Featured Image: Poor Indian Girls by Train, Altiplano Peru 1974
Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 30 March 2020
I’m no longer young. When you are young late teens, 20s, if you are interested in food, you begin to experiment with taste and variety beyond what you have experienced before. You experience new food sensations. This is very rare with me later in life. My experience living and studying in Winnipeg and travelling through Mexico and South America were pivotal experiences.
I hope the flavour of this is apparent in my two food articles from the 1970s:
International Peasant Foods
The idea for a restaurant called International Peasant Foods began in Winnipeg. The background is outlined in the previous article Winnipeg as the Center of the Food Universe in 1973. The article explains why only once in a lifetime can one be naïve about food and completely open to new dishes and taste experiences. Nevertheless, I still needed to experience more variety of ethnic or regional foods.
Beyond that the idea for an International Peasant Foods restaurant had a long-term gestation, which lasted through three long term relationships. The idea was freshest, however, in South Africa and in Australia in the late 1970s. The refinements later were small.
The International Peasant Foods restaurant idea, with a better restaurant name, didn’t ever eventuate. I knew all along, that creating and running a restaurant is a bone-numbing labour of love, which requires the dedication and physical hard work that has never been my style.
In my defence for never getting beyond the inclination, for most of my career I’ve earned more money by thinking and arranging, than by manual efforts. A character flaw in certain circles I’m sure.
I did engage in sustained physical effort for things that were deeply meaningful (such as zoological field work in natural environments), early on in my development.
International Peasant Foods evolved over twenty years. All my girlfriends who shared the idea with me in the two decades concerned, three of them, loved cooking and liked eating too, but it was only the last one who had talent to burn. She did cook for some years in an executive boardroom in London and thoroughly enjoyed it. But age caught up and made using her law degree a better option.
Cooks and Chefs
The distinction between a cook and a chef is an interesting and relevant one. You could even make a television series about it.
The ABC Australia series The Cook and the Chef did just that, featuring cook Maggie Beer and chef Simon Bryant. Other well-known cooks are Stephanie Alexander in Australia and Nigella Lawson in the UK. Cooks are usually women and chefs are usually men, but not always.
A cook is conventionally self-taught, develops skills informally, but may create a professional business that equals or exceeds that of a celebrity chef. There are many examples. A chef is a professional cook who has undertaken codified culinary training, has an industry-recognised qualification and/or has worked his/her way through a professional kitchen. There are numerous exceptions.
Chefs enter cooking as a trade usually, frequently serving formal or informal apprenticeships, and the most talented will continue to learn and may pursue unusual trajectories.
Malcolm Gladwell in an essay and his book Outliers 2008 popularised the ten-thousand hour rule of Herbert Simon & William Chase, who made the investigation regarding chess, but which can be generalised to apply to any area of physical expertise. Innate talent is required but mastery does not come without intensive hard work that fits a pattern where at least 10,000 hours is required. This rule applies to chefs in spades!
Chef’s Table, a Netflix documentary series by David Gelb amply demonstrates this fact as do many books. Two of my favourite books on the topic are Kitchen Confidential 2000 by the late Anthony Bourdain and Heat by Bill Buford 2006. Both detail the work of professional kitchens in large restaurants. The latter also includes the work or expertise in small authentic regional establishments in France and Italy, and includes intense portraits of two dedicated chefs, Mario Batali in New York and Marco Pierre White in the UK.
The International Peasant Foods restaurant would primarily be run by cooks, though the odd interested chef might get a look in at a later stage.
Memorable meals 1974
I left Winnipeg in June 1974 hitch-hiking to Montreal with a week stopover in Ottawa. The only memorable food in Montreal was delicious crêpes (savoury and sweet) cooked with minimal equipment on a cold night.
From Montreal I had a one-way ticket to Johannesburg with unlimited stopovers, but limited mileage.
I stayed two-and-a-half weeks in New York sharing an apartment with a young gay guy of Japanese extraction in west Greenwich Village. My culinary novelties here were my first experience with a refreshment towel in an expensive Japanese restaurant and a sampling of seemingly endless cheap ethnic restaurants.
New York felt like a trip to Mars or another planet. It was unlike any other place on Earth. I surmised that you could find any cuisine from every obscure place on Earth somewhere in New York. I don’t know if this still holds true.
