by Julia Landau
Some foods you can just feel. Maybe your fingers automatically prepare it, maybe your eyes jump straight to the choice ingredient at the market, maybe you smell it from light years away. Point being – it’s not a science but a feeling and for many, not a recipe but a ritual.
Such seems to be the basis of the foods prepared in Breaking Bread: Recipes and Stories from Immigrant Kitchens, a collection gathered and narrated by Lynne Christy Anderson. In the homes, markets, and kitchens of 25 immigrants, Anderson is afforded a privileged view of international eats and personal histories as people prepare a familiar dish. Family tips abound. Memories flow. Frustrations seep out. But measurements are in short supply.
The cooks in this collection hail from far and wide, yet share a key element: a feel for the food. Certainly, they provide Anderson with approximations, and create steps resembling a recipe, but I have a hunch that it’s mostly to humor the eager reader like myself. In their narratives, it’s clear that memories about and associations with the food drive its preparation more than any measuring cup.
The cooks add flour until the dough gets that feel, they mash potatoes until they shouldn’t be mashed anymore, they pat out tortillas until they’re just thin enough. They take cues based on experiences and anecdotes, and their foods are born from visions of their homes both past and present.
Now this is my kind of cookbook. These people and foods have stories, and I find myself considering how I might remember my aunt’s fried okra and collard greens when reproducing memories of home. Yes, when reading Breaking Bread the anxious cook in me wonders if I have a prayer of knowing when the tortilla is “just thin enough.” But then, I take a moment to relax: recipes travel and evolve, as do we. We develop our feel for food every time we cook, wherever we are.