Excited that you’ve just bought some diced goat, but unsure how best to cook it, and what else to buy to go with it? You’re here at the farmers markets, after all. Fear not, Barbara Sweeney will talk you though it.
Every farmers market should have a Talking Cookbook like this lady. Someone who just hangs out at her little stall, ready to steward you through the ideas phase of cooking whatever you’ve just bought.
Opulent cooking adventurers seem to be all around us. Crazy normal-person-turned-masterchefs wave trademarked ladels at every corner. Fabulous food adorns even my email blogfeed – things I would never think to try on my own.
Which is all very well, but when you’re at the farmers markets and you’ve just realised that globe artichokes are in season, where do you turn for the how and the why?
Especially if you’re on a budget, in which case the flags immediately pop up…
Unusual ingredient! Alert! You may not cook this properly and all will be lost! Alert! Default to known ingredients to avoid possible costly disaster! Abort! Abort!
How many times have you put the beautiful thing back, because you are unsure how best to cook it, and there is precisely $20 cash left in your wallet? Me too.
Enter Barbara Sweeney, the Talking Cookbook.
A self-initiated project with an ethos to provide a little moment of calm for folks wanting to cook fresh, beautiful food, but who need some tips, ideas or maybe just a little encouragement to make it happen…
K: Do you ever jump on top of people if they’re going past with a really splendid ingredient that you know a great recipe for? Or do you always let people come to you?
This week I did jump, as I want to engage people about the Food Writers’ Festival, but usually not. I do think though that more jumping would be a good thing, as once people have engaged with Talking Cookbook they are more likely to revisit.
“I think the main attraction is the on-tap answer to a specific question.”
That said, getting tips on an particular food is a good idea. This market currently has achachas in season, goat meat, and veg such as rutabago, all good talking points.
I think I might try the jump more now that you’ve suggested it as it could be energising and engaging for the Talking Cookbook and the unsuspecting passerby.
K: How does starting conversations with strangers and being an introvert at the same time work out for you in this context? You do seem very smooth about it all…
Introverts are very good at relating and find one-on-one meaningful conversations energising and exciting. My nervousness has more to do with standing there looking like a ninny than talking to people about food, ingredients and cooking.
Let’s face it, Taking Cookbook may be a good idea, but it is untried and unfamiliar. So I do get a lot of odd looks. Which, as an introvert, I am sensitive to.
K: Given that cooking can be strongly tied to emotion and memories for some people – do your conversations ever turn into something akin to counselling, thinly veiled as recipe acquisition?
Not really. The people who stop are either very good cooks or novice cooks. The former enjoy the opportunity to have an unbridled conversation about food, the novices are just keen to get some simple tips. On the whole, the overriding emotion is happiness.
Many people tell me about their childhood food memories. I’ve learned about vodka from a Russian, been lent a Persian cookbook and chatted to a Greek family about them importing olive oil to Australia back in the 1930s.
K: Craziest ingredient you’ve been presented with for questioning?
Ah, what’s crazy to one cook is familiar to another. I have had to brush up on recipes and cooking methods for a few ingredients (mind you, I’m always reading and making notes on ingredients and cooking).
I’m not really good at rutabago, swede or goat. But I can talk tomato, bread, butter, mushrooms, chicken, sage with ease.
K: I love how you have the cookbooks there and refer to them sometimes – It’s a lovely, relaxed way of talking about cooking ideas. Did you start off with this combo of both chatting and flicking through recipes, or did that technique evolve?
I’m a big fan of cookbooks and have always had them on hand at Talking Cookbook, so they have been there from the beginning. I know a lot about food, ingredients and cooking, but you’re always learning and books are a brilliant resource.
I also don’t think you need to reinvent the wheel, so I’ll refer to a cookbook for a particular recipe or method.
The stack is useful too, as a particular book will stop people in their tracks. Yotam Ottelenghi is the number one “stop ’em in their tracks” author, and Andrew McConnell of Cumulus in Melbourne is another.
“Talking Cookbook is simply a decent home cook (me at the moment, but it could be anyone), sharing their love of food.”
I see it like friends swapping recipes or asking your mum for the recipe of a dish she’s cooked for years.
If I’ve made a great panzanella salad (David Tanis‘s is brilliant) or quiche (I always go to Margaret Fulton) or bread (Dan Lepard‘s the man), I like to tell people about it. I refer back to where I found the recipe because I think provenance and credit is everything.
All cooks adapt recipes and make them their own, but in most cases the essence of the recipe came from somewhere and I find that part of the story really interesting. I cannot make a lemon tart without a thought for Nigella Lawson’s Shaker lemon tart recipe from How to Eat.
I made it once and one of the consumers of the tart declared it the best lemon tart he had ever eaten. I followed that recipe to the letter – and what a great reward. It still gives me a bit of a thrill.
I also get sent cookbooks from publishers, which I give away to visitors to Talking Cookbook. It’s a great way of passing the knowledge and enjoyment on.
K: Any advice for emerging ‘Talking Cookbooks’ who would like to do something similar at their local market?
I’d love to see a network of Talking Cookbooks mushroom across the land. I often think about the different personalities they would take on and directions they could go, when more people get involved.
“At its heart, Talking Cookbook is about sharing. How you do it is up to you…”
Barbara also puts on the Food & Words food writers’ festival, which is being held on October 19 at The Mint in Sydney. Cookbook authors and food writers talk on a range of topics, resulting in a quirky, fascinating and engaging program.
Fabulous food is served; this year there’s a picnic lunch being cooked by Martin Boetz from Cooks Co-op and Alex Herbert from Bird Cow Fish. Find out more at www.foodandwords.com.au