Stacks, Piles, and Shelves

Week Nine.

As I bemoaned early on during this pandemic, though we have more time than ever at home, surrounded by books beckoning to be read, we also seem to have less energy and ability to focus on reading them. Which, if you ask me, is just patently unfair. So I thank Amanda Shapiro, whose article, “There’s No Better Time to… Read a Cookbook Like a Book-Book,” provided inspiration and a manageable project for this past week.

While I haven’t (yet) experienced a COVID-19-induced panic attack like the one Shapiro describes, I still found comfort in her strategy to calm down the ramped up anxiety I am most definitely feeling. It’s the 5-4-3-2-1 method: “Find 5 things to see, 4 things to feel, 3 things to hear, 2 things to smell, and 1 thing to taste.” And cookbooks, it turns out, are incredible at all five! “My eyes are focused on a page,” Shapiro writes, “my hands on holding a solid (and quite heavy) object, and my mind on the food I’m reading about: how the ingredients come together, how the dish might smell and taste, the texture of it in my mouth.” It’s a “soft-focus activity,” as opposed to the effort required by a heavy read. Like puzzles, crafts, and closet-cleaning, it’s the kind of activity “a lot of us are craving right now.”

The visually stunning Jerusalem: A Cookbook (by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi) I found on my shelf fit the bill perfectly!

Winner of the 2013 James Beard Award for International Cooking.

Things to see: Just look at this book — it’s gorgeous! Full page, color photos of nearly every recipe are guaranteed to make your mouth water. But it also includes wonderful shots of Jerusalem itself — aerial pictures of the city; artistic photos of ingredients and delicacies in Jerusalem markets; evocative portraits of the people of Jerusalem, Arab and Jewish alike.

Things to feel: Bibliophiles know, how a book feels is often just as important as how it reads. Jerusalem is a large book, with a puffy cover, whose opened glossy pages lie completely flat… satisfying and comforting, like a weighted blanket.

Things to hear: Ottolenghi owns a group of restaurants in London; Tamini is his partner and head chef. Both were born in Jerusalem — in the same year, in fact — but Ottolenghi, Jewish, grew up on the western side of the city, and Tamini grew up in Arab East Jerusalem. It wasn’t until they were both settled in London that the two men met, but in this book they provide a joint trip down memory lane. With each recipe the reader hears a bit of background that weaves together family stories, as well as those of the many cultures who have come to call Jerusalem home and left their culinary mark there.

Things to smell: Mint, sumac, za’atar, tahini, pomegranate molasses, date syrup, lemon zest… shall I go on?

Things to taste: This one is self-explanatory, but also reader-reliant — unfortunately, as wonderful as this book is, the recipes still don’t cook themselves.

Yet there is even more to the activity of reading a cookbook, which I had never appreciated before simply because I had never done it before. Sure, I’ve skimmed cookbooks, flagging the recipes that interested me or looking up something that will make use of a particular ingredient on hand. But reading one cover-to-cover is different. It means you continue to read a recipe, even if it calls for an ingredient you would usually avoid, engendering a deeper appreciation of the sheer variety of ingredients there are in the world. It means you pay attention to how ingredients come together, the many processes and techniques that bring a recipe to life. It means realizing what can be broken down into smaller components (i.e. what you can make yourself) and what actually does need to be purchased in a market or store.

And one more thing — in a time when movement is limited and we’re all going a bit stir crazy, reading this book was a wonderful means of travel. I truly do feel like I spent part of this past week in Jerusalem — in her markets and stores, her kitchens and restaurants, among her diners and chefs — all accomplished from the safety and comfort of my own home. So, if you’re inspired and pick up a cookbook yourself this week, let me wish you B’teyavon and N’siah Tovah, or Bon Appétit and Bon Voyage!

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