Those of you who follow the blog know that I love mulberries. Well, dried mulberries really. I had not had a fresh mulberry until today, when I spotted one at a fruit stand in Bebek, Istanbul. To be honest, I was not even sure that they really existed. For some reason, I thought mulberries were only to be eaten dried. That was quite silly of me to think, but until one does not see something, sometimes it is hard to believe.
The mulberries were not hard to spot. I was walking down the street (after just enjoying a Mastic-flavored gelato by the way), when I caught large white berries out of the corner of my eye. They were so fluffy, almost cotton-like, and clear white. They looked exactly like the larger, water-filled version of their dried counter part really (I feel a bit like Russel Brand with this explanation). I bought a small amount of the berries, which basically meant me telling the fruit seller “Very little” in my Tarzan Turkish, and then nodding and using hand movements to get the right amount into my box.
I enjoyed the berries tonight. I can’t say that they are my favorite fruit. I would be grossly exaggerating. But I did like them quite a bit. Their texture is like eating a giant blackberry about to explode, with a very elusive sweetness that just hints that it is a fruit. I would not pair them with anything, because you would miss their flavor if they were combined with anything else. I prefer dried mulberries, because their flavor is much more concentrated and delicious, though still quite elusive. Their texture is also a bit more fun, since it is slightly chewy. Regardless of my relaxed attitude towards them, I am glad that I found fresh mulberries in Istanbul today. What is ever more exciting than discovering a new fruit?
Woman On Top (2000), directed by Fina Torres and starring Penelope Cruz, is a kitschy tale of what can happen in the kitchen when passion is added to the recipe.
Following Isabella on her journey from Brazil to San Francisco, WOT is a romantic odyssey of self-discovery and forgiveness, and discovering how to find solace in the familiar and exciting anchors of foods and flavours. Despite the somewhat basic dialogue and predictable storyline, the film manages to highlight more serious cultural and emotional issues through the lens of food.
Isabella is an amateur chef in Brazil—socially awkward, with unparalleled beauty—having learned her trade from her grandmother and trial-and-error. Her recipes are famous throughout her city, and even parts of the world: travellers and tourists who have paid a visit to her majestic seaside restaurant have left captivated by the tastes of coconut shrimp, palm-wrapped fish, and her signature use of red peppers (‘malicejos’) in her dishes. When her husband (and partner in the restaurant), Toninho, cheats on her, she leaves Brazil for America, San Francisco, to start fresh with an old friend, a local, who had once visited the village in Brazil. In her new city, Isabella finds a niche where here talents and passion for food are embraced and escalate to an entirely new facet of the food industry: television cooking shows, which as many of us know became popular with Julia Child and have endured many incarnations over the years.
Her first stint in the culinary landscape of the USA, however, is actually as an adjunct instructor at the city’s culinary institute. Unfamiliar with the intimate nature of Isabella’s approach and verbal delivery, her students are stunned by her sensuality and relationship to the otherwise simple chilli-peppers and other ingredients. Some of her techniques, however sultry, are extremely inspiring and important for the ‘everyday chef’, and potential viewer of the film.
One of the most impressionable pieces of advice she gives her class is in regards to the fingers’ tactile memory. She urges her students to succumb to the sensory memory of their fingers when cutting, slicing, and preparing food. As an amateur lover of cooking myself, this resonates as ‘very true’ in my own experience and something I would recommend taking note of from the film: when one really internalizes the process, the ‘process’ takes hold of itself.
Further, Isabella refuses to ‘give recipes’ regarding the how of preparation; unconventional perhaps, but compelling. Instead, she declares that she will nurture and share what inspires—the true key to successful preparation of a dish; and a great metaphor for life. I loved this aspect of her ‘course’ because the advice lends itself well to a core approach for just about everything one pursues, including food preparation and cooking. Without inspiration, without passion, what can we produce? And, will it have the flavour we desire and the outcome the product deserves?
During this time of assimilating to her new surroundings, Isabella decides she must forget Toninho completely and makes a sacrifice to the Goddess of the Sea so that she can move on with her life, and forget the man who broke her heart. It is successful, indeed, and Isabella can now focus on building her life in America. People from all over the city are fascinated by her, including her young media-exec neighbour who deems her the perfect fit for a prime-time television cooking show and offers her the position, which she takes. Her show is an immediate success, and her recipes captivate audiences (predictable storyline).
