet, Lidia doesn’t give up her knowledge as quite so easily. In her foreward she discusses how her history in the kitchen has given her the authority to teach the reader about common sense, ‘it is all about Grandma’s kitchen table … I decided I never wanted to leave that table, but stay close to it for the rest of my life. And so I remained in the kitchen.’ (Bastianich, xv). This tale imbues Bastianich with ‘authenticity’: of family, of eating, of time and of space. Food may not be mentioned, but the meals within the pages become signs of these ideas. Combined, these images, titles and introduction illustrate Bastianich as a kitchen authority without the fuss of restaurants and complicated recipes.

While this most recent book continues the tone of her previous works, the cover suggests that this volume presents cooking as a step in development of a greater whole rather than as a completed action. Unlike a family-sized plate of pasta or table piled with heirloom tomatoes, the food presented on Commonsense is not ready for consumption. Although eggs could be eaten raw, cultural conditioning means Bastianich’s American audience won’t see a just-cracked egg and think of food. Unlike rich pasta and ripe tomatoes, there is no temptation. Yet the egg communicates a message that a finished pasta dish cannot: it requires the reader to transform the raw ingredient into a tempting dinner by integrating into Lidia’s common sense.

Reading the image from left to right illustrates a ‘progression’ from cracked egg, to yolk and white, to carton full of eggs. Evidently, this pattern is not temporal. Instead, the movement from left to right show an increase in numbers; Lidia’s common sense concerns addition. Starting from the left the image presents: one cracked egg, two parts of the egg (yolk and white), three eggs waiting to be cracked, four empty spots in the carton and plenty of whole eggs. Bastianich emphasises addition’s importance in the introduction, ‘don’t be afraid to make substitutions. Don’t be afraid to add or subtract’ (Bastianich, xix). Although substitution and subtraction result in an equal or lesser number of ingredients, they add the cook’s personal inflection and can thus be seen as an addition. This horizontal analysis suggests that Commonsense argues for cooking as a passage from fewer variances to more.

Examining both portions of the cover together suggests that these additions aren’t actually up to the reader, but up to Lidia. If the upper half of the cover represents the book’s assertion — that cooking is about addition — Lidia’s name in 72 point font on the bottom half implies that these additions belongs to her. The font size allows Lidia to own the space on the cover that she doesn’t in the title. Yet the portion of the cover she occupies is also notable. Away from the corners, the reader’s eye is drawn directly to Lidia, allowing her name to provide meaning for the entire cover. Since her name is connected to the picture of logic, the common sense doesn’t come from the cook, it comes from Lidia.

Although the title emphasises Lidia, the line separating the authors from the title suggests that Bastianich the author and Lidia the cook are two separate characters. Existing at the bottom of the image and easy for the eye to skip, the bar implies that the names contained below do not negate and do not assert. After writing, Bastianich does not engage in the dialogue of Commonsense. Yet the italicised ‘and’ in the bottom left hand corner raises doubt as to Bastianich’s initial involvement with the book and its common sense. At the very bottom of the cover is her daughter’s name, a Bastianich as well, placed out of the way so as to not interfere with Lidia’s additions. Ultimately, Lidia the character, and her additions, guides the cook toward the proper use of Commonsense.

All this serves to present Lidia’s interpretation of the non-traditional cookbook. Despite Commonsense’s claim to encourage the cook to alter a recipe according to their tastes and refrigerator contents, the head notes clarify that the variations have already ocurred in Bastianich’s test kitchen. When describing a mozzarella and celery salad she notes that the non-traditional ingredients, ‘[are] a fresh and tasty alternative. Especially in the winter months, when tomatoes are not at their best’. While the alternative ingredient — celery as opposed to tomatoes — reinforces the importance of substitution, the switch is already completed and codified event. The incorporation and naming of the new into the recipe title suggests that common sense exists outside of the amateur cook’s kitchen and resides inside professional space. Like myriad other contemporary cookbooks that claim to stir up a new world of cooking and eating[1], Commonsense uses pre-changed recipes to fashion a false world of gastronomic innovation.

If Commonsense belongs to the self-mastering guide genre, the book allows Bastianich to tap into the foodie atmosphere and expand her empire. The absence of a dust jacket may be unique for the Lidia canon, but matches cookbooks such as Silver Spoon, Momofuku and Plenty. But the physical appearance is a small token of the trend that promotes DIY titles like Commonsense. As cooking is increasingly seen as a way to save oneself and family from the ravages of the industrial food system, and the problems that come with it, the number of cookbooks promising to give readers the keys to good, everyday cooking increases. Yet these books must necessarily withhold ingredients and techniques to preserve their mystique and enable the market for cookbooks to continue. Without home cooks seeking to find inspiration and new recipes, the cookbook publishing industry would be severely limited. Commonsense demonstrates this tension well. The reader is encouraged to contribute their perspective, encouraged to touch and understand the supposedly unique brand of logic presented within its covers. At the same time, the division of knowledge, codified alterations and subtly illustrated logic division prevent the cook from fully mastering these recipes. Ultimately, its Lidia’s own knowledge and teachings that make Commonsense the logical trendy step for the Bastianich brand.

[1] ‘Buvette is more than a place; it’s also a feeling and an idea. It’s a way to cook, entertain, and live. It’s a recipe for living more meaningfully.’ (Buvette) ‘Cooks should be taught not only how to replicate but also how to innovate’ (The Secret Recipes)