Shrimp and beans, and learning to read the clues.
Adapted from: an exercise in retracing.
Since I started writing this newsletter, not a lot has changed in the world of food media. Incremental steps, at best. The New York Times has added an extra byline for recipes their staff did not create; Bon Appetit has revised some of their headnotes to nod to the cultural origins of certain dishes. Bloggers who like to tell the story of their food before getting to the recipe continue to be memeified by people who wish they’d get to the point. By and large, recipes still exist without their larger contexts. But if there’s anything I’ve learned in this time, it’s that food is never without its roots.
The thought occurred to me, while sampling a Georgian wine, that I should learn to read recipes the way sommeliers read a wine, and use clues to help me hone in on the geographical context. High acidity in a wine, for example, is an indication that the grapes come from a cool climate. Salinity might be a clue that they’re grown in a coastal region. What are similar hints that exist in a dish?
This week’s recipe was a great and easy candidate for trying out this line of inquiry. Its title: Lemony Shrimp and Bean Stew (Sue Li, for the NYT.) And if you’ll bear with me, I’ll show you exactly how this brain thinks—at the risk of exposing myself as someone who doesn’t think hard enough!
The title itself contains some clues, but maybe the tags will tell me.
“American.” Not quite.
What about using the ingredients to get us closer to a geographic region? (Sidenote, this feels just like playing a game of GeoGuessr.)
Mediterranean feels right, going with that. Let’s move to the next ingredient, shrimp.
The Venn diagram might as well be a circle. Not as helpful.
Next in the ingredient search is beans. In this case, the type of bean would be an indication of the region we’re looking for. I remember moving to Canada and being astonished by the variety of beans at the grocery store—not to mention how many names there are for the same bean.
Case in point:
Italy. Italy is full of lemons. Italy is coastal. Italy loves cannellini beans.
Which part of Italy, though?
And what’s Sorana’s likelihood of having access to shrimp?
Concurrently searching for “italian shrimp and bean dish” yields a few vague confirmations:
A Michael Chiarello recipe on the Food Network, called “Tuscan Shrimp with White Beans.”
A video result, “How to Make Tuscan Shrimp and Beans” from America’s Test Kitchen.
A blog referencing the America’s Test Kitchen episode, with an interesting aside:
Indeed, the only Tuscan shrimp dish that I’m familiar with is “Gamberi alla Viareggina”. That also combines beans (cannellini) and shrimp, but it’s usually served as an appetizer or a salad.
It looks like this:
I rest my case.
Not all recipes are this easy to retrace, I assume. Plus, we have to account for cultural change, a recipe writer’s creativity, fusion influences, ingredient availability, etc. And maybe most of you are doing some version of this already. But if you’re not, I think this is a robust exercise for thinking holistically about food context, and—if you’re anything like me—an entertaining way to spend an hour.
Hi. Happy New Year, I guess? Lunar and otherwise. I took some time off to finish a few writing assignments, but am hoping to be back writing and cooking at a regular cadence.
Until next time,