Linda Murray Berzok is a widely published food scholar who edited the new anthology, Storied Dishes: What Our Family Recipes Tell Us About Who We Are and Where We’ve Been (Praeger, 2010). The 50 personal essays document how women universally use inherited family recipes to remember and memorialize key women in their lives and to aid and measure their own growth and development. Included are reminiscences of an Egyptian aunt, a poor mother from Australia, a Katrina-flooded New Orleans family, Turkish relations, Chinese mothers, and Indian grandmothers.
Linda has a Master’s Degree in Food Studies from New York University, where she has also taught food writing. For her previous book, American Indian Food, she was awarded a Linda D. Russo Travel Grant. She and her husband, Robert, divide their time between Tucson, Arizona and Stephentown, New York.
Gina: Please describe the legacy of your mother’s recipe collection and how it inspired you to create this book.
Linda: My mother left behind 12 boxes crammed with at least 300 index cards, yellowing and tattered, when she died in 1996. It was not until two years later that I sat down and went through them to use these rich primary sources as the basis for a paper in my Food and Culture course at NYU.
I read every card; I laughed and cried. My mother had used her collection as a kind of diary, noting what she served at every holiday and special occasion, and dating special menus like my father’s retirement party, my brother’s return from the Navy, my home wedding reception. She noted our preferences and totaled and itemized the cookies she made each Christmas. She was the daughter of Swedish immigrants, and she was born in Minnesota.
I wrote a lengthy paper tracing her culinary life–at least 40 years of it–through the cards. Although she included some Swedish heritage dishes, she retired many of these as she set about creating her own American identity. This is common among first generation American women. She lived through the Depression (Tomato Soup Cake) and World War II (rationing did not stop her from baking) and finally emerged as a mother and home cook in the 1950s with cooking characteristic of that culture–Jell-O molds, Spanish Rice, Tuna Casserole, Frankfurters and Noodles.
Her one adventurous departure was a class she took in Chinese cooking during the initial heyday of ethnic cooking in the ’70s. She even recorded having served homemade eggrolls and Chinese “crackers” one year at Thanksgiving, the most iconic American meal! When I talked about my mother’s collection to Elderhostel groups, it was clear it struck a real chord. The women were eager to share their own stories, which after all, are what make family recipes so compelling and memorable. So I decided to collect tales from as many different cultures as possible, and package them in Storied Dishes and explore what they have to tell us about women, food, and culture.
Gina: Your anthology represents such a range of voices and experiences. How did you find the contributors and what sort of editorial guidance did you give them?
I put out a Call for Submissions first on the listserv of the Association for the Study of Food and Society, which is a primarily academic list, and turned up many colleagues who agreed to contribute. Sometimes people passed my request along to women they thought would be interested. I ran an ad in The Women’s Times newspaper produced in Great Barrington, Mass., a notice in the e-newsletter of the former women’s writing collective Inkberry in North Adams, Mass. and the e-newsletter of the Culinary Historians of New York. I also asked lots of friends, some of whom had already shared their stories with me.
I asked for short pieces, between 1100 and 1200 words, telling the story behind one favorite family recipe. I stressed that stories had to have some drama, an edge. Conflict was a plus. No narratives of going to Grandma’s house for her wonderful chocolate chip cookies every Sunday unless the script went beyond to reveal something unexpected. Good solid literary writing was essential. I worked back and forth electronically with contributors, often having to trim pieces. The process took a number of years.
Gina: What exactly does one study when earning a masters degree in food studies? Anthropology? Sociology?
I was extremely fortunate to be in the NYU Food Studies program early on. The course of study included two levels of Food Science, Food Policy, Food and Culture, Food History, Research Methods, Food Marketing and Accounting, certification in food handling and safety, Recipe Development and Analysis. Some courses required hands-on food preparation in the wonderful kitchen.
Since I had already written a book on nutrition, done public relations for Campbell’s and other food accounts, and served as chair for the Fairfield, Conn./Westchester Co. New York’s “Taste of the Nation” event (part of the national Share Our Strength, I was exempt from some of the pre-requisites. And since I had a solid writing background in popular national magazines and trade publications, I was offered the opportunity to teach the required course in Food and Nutrition Writing while I was matriculating my Master’s.
The paper on my mother’s recipe collection was accepted for publication while I was still in school in a book on American women and ethnic food, and it is used as a reading in the program today. I completed an independent study project on archaeological methods used to determine what people ate in prehistoric times by volunteering for the Noen U-Loke dig in northeast Thailand. The site was one of the outlying villages that supplied rice to the great capital of Angkor in Cambodia. We were digging in a cemetery so we were turning up skeletons left and right!
Ironically, the site turned out to be the only place in the world where some people have been found buried in food, specifically between layers of charred rice. So one could infer that there was a surplus of rice production that allowed some of the elites (as determined by other grave goods) to be buried in the most precious commodity in this society–rice. A big plus of the NYU program was the wide cultural diversity of the students. No matter what we were discussing, there was someone from that ethnic background who had first-hand knowledge.
Gina: What is Sabores sin Fronteras?
Linda: Sabores sin Fronteras, which means Flavors without Borders, is a bi-national alliance based on Tucson that documents, preserves, and celebrates the foodways of the Southwest and northern Mexico which at one point in time were not divided by a border. Sabores was set up by ethnobotanist Gary Nabhan, a Research Social Scientist at University of Arizona, and Maribel Alvarez, folklorist at the Southwest Center at University of Arizona, along with about 50 founding members. This year, we held a symposium on wheat in Sonora, Mexico and grasslands cattle raising on both sides of the border. We are currently working on an anthology to be published by University of Arizona Press.
Gina: I know that you’re an avid traveler. When you visit a new destination, how do you approach the culinary landscape? What sort of questions do you ask to understand what food means about a culture?
Linda: I always read about the food before going, so I’ll know what to order and have some basic understanding of the culture. For Greece and Sicily, I bought cookbooks that were heavy on description of the environment and culture. For Laos, I got some great primary source material compiled by Alan Davidson (Traditional Recipes of Laos) given to him by the royal family’s chef Phia Sing. I also collect articles on the food, sometimes for years before going somewhere so I know which restaurants I want to try.
For Luang Prabang, the original capital of Laos, I read a wonderful article by Amanda Hesser from The New York Times, recommending 3 Nagas as one of the best restaurants not only in Laos but in all of Southeast Asia! I knew to order an appetizer she had of dried River Weeds with Water Buffalo Skin, coated with sesame seeds. It was wonderful and I never would have known about it otherwise.
Once in the country, I like to visit markets to see what ordinary folks are eating and to sample. So many of cultures cook things outside–street food and sometimes this is the best, most interesting food. Also, markets and some stores carry local utensils and dishes, allowing me to purchase rice baskets and a coconut shell spoon for serving rice in Cambodia and some wonderful Celadon spoons, satay dishes, and dipping bowls at an outlet in Bangkok.