New Orleans was my next stop. The seedy side of the American dream — black poverty in the country and edgy street hustlers in the city. Here I was lucky enough to be taken to an old-fashioned but prestigious gumbo restaurant by a friend. I was treated to magnificent shrimp gumbo (stew) and other treats to drool over. I think I had jambalaya also, a rice dish, elsewhere. The key to gumbo and jambalaya is the roux, which is darkened by intense cooking to develop flavour. Okra is also added to gumbo as an additional thickening, but not always.
I flew on to Mexico City and spent a month travelling around central Mexico — Cuernavaca, Taxco, Guanajuato, Peurto Vallarta and Guadalarjara. My memories of Mexico were beautiful women, and an omnipresent feeling that life is cheap.
Street food and fruit immediately leap to mind. Mexican fruits were stupendous: mangoes, oranges (the best orange juice in the world), mamey sapote (brown skin, red flesh indescribable), maracuyá (a wonderful type of yellow passionfruit) and many others.
The street food was the standout in Mexico. Heuvos rancheros was my favourite for breakfast consisting of fried eggs topped with warm tomato salsa with refried beans and corn tortillas. Heuvos a la Mexicana (scrambled eggs) with similar accompaniments were also good. The corn tortillas themselves could be combined with almost anything.
Tacos, tamales (steamed corn-based dough, wrapped around almost anything but particularly meat, vegetables or cheese) and quesadillas are the best known, but there were also camotes (based on pressure-cooked sweet potato, sometimes with condensed milk), chalupa, gorditas and many others.
I also liked grilled sweet chillis with Swiss cheese, which I ate with a travel girlfriend in Mexico city.
The franchise Mexican meals one gets around the world are a pale reflection of the originals.
I spent some time with American medical students in Peurto Vallarta and Guadalarjara. In Peurto Vallarta we shared an apartment for a week, ate lots of fruit, sipped cocktails on the beach and ate in beach restaurants. Back in Guadalarjara we went to a moderately expensive restaurant where I had my first prime rib steak on the bone (also called rib-eye). It was much superior to anything I’d had in Canada and I still remember it with fondness. (They have just become popular in Australia and are called cattleman’s cutlet.) My friend’s flatmate had just visited a mango ranch and brought a case back. They were the best mangoes I’d ever tasted.
In Lima and Valparaiso, I enjoyed Peruvian empanadas, ceviche (raw fish cured in lime juice) and Valparaiso’s signature dish paella Valenciana (seafood paella). In Spain I’ve only eaten paella several times in Barcelona. I don’t know whether Valencian paella is better and I suspect the Valparaiso version is quite different — the seafood then included lobster, mussels, shrimp and fish. The ceviche and the paella were spectacular, the empanadas less special than those I had later on. I can’t remember the Mexican ones at all.
I took a forty-eight hour bus trip with an American anthropologist friend to Pucallpa in the Amazon Basin on the Ucayali River. Pucallpa and the Ucayali River in those days were frontier territory with a port full of wildlife, Indians and small vessels heading out on long journeys.
Nancy had to report to an American evangelist mission to organise for flights into the jungle for her summer anthropology studentship.
We ate fish for lunch in an open-air shack beside Lake Yarinacocha, really a huge billabong or oxbow lake off the Ucayali River, while we waited for a boat. As with some wonderful meals I’ve had in open-air dhabas in India, this was spectacular and the fish almost too tasty to believe. The owners indicated that it was a really large river fish caught in the lake. I’m a fan of the best river fish having eaten wild caught barramundi on a trip to north Queensland and Darwin when I was 19. (Barramundi in Australia no longer tastes the same, possibly because it is usually from fish farms and may not even be barramundi.)
On the boat to the American mission which took an hour or so a huge fish rose out of the muddy water beside the boat. It was about two metres long and may have been what we had for lunch.
The mission itself was like a bit of mid-western America in the midst of the jungle. A strange form of culture shock. Hard to comprehend as I caught the boat back into South America.
I flew back from Pucallpa on Faucett (much better than another bus trip). The flight was over the cordillera range to Tingo María and then a long flight up and down the valley to get high enough to fly over the Andes to Lima. One disconcerting aspect was that while waiting for the flight I was approached by maintenance engineers to translate something important from an aircraft maintenance manual in English. My Spanish was rudimentary at best. I was nervous on the flight.
From Lima I moved down the coast to Arequipa, a pleasant white city in memory. I missed the fried guinea pig entirely. I can’t remember the food at all. All I can remember is a visit to an historical cloistered convent; and being followed at slow speed by a land rover full of soldiers with automatic weapons. I got the point and immediately had a haircut.
