On the back cover of a travel memoir of Italy it said that the author was a gourmet cook. The first thing that came to my mind was that she may have qualified as a gourmet cook somewhere in the world but among the Italians she probably rated in the bottom middle of household hash slingers, not exactly the sort of recommendation that would sell many books. She may be considered a gourmet cook among people who value concepts like “delivered in 30 minutes or it’s free” but from the recipes in her book I didn’t get the impression that she was creating any miracles in the kitchen. This isn’t trying to take anything away from the skills of the American author it’s just that in Mediterranean countries the bar for culinary prowess has been raised rather high. Like being a distance runner in Kenya, to be considered an above average cook in this region of the world you have to be truly remarkable.
There are a few factors that contribute to the high level of sophistication among Mediterranean home chefs with tradition being the first course. Most families have a repertoire of local dishes that serve as the menu for a lifetime, a repertoire that also served as the menu of the previous generation and further back in time. What people eat can be as iconic as the local architecture, language, and landscape. Their food provides them with sustenance as well as an identity. I can think of no better example of this than paella valenciana, perhaps one of the world’s most famous and recognizable dishes. The humble Greek peasant salad or horiatiki is another example of a dish that identifies and unifies both the Greek mainland as well as the islands. You have pastas in Italy, luxurious sauces of wine and butter in France, couscous in Moroccan and Tunisian, and dozens of other foods strung up around the Mediterranean coast like a barbed wire fence separating them from the countries not blessed with fine cuisine.
Another factor that weighs heavily in favor of the Mediterranean diet is the high quality of the ingredients, many of which are native to the region. It’s almost impossible to overestimate the roll wine and olives have played in the kitchens here over the past few thousand years, things which have only caught on in the past 30-40 years in the rest of the western world. These are things we all take for granted today but couldn’t be found to far away from the shores of the Middle White Sea as the Arabs call it.
They also have a heavy reliance on seasonal products unique to the region. Throughout most of the Mediterranean basin you eat what is in season and if it is not in season you eat something else. Different varieties of fruits and vegetables ripen at different times of the year and this is when you incorporate them greedily into your cooking.
When Americans are asked what we eat it’s like a pop quiz that we haven’t studied for in a class we didn’t even know we were taking. Few of us have been inculcated into a heritage of a local cuisine. We’ve recently come out of a generation or two in which home cooking was actually looked down upon as something not suitable for men and demeaning to women. That’s a tough situation to navigate when you consider that we all must eat every day. We were told that we didn’t have time to cook. We should remember never to listen to people selling toaster waffles and microwave pizza rolls. Cooking around the Mediterranean is like hockey is for Canadians or NASCAR is to southerners so the rest of us have a lot of catching up to do in the kitchen.
I think that with the explosion of cooking shows on television and YouTube recipes we—American men and women—have finally started to embrace the kitchen. If anything we’ve swung too far in the other direction becoming a bunch of insufferable food snobs haughtily insisting on balsamic vinegar, organic produce, Kalamata olives, and Rioja wine, things we hardly knew existed only a few short years ago. Eating well shouldn’t be a luxury or something one group of people holds over the head of another; it should be the goal of all of us.