Thanks to cooking’s current badass, Chef René Redzepi of Noma in Copenhagen, Nordic cuisine is making Mediterranean food look a little faded these days. But to remember what’s cool about polenta and pasta al forno, find a copy of English writer Patience Gray’s 1986 cookbook Honey from a Weed.
In 2012, we’re all craving food that’s rooted to a particular landscape—not just some general promise of local sourcing, but dishes that are part of a story about locale, whether that place is San Francisco’s Mission District or a farm in Washington County, New York. Gray’s book is the original masterpiece of food narrative shaped by place.
Gray did some unremarkable food writing in the 1950s, then became an editor. In the 1960s, she fell in love with the sculptor Norman Mommens, and they spent the next 20 years living simply in a few scratchy, sun-blasted areas of the rural Mediterranean: Carrara, Catalonia, Naxos, Apulia.
Like Richard Olney’s Simple French Food, Honey from a Weed is essentially autobiography, though in cookbook form. Instead of honing recipes in some well-stocked test kitchen, Gray described cooking in the rough, surrounded by smoke and grit: fig jam, wild pheasant sealed in damp clay and braised in the embers, Catalan romesco. These dishes read like recipes, but each is also one particular stop along a narrative, a story about the person Gray learned it from, or how it’s a link to a primitive Mediterranean culture that hadn’t changed in thousands of years.
Gray’s obituary in the Guardian (she died in 2005) called Honey from a Weed less a conventional cookbook and “more in the way of field notes of an anthropologist, but one who had gone native herself.” That’s an epitaph Redzepi might be thrilled to expect.
Photos by Chris Rochelle / CHOW.com