Sunday, November 16, 2014

Review of "In Her Kitchen" by Gabriele Galimberti

At only 22, Gabriele Galimberti's first real gig took him on a photography expedition around the world. Because he'd never traveled much beyond his small Italian hometown of Castiglion Fiorentino, Galimberti's grandmother expressed concern about his pending adventure. What would her grandson eat, and who would cook for him, she wondered aloud as she served him her homemade ravioli. Galimberti writes that this was the moment he hatched his plan to find, cook with and photograph grandmas from each place he visited, capturing their signature dishes and stories. The result was In Her Kitchen: Stories and Recipes from Grandmas Around the World.

What this book is:
I first sat down with this 250-page coffee table book with my 6-year-old son, Stephen, who has a thing for maps. The inside cover is printed with a world map index pinpointing all the locations Galimberti visited. Stephen enjoyed picking a location from the map then flipping to the corresponding page to learn about cultures and food so different from his own. Each entry includes a full page portrait of the cook posing with the ingredients for her dish in her kitchen or dining room.The facing page features a close up of the finished cuisine. The following two pages provide a brief story about the cook and her family as well as the recipe for the dish. I enjoyed reading through the entire tome, trying to guess the country of origin from the photographs before flipping the the extended caption on the next page. I love that I now know a little bit about Latvian cooking and that I have a Greek grandma's recipe for making phyllo dough from scratch. There were a number of recipes I was eager to try, such as Galimberti's own grandmother's Swiss Chard and Ricotta Ravioli with Meat Sauce. And with the amusing exceptions of recipes requiring moth maggots and fresh caught iguana, most of the dishes involved easily accessible ingredients and common kitchen tools.

What it isn't:
Though it provides recipes from five of the seven continents, the book is not a definitive introduction to the world's cuisines, nor an expertly written cookbook. I tried the recipe for Empanadas Criolla from Argentina, and was surprised that the pastry crust didn't use any oil or fat. (The filling was very tasty though!) Additionally, having studied basic Chinese while living in Taiwan, I questioned the author's translation for the word "rou" as "meat cooked again in the wok," when in fact, it simply means "meat." However, considering that Galimberti cooked and ate with 60 grandmothers in nearly as many countries over a two-year stint, I can cut him some slack. Combine that with the fact that the author and his subjects often communicated in a language that was neither's native tongue, and I know that some details could have easily been lost in translation.  

This is also not award-winning photojournalism. The images are nicely composed and lit, but they follow a predictable pattern: each woman stands or sits behind a table on which the ingredients are symmetrically arranged. Because they aren't candid, the photos give the impression that each grandma had plenty of time to dress for company and stuff her clutter into the coat closet just outside the frame. Few of the photos include additional family members, which means we don't get to see the grandmothers interact or loved ones enjoying the food. At first, I thought that this detracted from the storytelling, but upon second musing, I felt that Galimberti was sending a message of solidarity and unity through his use of uniformity. Through repetition, he triggers our collective consciousness of the importance of food and family.

My take-away:
I'm more than impressed with this project because I can imagine the work that went into travelling to so many far-flung places, connecting with host homes and collecting the stories and recipes. This isn't an expert-vetted cookbook or the most poignant photo essay I've seen. But taken as a whole, these 60 grandmas and their food stories are a powerful testament that people the world over are connected by their communion over a good meal and good company. In Her Kitchen is a great way for an arm chair or kitchen table chair traveler to sample some home cooking that might not appear in typical cookbooks. Each photo story was like an appetizer; it just enough to whet my appetite for exploring more of their cultures, countries and cuisines.

Thanks to Blogging for Books for a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

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