THE Ballymaloe Literary Festival is the first festival devoted to culinary writing and literature. It is a ‘who’s who’ of food writing, but at the peak is Claudia Roden. Historian Simon Schama said she “is no more a simple cookbook writer than Marcel Proust was a biscuit baker. She is, rather, memorialist, historian, ethnographer, anthropologist, essayist, poet.”
Roden was born in Cairo in 1936, to a wealthy Jewish merchant family. She left home at 15 to attend school in Paris. On Sundays, she joined relatives for a traditional Arabic bean dish, ful mesdames. It became a family ritual, this peasant dish, the distillation of all “the glories and warmth” of her birthplace. It is a recurrent theme of her work: food as an emotional touchstone evoking time and place.
When Egypt’s president Gamal Abdel Nasser began expelling foreigners, including assimilated Jews, during the Suez Canal Crisis in 1956, Roden’s parents joined her in London, where she now lived. In post-war Britain, food was awful, exacerbating her parents’ homesickness, and buttressing Roden’s culinary awakenings.
She married businessman Paul Roden — it would end after 15 years — but as she raised her three children, she learned to cook and began the research that would yield her classic, A Book of Middle Eastern Food, published in 1968. It has never been out of print and launched Roden’s career as one of the greatest food writers — and the locus for the popularity of hummus in the West.
While it introduced Westerners to great cuisine, it didn’t prevent global culinary homogenisation
“Not that many years ago,” says Roden, “I travelled to Holland for a conference, via Australia, New Zealand, New York, Egypt, in a week when ‘gourmet food’ was fashionable. Coincidentally, I was served the same dish in each place. “Addressing the conference, which was about culture not food, I mentioned this dish as an example of how culture was driven by America — salad with pine nuts, parmesan shavings and sundried tomatoes. And then we went for lunch and that’s what we had.”
But researching for her revised Food of Italy book, she notes a shift: “The young Italian cooks still want to invent, but now according to their roots, using local produce and local traditions, something like pizza a la carbonara. They have rejected the new cuisine and the science and technology of Spain — perhaps, because it is Spanish — and are going back to regionalism. The economic crisis has driven them back into themselves. They wanted to experience globalisation of food, the different produce and cuisines, but now native produce has the most importance. For instance, some star chefs are now saying, ‘I am only the conductor of a recipe, because it is the fisherman and the farmer who are the composers, who produce or harvest the food’.”
Roden’s most recent book, The Food of Spain, is an achievement to match her debut, but with a personal dimension: “My motivation was to do the influences on Spanish food; I discovered the identity of those influences was in my soul, heart and roots. It was so moving and emotional, it made me cry. They didn’t know when they cooked for me, the trigger for my tears was my roots. As descendants of Spanish Jews [who fled the Inquisition] in Egypt, my mother spoke Ladino [a medieval Spanish]. I realised so many Jews of Egypt had Spanish names, the names of Spanish towns, Sevilla, Soledano. It was emotional, not only for my Spanish roots, but the Jewish roots, as well. It was familiar in a million ways, because of the Jewish influence on Spain from the Conversos [Jews who converted to Christianity] who stayed.”
Roden is a bridge from an era before food became the stuff of lifestyle supplements. “In the US, you have chefs doing Italian food, for example, and they can’t do traditional Italian, because that is ‘ethnic’ and they can’t charge too much, so they do twists on traditional, their own signature. They do their book and become very famous. Young chefs buy the book and are cooking that version of Italian food.
“I don’t say it is either a good thing or a bad thing, it is just the way it is — it is part of what we will be discussing in Ballymaloe. My role has always been to see tradition and record tradition, because that is what people expect of me. When I came to England, food was a taboo subject, people were ashamed to talk about eating or show that they like food, so I am very happy that people care about food.”