Routes and roots: a talk by Claudia Roden

This post was contributed by Rebecca Heald, a student on Birkbeck’s MSc Social and Political Theory.

I remember as a child my mother making us falafel as a treat. Whenever she did so, she would tell us the story of a couple in Cairo and how they would order falafel from the place below where they lived and hoist them up to their balcony using a pulley. At the beginning of their time living there they were young and lithe; but slowly, with the falafel and the convenience of obtaining them, they became round. I know now this story came from Claudia Roden’s legendary 1968 A Book of Middle Eastern Food.

Roden is one of Britain’s most revered cookery writers. She was born in Egypt in 1936 into the extensive Sephardic Jewish community living there until the 1956 Suez Crisis. Once propelled into exile, she began to miss the food she grew up with and set about gathering recipes. Subsequently she explored and documented a number of cuisines and she has just published her eleventh book, The Food of Spain.

As in Roden’s other work, recipes become a vehicle for history and emotion. This book, like the others, is an extremely personal offering. Experiences over the five years she spent researching the book triggered memories she didn’t know she had. Roden’s family was descended from Jews who had been expelled from Spain in 1492; her grandmother spoke an old Judeo-Spanish language called Ladino, and once immersed in Spain, traces of the old Muslim presence reminded her of the Arab and Jewish world she grew up in.

The starting point for her research was to ask everyone she met for their favourite recipes, what their parents and grandparents cooked, how they lived and what region they were from. Almost without exception the recipes confirmed that Spain is a country of carnivores. They also belonged to what Roden calls the “rural world”, going against the fact that now 80% of Spain’s population live in cities, not on the land, and seemingly in contrast to Spain’s now fashionable culinary avant-garde. The Catalan writer Josep Pla wrote that cooking is “the landscape in a saucepan”. For Roden, in recipes, there are also ghosts: she sees who was there before.

In the case of Spain, those who were there before include Jews, Muslims, Romans, Visigoths, French, Italians, Belgians, and Germans. In previous books Roden has used recipes to explore the differences between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews: history, joys and hostilities. Here in Spain, Roden finds that much of the food tells the story of population movements from north to south, coast to mountain to centre, and also, importantly for Spain, the Spanish Inquisition. Pork is shown to be a tool of the Inquisition. Putting it in everything was proof of being Christian. One never knew when the Inquisition was coming, but it seems it often came at lunchtime.

Now many regions are proudly rediscovering their past, many of those Roden meets declare they are descended from conversos. Every dish has a story, and often this is something to celebrate. Upon eating Santiago cake, made of almonds, sugar, eggs and oranges, Roden declares, that none of the ingredients are local to Galicia and it tastes like a Jewish Passover cake. Her hosts are delighted and push her onto local television to share her observation. The area has been celebrating its Jewish history for tourists and on a local farm they have been reenacting weddings complete with ceremonies under a hoopa. Roden’s culinary analysis was welcome confirmation of the fact that in Galicia there were many Jews who converted rather than leaving.

Roden herself has summarized ‘Spain’s regional dishes are memories and people want to hold on to them,’ a sentiment to which The Food of Spain bears rich and delicious testament.

This event was organised by the Birkbeck Food Group, part of the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research.


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