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Authors weigh in on ‘real’ cooking

A question-and-answer session with Ken Albala and Rosanna Nafziger, authors of “The Lost Art of Real Cooking: Rediscovering the Pleasures of Traditional Food One Recipe at a Time.”

Q.Why should people care about knowing how to cook for real?

Ken. So they are not subject to the industrial pabulum food corporations consider edible and foist on an unwitting public in the interest of profit and nothing else. It’s a matter of having good-tasting food, having fun in the kitchen and sharing the products of your labor with others.

From a selfish perspective it’s infinitely more rewarding, too. I’m not a scientist so I can’t say for certain whether it’s better for you, but I’d like to think it is. It’s also a matter of self-sufficiency, empowering knowledge, knowing where your food comes from and what’s been done to it before it hits your plate.

I like growing my own food, too, but my backyard is tiny. So I have grapes, olives, lemons, herbs, cherries, but not enough space for veggies. But the former do become wine, get cured or preserved. Someday I hope to have some space for animals.

Rosanna. Food we make for ourselves is much more delicious and satisfying than its store-bought equivalents. When you make food for yourself, your goal is to have fun making something that tastes really good and nourishes you.

When companies process food to sell to you, their goal is to make a profit. Sometimes they make a profit by selling really high-quality delicious food, in which case, it’s bound to be expensive. Most of the time they make a profit by selling food with a long shelf-life, cheap ingredients, and shortcut flavor enhancers.

They also make a profit by convincing you that cooking for yourself is boring and wearisome!

Q. Why do you care about cooking for real?

Ken. For me it’s mostly about fun. I’d rather be in the kitchen than anywhere else. It’s also a direct extension of my research in food history.

I moved seamlessly from cooking old recipes directly from historic cookbooks to reconstructing antiquated techniques that cookbooks don’t record. In fact, our working title for the book was “The Antiquated Kitchen.”

Rosanna. I cook real food because I want to give my friends and family the best nourishment I can, and the most delight. I cook because it’s soothing and satisfying for me, and because I like to take care of people without having to exert myself too much socially. That’s a funny reason, isn’t it?

I think it’s wonderful to admire your friends’ skills, and share your own – rather than socialize over passive activities like television.

Q. Do you have a favorite section of the book?

Ken. To tell you the truth, I like the parts Rosanna wrote. We tested most of each other’s recipes, and I have to say there were many things I never made myself until reading her sections.

Marmalade is a good example – now I’m hooked on the stuff. Homemade tortillas are another thing she turned me on to. And she is a much more accomplished pie baker, so I’ve learned a great deal from her.

Rosanna. Ferments are definitely my favorite part of the book, at least if you judge by what I eat on a meal-to-meal basis! If you include the dairy section, the cured meats and the home brew along with the fermented vegetables, you’ll have most of the book, I think.

I love working alongside bacteria and yeasts to cure food – it’s both magical and stunningly simple.

Q. What were the circumstances of you two meeting and deciding to write a book? (Albala is a history professor at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., and Nafziger lives and cooks in San Francisco.) And what about that roasted bear butt mentioned in the book? How did it turn out?

Ken. Very funny story. Danielle Svetcov contacted me while researching a cookbook for constipated people. Seriously. I said, well, I’ve got tons of notes (history of medicine is my subfield) and cookbooks, you’re welcome to ransack my office.

She came with her then-assistant, Rosanna, and the three of us packed into my tiny crammed office to look through sources. Meanwhile Rosanna and I struck up an immediate friendship, got talking and noticed our interests overlapped but went in different directions. Poof, idea for a cookbook.

While writing the book we met only once. (And actually including last night only three times in total.) Rosanna came to my house to cook with me for a big party, and a friend brought the bear leg. (A friend of this friend shot it but had no interest in eating it.)

Weirdest of all, my neighbor Paul took the head – he’s a biologist – so we got to meet the bear face to face. Her butt was deliciously unctuous and fatty. Roasted rare.

The lower leg I cured like a ham and smoked. It’s still hanging in my wine fridge. Will probably need very long soaking and cooking to become palatable again.

Rosanna. Ken said it! I got to sit on the floor of his office scribbling notes as fast I could while he translated ancient Greek medical texts on the spot.

Bear butt was delicious. Especially that thick, crackly layer of fat on the outside. Oh, heavens.

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