The Bread of Kings by Teresa Lust

Fake Pies and Pig Thighs by Rachel Komich

An Essay in Which Pam Greer Oozes Out of Her Clothes by Richard LeBlond

On Pierogi(s) by Mark Lewandowski

Vegetexting by Jennifer Bal

The Benefits of Eating Too Much in the Desert by E. M. Eastick

A Question of Taste by Meredith Escudier

The Beauty of Pizza by Austin Rogers

Marmalade: The Melomeli of Modern America by Michael Pennell

Three Elizabeths, One George, Hot Cross Buns, and Hampstead Heath by Paula Panich

Duck by Eileen Shields

Food for Thought by Kathryn Jenkins

Playing Mass by Catherine Scherer

My Big Fat Orthodox Thanksgiving by Ruth Carmel

The Astrophysics of a Sandwich by Raychelle Heath

Tantric Chicken by Mara A. Cohen Marks

Full by Kelly Ferguson

Monkey Eve by Carolyn Phillips

Capon by Natasha Sajé

The Paella Perplex by Jeannette Ferrary

The Right to Eat by JT Torres

This Isn't Supposed to Happen in the Morning by Heather Hartley

Recipe for Winter by Khristopher Flack

Step One by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

Flour Fool Meets Great Poet and Pie Instructor by Amy Halloran

Everett by Jason Bell

The Intrigue of Aaron Barthel by Kristy Leissle

Personal Sugar Defense Kit by Sari M. Boren

Kitchen Tirade by Eric LeMay

Eat Dessert First by Iris Graville

Parsley by Natasha Sajé

American Zen Breakfast by Dick Allen

This May Make You [Sic] by Paul Graham

Prisoner's Thai Noodles by Byron Case

Lavender Fields by Susan Goodwin

Ménage à Fongo by Kathryn Miles

All That She Could Make with Flour by Katherine Jameison

Weasel by John Gutekanst

Into the Deep Freeze by Jason Anthony

Defining Gluten by Ann Lightcap Bruno

The Text(ure) of Pleasure by Tara Deal

On the Perils of Food-Buying in a Foreign Land by Tony Eprile

The Paella Perplex

by Jeannette Ferrary

May 2014    

It sounds simple enough: we’ll make paella. We have the script thanks to a recent visit to our Spanophile friend Tony, whose every gesture and comment we faithfully copied down while has was making paella at his home in Seattle. And so we began Peter and I, assembling, chopping, sautéing, simmering stock. He drizzles olive oil across the paellera, the two-handled, oversized pan meant just for cooking paella. On the surface, everything looks normal enough as we glide through the kind of paso doble kitchen choreography we’ve performed for many meals over the years.

But I’m not just making paella.

I’m living in the past, envisioning my grandmother—Dee Tee we called her—in her Brooklyn kitchen half a century ago making paella. She didn’t have a paellera; she made, without the proper equipment, the most sublime saffron-scented paella anyone has ever tasted and she didn’t even call it paella. It was arroz, rice, sometimes con pollo—with chicken—usually also with peas and peppers and tomatoes and shrimp.

But she was right because in essence paella is about the rice and nothing but the rice. If the rice is wrong, then it makes no difference what other things you throw in. And when it’s right, you get that special Spanish bonus called socarrat, the hidden layer of crust that forms underneath it all, your reward for your superhuman restraint in leaving the rice alone as it cooks.

In our California kitchen, a sudden rush of saffron transcends time, unifies experience. Our daughter, Natasha, and her cousin, Adam, breathe in the magic promise imagining the conjurings of Dee Tee, their great grandmother, whom they’ve never met, whose paella they will never know. Still there is more than a hint of continuity here, not the specifics of recipe but the force behind it. Paella isn’t something out of sight or a make-ahead to present at the appointed time. It’s a process that involves everyone because it has to happen while-u-wait. You tend it like you do a pile of temperamental logs in the fireplace or a diva you’ve possibly regretfully invited to dinner. You can’t ignore paella and go into the living room to chat while it cooks itself. The minute you walk away from it in its honored position over two burners, you feel it calling you back. And yet you know you’re not supposed to stir it or disturb its steady constant murmur that is your only hope for the paella nirvana of socarrat. Your only power lies in feeding it sprinkles of stock if its liquid is cooking down too quickly. So you peek over a thousand tiny times. Between you and paella there is interaction and mutual need. The paella has its own identity; your role is to trust it, to do nothing that interferes with its evolutionary process. When you’re making paella you’re living in the moment. That’s what’s Spanish about it, that intensity and assumed devotion, the tragedy hovering seductively just behind the comedy.

Because of Dee Tee, paella’s claim on me is transgenerational though I’m simply her stand-in. Peter keeps telling me to sit down and leave it alone; it’s fine, it’ll cook itself. And in a way, he’s right. But in another sense, he’s precisely in that place where angels fear to tread, that twilight zone where reason and logic can’t triumph over heritage and the transmitted wisdom that flows from bone to bone. I have to do this right; he doesn’t. He can do it any old way and it will be right for him. I have a special obligation made all the more difficult because of my pretty much complete ignorance of Dee Tee’s specific modus operandi. Family recipes are full of such treachery. They always leave someone wondering, even if they have the tact to shut up about it, why the results don’t taste quite the same as grandma used to make. Cooking up memories, like thumbing through the family photo album, brings back the loss, recalls the missing, intensifies rather than satisfies yearnings for what we can never taste or see again. We can never get enough of it even though it isn’t there.

  Jeannette Ferrary is the author of eight books including the memoir-biography M. F. K. Fisher and Me: A Memoir of Food and Friendship. Her most recent book is Out of the Kitchen. In addition to her work for Gastronomica, the New York Times, and other publications, she teaches food-writing at Stanford and U. C. Berkeley.

Photo used under Creative Commons.