Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Book Review: In Her Kitchen: Stories and Recipes from Grandmas Around the World by Gabriele Galimberti

I ordered another cookbook from Blogging for Books. Yep. Another cookbook. I know...how many does one person need?

Well, the truth is, they are all just so different. And I love each and every one.

This book is different than the rest for so many reasons. The basis of the cookbook started as an idea by the author, a photographer by skill, study and trade. Gabriele Galimberti took on a self-induced magazine assignment to couch-surf his way around the world. Two years, a camera, laptop, some journals, and a free couch wherever he could get it. The assignment wasn't specific to finding recipes, but to relay his experiences in weekly magazine articles. The idea for the cookbook came from...his grandmother.

After explaining to his small-town Italian grandmother what he was doing, unconvinced, she simply asked, "Who is going to feed you?" This inspired the author to reassure his grandmother that there would be other grandmothers out there in the world who would feed him, just like she had his entire life.

Now, grandmothers can be very protective of their grandchildren and the food they eat, especially if they cook that food themselves in the most loving way. I doubt that Gabriele's grandmother was all too convinced of his exploits just by this mere admission alone. But what that concept has created is something really beautiful: a cookbook dedicated to the grandmothers of our world - the many cultures, the many foods, and the many ways to prepare and serve truly loving meals to the families that we love. Every one of these recipes is as unique as the woman herself, even if they are staples for that country. Fifty-eight grandmothers of every age in every corner of the globe. And with recipes as equally as varied. Tiramisu from Italy; Coffee from Colombia; Bison from Canada; Moose from Alaska; Injera with Curry and Vegetables from Ethiopia; even Honduran Iguana with Rice and Beans from the Cayman Islands.

Yes, you read that right. Honduran Iguana. Apparently, iguanas are edible. Or you can substitute rabbit, if you prefer. I don't see a lot of iguana at Whole Foods or at my local butcher's, so I would have to choose rabbit. I live in Washington - we don't have a lot of roaming iguanas.

Boonlom Thongpor - Thailand - Kai Yat Sai (Stuffed Omelet)

But that is part of the fun of this clever book. Aside from iguana dishes and the most astonishing - Finkubala (Caterpillars in Tomato Sauce) from Malawi - the book itself has beautiful images of the dishes alongside lovely captures of the women and their kitchens (mostly). The images are the highlight and a little bit of the disappointment of the book. I wanted to be with them in their kitchens, but many of the images weren't taken in the kitchens for unknown reasons and I would have loved more of a chronicle of his experiences in the cooking experience. The author cooked with each of the grandmothers, helping them make their chosen dish, spent time with the families, even living with them if that's where he was couch-surfing. There is one image of a grandmother with her preparations laid out in a lovely array, then right next to it, one image of the prepared dish looking down from the top. The images are consistent and beautiful in many ways, but I wanted more. I wanted to know them more - the food, the women, the culture.

Each set of images is followed by an introductory paragraph that describes the grandmother, maybe some about her family, sometimes a little bit about her dish. They were tidbits. Some really captivating and others less so. He wrote about his experience with Regina Lifumbo, the grandmother from Malawi. He wrote about what they ate (mice, snakes, caterpillars and cockroaches), about her life and her family, and finished the small section about her by saying cooking with her was one of the most emotional experiences of his life, changing him forever. Why? There is no explanation here. I couldn't find the connection. And to me, this book is all about the connection.

Is it really a recipe book? Mmm, kinda. Most of us aren't going to make Caterpillars in Tomato Sauce. However, there are plenty of recipes that I would make, such as Bat Bot from Morocco (which I did make gluten-free with mild success). This book is really an immersion of recipe book and cultural photographic tome. It is neither and yet, it is both.

Normita Sambu Arap - Kenya - Mboga and Ugali (White Corn Polenta with Vegetables and Goat)

The paragraphs describing the grandmothers are a mixed bag for me. In some, he lavishly praises the grandmothers (his own included), but then others feel disconnected and trite. It's as though he wasn't sure what to say, sometimes just saying a mildly pedestrian version of their life. In one narrative, the author describes Laura Ronzon Herrera as having a kitchen that was a real mess and delicious meals that aren't beautiful. I thought the image looked enticing and interesting, in its own way. It's a Vegetarian Tamale laid on a banana leaf that is was steamed in. It seemed unnecessarily harsh. Some of the paragraphs seemed a little mediocre when this - as the reader, not the traveler - is our only connection to the grandmothers beyond their images and recipes. I suppose some editorial influence would have benefited the book greatly here.

Overall, it was a lovely concept filled with images of beautiful women who cherish their grandchildren and the food they provide, if they can. The recipes are intriguing, even the caterpillar dish. I would keep this book more as a cultural collection rather than a standard go-to cookbook, but more than likely I will follow in the tradition of what these grandmothers cherish most - sharing the bounty with others.

*I received a copy of this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review.