“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” – Aristotle
“I long for the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts, but I’ve rarely, if ever, known such a thing.” – Elizabeth Toscano
I think I must have been born hungry. How else can I explain this persistent longing in my belly, this longing for something else, something other, something better.
I remember waiting all year for the cherries. They took so long to arrive, never considering I’d been expecting them. I felt so peaceful when I finally saw them stacked precariously in bags, slack yet bursting. They were my dears, my sweet Bings, my lovely Rainiers.
And then there were the apricots. I could down eight of them in a sitting, greedily ripping them in half, tossing the pit and sucking the flesh until the juice ran down my chin in a thin, sticky stream. I felt so wholly myself.
Finally came the figs and with them the restlessness. Figs must have dropped to Earth on geese’s wings, a final thought on their way South. But what a beautiful idea – bruised and weathered, blush and fair. Nothing lasts. Only the hunger lingers on. And still I want so much.
What is to be done about this longing? How should I feed myself? I am always looking for the answer.
Consequently, I expect a great deal from a cookbook. A good cookbook should be a steady thing. It must have something that draws me back again and again. It can be written evocatively, or contain glossy pictures of dripping chops and almost burnt, buttery toasts. It can have just one recipe that changes the way I think about a food or a technique. It doesn’t matter if it’s large or small, general or specific, but it must be unflappable in some way and I will always return to it. An unopened cookbook is electric. It buzzes with potential. Just think of all the untasted dishes yet to be consumed and loved – roasted birds, charred vegetables, savory bone broths. Its promise is seemingly infinite. Perhaps I expect too much.
The Modern Salad is a collection of original composed salads by Elizabeth Howes. All of the recipes in the book are modeled after the ancient Burmese tea leaf salad called lahpet thoke. This dish is made up of multiple components, including fermented or pickled tea leaves, which are presented separately on a platter and tossed together tableside just before serving. Each ingredient brings a distinct flavor profile to bear on the harmony of the salad as a whole so that when the pieces are combined, the result is a balanced meal of salty, sweet, sour, crunchy, bitter, umami, and astringent elements. For Howes it is the archetype of what a salad should be.
Howes sets out to achieve the balance of the lahpet thoke in her modern salads. The book is divided into 6 chapters: vegetarian; noodles, grains, and legumes; fish and shellfish; chicken, turkey, and duck; pork and beef; and finally pantry staples. She draws from a vast multicultural larder of spices, herbs, grains, nuts, oils, and vinegars (most of which I was able to find at Whole Foods or a local Asian market). I love using new products that I’ve never tried or, in some cases, never heard of, but many of these were expensive oils and vinegars, which aren’t practical to purchase if you don’t plan to use them frequently, or ever again.
I was most attracted to the recipes utilizing seasonal, summer produce, and so most of the dishes I tested were from the vegetarian chapter. I also tested a recipe from the chapter on chicken, turkey, and duck, which peaked my interest because of its unusual combination of ingredients – the dressing contained pumpkin puree, and red Thai curry paste among other things. I pickled ginger, blackened peaches over hot coals, carefully dressed figs in a syrupy vinegar reduction, and ate the sweetest watermelon with cheese that tasted of hay. I followed each recipe’s instructions to the letter and did not encounter any disasters to speak of. I did have some concerns when it came to making several of the dressings. On more than one occasion the finished dressing either didn’t taste right on its own, or it had an unusual proportion of oil to vinegar so that it seemed there might be a mistake in the quantities of ingredients. But in each instance, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the dressing worked in the context of the other components and brought balance to the finished salad. The disparate parts were elevated in their combined state. Similarly, an ingredient like raw fennel, intense on its own, tasted mellow and harmonious in concert with other elements.
The finished recipes were tasty enough and delivered on Howes’ premise that an elevated dish is created through the balance of nutrient-dense, organic ingredients. And yet the book as a whole left me wanting. A cookbook, like a salad, must be more than the sum of its parts. It must be more than a collection of recipes. I want to connect to it on a deeper level than I would a how-to manual, which can also yield satisfactory results, but doesn’t elicit passions.
Could it be that my dissatisfaction stems from the simple fact that this is a book about salad? Salad, that most moral of food, which never excites in quite the same way as a braise, or a roast. But I’ve been enamored with salads before. Yotam Ottolenghi seduces with salads in page after page of his lovely books. The reader is never derailed by his long lists of exotic ingredients, but inspired to venture into the unknown for just one taste. April Bloomfield likewise entices with her description of carefully massaging caesar dressing into leaves of romaine hearts. And M.F.K. Fisher makes us fall in love with little more than a peeled tangerine or a bowl of freshly shelled peas through the careful weaving of her words.
Maybe I’m troubled by the limitations I find in most health and lifestyle cookbooks. I feel uneasy when presented with a prescription for life’s woes especially when it comes to something as intimate as a person’s diet. Eating is a necessary part of existence, and I find it unsettling when someone exploits that fact in order to push an ideology. Howes states in her author’s note that, “The core of this book is about reinvention and the transformative power of exhilarating whole food.” I have no doubt that high quality, nutritious ingredients make people feel better on some level. But food must do more than nourish and strengthen our bodies. It must fulfill a primal need.
Perhaps my longing stems from the fact that I don’t really believe the book’s premise. We hear so much noise about balancing flavors, about bringing all of the tastes and textures sensed by the tongue into perfect harmony, but is this what we want? Does this make a satisfying whole? Maybe I knew better all those years ago waiting for cherries. But for now, summer is over. There’s a chill in the air. The figs are all gone. And I’m still hungry.
Elizabeth Toscano holds both a J.D. and a B.A. in Art History from the University of Utah. She lives and works in Salt Lake City, UT, where she is an avid cookbook reader and collector. She loves food and travel, especially camping and hiking with her boyfriend, Glade, and her dog, Whiskey. She tries to cook every day.