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Food Without Foam: You Can Go Home Again

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My attitude problem began a few years ago when I came home from work to find the latest Williams-Sonoma catalog sitting in my mailbox, and there it was: a home foamer. This was during the heyday of molecular gastronomy, when everyone and his brother was trying to turn a steak into a Twinkie, or a lake trout into an Apple Charlotte. Anyway, as far as I was concerned, it spelled disaster and the destruction of home cooking as I knew it. Mostly, I was right. Because honestly, what home cook needs a foamer when all he or she is trying to do is get a good-to-great meal on the table, or feed junior after his soccer match? Who the hell needs to be able to turn expensive parmigiana reggiano into something supposedly revolutionary that also looks remarkably like spittle, just to serve it to her book club, or her mahjong team? I certainly don't.

And frankly, neither does David Leite.

Years ago, I predicted to David, author of The New Portuguese Table and founder of Leite's Culinaria, that eventually, the culinary world would crumble under the truffle oil-infused weight of too-rich cookbook advances, television chef bobbleheads (to quote Tony Bourdain), and charmless home kitchens-as-operating rooms, where so-called cooks used their Vikings to store sweaters even as they fleetingly attempted to replicate Ferran Adria's ground-breaking, magical creations in the confines of their own flat screen television-bedecked suburban lairs. What the world needed, I announced, was an honest return to the real world, to the true home kitchen where devoted and dedicated cooks like my grandmother and yours created ages-old dishes that had legs long enough to stretch back to the old country. And in a perfect world, these cooks would have enough bravery and gumption to make those traditional dishes their own while also respecting the past. And there would be nary a foamer in sight. This -- the reintroduction of traditional cuisines to a culinary landscape buckling under the burden of pretense and inauthenticity -- would be where the new cultural food revolution would take place.

I didn't expect the backlash to happen as quickly as it did, but I'm delighted that it has. And amidst a throng of new cookbooks celebrating indigenous cooking-as-revolution, I was delighted to see that David's was among them.

Full disclosure: David is a colleague, and back when I was an editor at Clarkson Potter, I made the introduction between the author and the editor who would go on to acquire his book. I honestly wasn't sure where it would go; David was writing about Portuguese cooking, and all I knew of it, being a Jew from Queens, was bacalhao, which I love (probably because of my affinity for salty fish, like belly lox). I worried that the book would be packed with a ton of variations on the dish that starts out life stiff as a plank and turns into fluffy goodness, even without a foamer. I was terribly wrong.

At this point in our American culinary lexicon, we know little to nothing of Portuguese food, beyond what our immigrant population has brought with them; luckily, I live in New England, where the Portuguese population is sizable, and so I know my way around the ubiquitous and mouthwateringly spicy linguica (which I often lightly steam and then grill, for a supple yet toothsome heightening of both salty heat and meatiness), the fritters, the textural mosaic that is kale and potato soup, and the pasteis de nata--that light, baked custard-filled paper-thin pastry for which I would sell my soul. But beyond that, I'm totally clueless, and the fact is that most Americans fall into line right behind me. Portuguese food is to Americans today what French food was to us in the 1950s: a mystery attached to stereotype and presumption. Back then, we presumed, like expectant virgins unaware of how good it can really be, to know French food as cloying pastry and creme sauces and little lamb chops wearing anklets. Today, we presume to know Portuguese food as linguica and kale soup, and salt cod, and the other stuff served in restaurants in areas like Provincetown, and New Bedford Massachusetts. And that's it.

In Leite's The New Portuguese Table, the author performs a multitude of feats: first, he provides the sort of culinary travel guide to the country of his ancestors that rivals Samuel Chamberlain's Bouquet de France. Second, wearing the hat of teacher, he introduces, with great specificity, a multitude of regional delicacies presented in such a way so you know exactly what to eat and drink wherever you are in the country, from the Beiras to the Algarve. Finally, he presents recipes ranging from the most remarkably parsimonious--potato skin curls with herbs, and mayonnaise made with milk and no eggs--that speak directly to the country's innate frugality, and the joy found in making something spectacular out of virtually nothing, to the more extravagant and modern, like pork tenderloin in port-prune sauce. Everywhere are references to the people who taught him, who housed him, and who educated this man who had never traveled to the country of his ancestry until he was an adult. And in the interest of parsimonious brevity, Leite accomplished this all in a comparatively slim volume.

The recipes are straightforward and uncomplicated, the photography magnificent, but I will not get into those specifics here: there are blogs that will do that, at length, mine included. But at a critical time in the culinary world, when traditional and authentic cuisine married to the interest in culture (think Afar, and Saveur) is mercifully beginning to overtake its bobble-headed B-side, Leite's book is a stunning passport to a food and a people virtually unknown to most Americans, even though they are only five hours away from our mainland.

So, a culinary revolution without foam. Who'd have thought? Instead, entry to Europe's most unsung and secret edible frontier, tied to an ancient people, and a world that has one foot in the past, and one in the delicious future. I'd book passage right now.

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