From this fame, Isabella is offered a network upgrade—and the national executives come to town with a whole host of suggestions. One of which epitomizes a culinary challenge in America and many Westernized, fast-paced cultures: accessibility. Rather than allowing Isabella to use her famous red-chili malicejos peppers, the corporate big-wigs (who, by the way, seem to have no larger concept of food but are, instead, promoting a product—Isabella) provide her with Tabasco Sauce—an accessible, affordable alternative to the fresh hot peppers that are ‘too hard to find’ for Americans. She, however, does not agree….
Though subtle in nature, this decision by the executives is a very strong reference to a troublesome issue that our society faces. In a world where everything seems accessible (information is viral, and shipping companies cover the globe) there still exists—especially in America—a propensity for easy, quick solutions that allow the fast paced life to which most are accustomed to keep on track. With that rapid expectation of completion and need-for-immediacy comes a sacrifice of details, and essential components to life—and of course, in this case, recipes—that cannot be fully appreciated when approached with such haste. In validating and encouraging the substitute of the chilli-peppers with Tabasco, the executives’ actions feed into this mentality of ‘substitution’ rather than substance. Of all things, food is one of the essential parts of our existence and this does in fact require learning and education: how to find the food, what foods are good for our unique physiological systems, and what foods help us achieve balance and health? Something loaded with preservatives and that is mass-produced cannot possibly provide the same effect in cooking, nor the same health benefits or intimacy, that fresh ingredients can and do. The latter may indeed be difficult to find, but the value and experience in finding those chilli-peppers of our lives opens up a new world and new palate to he or she who chooses the more difficult path.
The mentality of the TV execs, I fear, epitomizes a larger trend in our society that could have damaging effects for the overall cultural and spiritual progress we as a people are led to believe is worth achieving or, as the film alludes, is ‘not that hard to find’. If we develop a pattern of decision making that values ease-of-attainment over substance, we may just plateau at a mediocre, bland, and cookie-cutter bar of expectation. Isabella’s audience—and real-life Americans—deserve better; and it is with this ethos inside of her that Isabella formulates her decision to leave the industry. I admire and agree with Isabella’s reaction and decision, and this dedication she exhibits is one of the reasons to watch the film.
In the subtext of the film, the sacrifice Isabella made to the Sea in order to forget Tohnino works to an even greater extent than even Isabella knows—the restaurant she shared with him, in Brazil, falls into disarray and is unable to survive. Toninho is heartbroken, and all is lost—so he decides to find Isabella, and leaves for the States. His arrival, though, is met with precisely Isabella’s wish—the Goddess indeed allowed her to forget, and move on. She no longer loves Toninho and the romantic hurdle of the film is in place to be overcome.
It is through food that Toninho begins to win her back and defy the power of the Gods. In the end, the Woman is on Top and resolution is found to the various mystic elements and fated behaviour of Isabella, Toninho, and the supporting cast of characters. The path to that resolution follows the flow and flavour of spices and tastes that provoke passion and evoke the resolve needed to sacrifice what might appear to be the easier road for the challenges that lead us to understanding what it really means to “fall in love at first bite.”
As always, NetFlix or get down to the local video store and pick up Woman On Top if you haven’t already. Our next film will be another romantic comedy titled the Mistress of Spice (2005), directed by Paul Mayeda Berges and starring Aishwarya Rai and Dylan McDermott. Red peppers make another starring role in a tale that is sure to reveal the power of cultural connection, the spiritual healing powers of your home’s spice cabinet, and quite simply the power of love—what would a romantic comedy be without that? Go coconuts until next time!
If you frequent the Union Square Greenmarket, then you might have noticed Kimm, the motivational performance artist who stands near the Gazebo entrance with his arms outstretched holding a glass vase filled with rolled up papers. Inside each paper is a handwritten message filled with wisdom/advice/words of encouragement. What I love about Kimm's notes is that they are really beautiful and quite universally applicable. I also love that he stands near the Greenmarket, maybe on purpose, maybe not. But his positioning is great- after buying some healthy food for your body, you can also get some food to feed your soul (well, the GM food also feeds your soul). I won't share the last note that I got from him, but the key word in the message was "Life". If you happen to see Kimm next time you are in Union Square, get some soul food.