Ntozake Shange, Alice B. Toklas: What Cooks Know

January 23, 2013

“The first effable gazpacho was served to us in Malaga,”  Alice notes.   She and Gertrude Stein would also find “entirely different but equally exquisite” versions of the that soup in Seville and Cordoba, cities once under Islamic rule.

But there is no recipe to be found in Spanish cookbooks.

She gets plenty of help, though, from other sources.  A Polish-American composer tells her that what she calls gazpacho is none other than the “chlodnik,” a Polish iced soup.   Another friend, Turkish himself, insists that it is really the Turkish “cacik.”   And then there is the Greek “tarata.”

Where did it begin?   Did the recipe pass from the Poles to the Turks at the siege of Vienna?  Or had it originated in Turkey, brought back to Spain by someone returning from the Crusades?  Alice knows only one thing: “recipes through conquests and occupation have traveled far.”

No such drama of names for Ntozake Shange’s  Sassafrass.  But another drama of sorts is unfolding in her kitchen, in the form of the special dinner she’s making: a rice casserole, sauteed spinach and mushrooms with sweet peppers, broiled mackerel with red sauce.  “If she prepared this scrumptious meal there wouldn’t be hardly enough food left to finish off the week,” but she decides to go ahead anyway, to use everything all at once.

Hardly enough food left: these words are almost as foreign to Alice’s kitchen as chlodnik and cacik and tarata.   It is the working knowledge for some cooks, though, as important as any other knowledge.

About wcd2

Professor of English and American Studies
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