to the Yay-Food blog.
This isn’t a traditional cooking/recipe blog, although it does feature recipes. It’s not heavy on photography because many of my favorite cookbook don’t have any pictures, and because sometimes it’s better to uses senses other than sight when imagining food. When I am thinking about what to cook, I don’t visualize the dish. Instead, I use my taste, scent, and tactile memory to match and mix foods in my imagination. I do the same when I read recipes: I barely look at the photos and videos annoy me. Instead, I run through the steps (tasting each one) in my head, and then decide whether I want to try the recipe or a version it.
These days I rarely cook from recipes, though I read cookbooks like I read novels: they are magical adventures that take me to other culinary worlds and let me see through the eyes of other cooks. So one of the things you’ll find here are musings on recipe-free cooking, spice palettes, ingredients that do or do not mix well, and stories about what I did with what I found in the refrigerator, in the cupboard, or at the market. Almost none of these recipes are “fancy,” though some are time-consuming or require preparing ahead. I cook every day: not everything I make is “special,” but it all tastes great. (Honestly, I think there’s no point in eating anything that isn’t delicious.) So, if you read Yay-Food you won’t just learn some recipes—you’ll learn new theories of cooking so you, too, can create new recipes on the fly.
I started cooking when I was about ten years old. My mother, Dorothy, is a fabulous cook—adventurous and sophisticated in her tastes. We’d go to restaurants and sample the food and then she’d help me break down all the ingredients and come up with a recipe for it. I grew up in Los Angeles in the 1970s, and there was a wealth of cuisines. Many great restaurants were known only in their neighborhood communities, but somehow mom would seek them out and we would try new foods and flavor combinations.
We also regularly visited the L.A. farmer’s market where we would taste new foods and mom would talk to the vendors. One day she stopped at the stall of a vendor who sold a wide variety of teas (at a time when Lipton’s in a bag was the only tea most white housewives in L.A. had in their cupboard) and we spent close to an hour there as the vendor opened canisters and let us taste and smell samples. She left with a bag of many teas and every time we returned she’d try new teas. She kept them carefully labeled in a cupboard and I remember discussions about which were nicer with breakfast, and which should be served with what type of food.
She took me to sushi restaurants in L.A.’s Little Tokyo and Little Osaka where the only language spoken was Japanese and we were often the only non-Japanese customers. I’d accompany her and one of her friends and we’d sit at the sushi bar and point and smile and eat whatever the chefs decided to set in front of us. Mom delighted in learning to use chopsticks properly and learning new customs along with the food, because the aesthetic was just as important to her as the flavor. We discovered dim sum the same way, and Thai food, and Indonesian cooking, and many regional variations of Chinese and Indian food. Often she’d talk to the chef, if they spoke the same language. Then we’d see if we could find the ingredients at the farmer’s market and recreate a version of the dish at home. Still, in her mid-eighties, mom is eager to explore new types of food and have new eating experiences and when I visit her she always is eager to share her latest restaurant find in the Bay area.
Mom also loves spicy food and so we grew up eating it. Her Spanish is excellent and we explored the widely varied flavors of regional Mexican food in Los Angeles. By my mid-teens I was addicted to chili peppers and I began to collect them like my mother collected teas. I brought them with me when I moved into my college dormitory at UC Santa Cruz. I lasted less than a year in the dorm because I couldn’t cook there. Instead, I moved into a communal house and started cooking for crowds (it beat doing the dishes!), entering a new phase of cooking as an informal chef. My spice cabinet was legendary and so were the holiday meals I cooked for friends who lived too far from home to visit for Thanksgiving, Passover, Christmas, and any other excuse to celebrate.
I often considered cooking professionally and, for a few periods of my life, I catered to pay the bills and cooked benefit dinners for causes I supported, but my academic career didn’t leave me much time for these pursuits. Instead I fed friends and continued to host parties. When I left the U.S. permanently and moved to Berlin I shared a spacious art studio with a friend, in the same building in which I owned an apartment. My friend and I are both from the U.S., and we wanted to connect to the English-speaking artist community in the city, so we started to host monthly buffets.
A year down the line we were booked out every month, with 50 attendees and many more on our waiting list, and I enjoyed cooking a wide variety of dishes from a different regional cuisine every month to feed artists, curators, critics, gallery owners, and their friends. Shortly before I moved from Berlin to Bern my buffet was visited by a New York Times food critic (who came with a friend, not intending to review the food). The dishes of the evening were Caribbean and I remember he was unable to stop eating and comparing the 3 different kinds of dulce de leche I’d set on the table, from three different island traditions.
After I moved to Bern, the high food prices and space limitations made it impossible for me to keep feeding the masses, but I did continue to cook for friends on a near-weekly basis until the pandemic began in 2020. After my vaccinations and boosters, I’ve finally started inviting vaccinated friends to dinner again, and it’s been a real pleasure to feed other people again. But I doubt that I’ll be hosting large parties any time soon, and so I thought I’d start this blog to share my cooking, at least vicariously, with others.
Enjoy! And feel free to leave comments under the entries. I’d love to hear your thoughts and about your cooking experiences.