I took an overnight bus to Puno on the altiplano of Peru. My most remarkable meal there was at midnight in a truckstop open to the street. I was hungry and ate hot soup with a vast pork knuckle to chew on including hairy skin and nameless vegetables. It was extraordinarily delicious.
I spent a few weeks on the Peruvian side of the high plain and had numerous adventures, including a visit to Machu Picchu and watching condors soaring below me. I don’t remember much about the food, except in Cuzco. There I visited a local Chinese style restaurant (there wasn’t much on offer) whose food was hearty during the cold evenings. I especially remember a stomach warming egg flower chicken-corn soup. Not especially good but welcome!
The thing on the altiplano I became dependent on during my month there, was Mate de coca tea. I drank at least six cups a day. It was terrific for the altitude and after six to eight cups you floated through the day, though the buzz from each cup was extremely mild. Mate de coca tea was made from coca leaves — the basic ingredient for cocaine, but nothing like the drug. I chewed coca leaves a couple of times. The taste was unpleasant. It numbed your mouth and coca tea seemed infinitely superior as a preventative for altitude sickness.
Even though I spent a month on the altiplano, in La Paz I took a truck to a ski field at 5350 metres (17,500 feet) and nearly collapsed after running 10 metres. I couldn’t understand how they could ski here. The mate de coca tea was really necessary.
I crossed from Peru to Bolivia on the old steamboat across Lake Titicaca. It was an eight-hour wait at the dock before boarding and an overnight trip. The French tourists behaved badly when boarding commenced. I remember meeting really charming Israeli fighter pilots around my age vacationing after the Yom Kippur War — as far from the middle east as it was possible to get.
The train trip to La Paz was slow but interesting. La Paz itself in those days was a fabulous and exotic town in a bowl in the altiplano, with Australian eucalypts growing along the railway, as we descended slowly in a long circle.
I loved La Paz. It was a wonderful city situated in a bowl in the high plain and surrounded by mountains. Bolivia a now land-locked country had been less than successful with presidents, coups and loss of territory in wars with neighbours. I stayed a week. The markets both food and goods were exciting. It was here I first saw splayed rats for sale to eat.
Regarding food, I had the two best things at one meal — sajta de pollo and black potatoes. Sajta de pollo is the traditional chicken dish of La Paz, usually chicken thighs cooked in a red coloured sauce with onions, tomatoes, peas and local yellow chillies. It is also flavoured with parsley, celery, black pepper, garlic and cummin. The dish is usually garnished or accompanied with salsa cruda (sliced tomatoes, thinly sliced red onion, salt, pepper & olive oil).
Sajta de pollo is often accompanied with dehydrated potatoes today. In my day the black potatoes or chuño were still prepared in the traditional way by hand. This is a drawn out process where specially selected potatoes of a bitter tasting variety are repeatedly exposed outside to temperatures below -5°C and then left in the hot sun, for up to five days. These freeze-dried potatoes from the winter have a very long shelf-life. They are of two varieties white and black. The white are washed and redried. Although interesting I can’t say that I was excited by black potatoes.
Ordinary potatoes on the altoplano in Peru and Bolivia were terrific (boiled, baked or fried), because they were from local varieties of original potatoes grown by the Indians.
When I wanted to leave La Paz there were no flights to Paraguay for more than a week for some reason. However, a lovely lady from Braniff (with whom I’ve never flown) organised to sidestep the mileage limitations and allowed me to fly to Santiago in Chile.
I met a Latino teacher from New York on the flight and I travelled with him for two weeks in Chile. It was one year after the coup when Pinochet and the CIA ousted Salvador Allende as president. We stayed in the YMCA, which was in a triangle between the Marxist headquarters and the military. During the fighting both sides shot at anything that moved on the upper floors of the YMCA. I stayed on the 8th floor and consequently my room was riddled with patched bullet holes from automatic weapons.
Although my travel companion spoke fluent Spanish, it was three days before we learned that there was a curfew. Fortunately, we returned before midnight each night, but were horrified later nonetheless. Supposedly, if you stopped and put your hands up they’d arrest you and if you ran they’d shoot you. Inflation in Chile was running at well over 1000 per cent at the time. Hence for us everything was ridiculously cheap and we ate in good restaurants. The meals were excellent, but I can’t remember any of them. I do remember paying for meals with wads of bank notes inches thick.
I remember the empanadas too. They were better than in Peru or Bolivia — meat with hard-boiled egg, olives and raisins.
I flew from Chile over the Andes to Mendoza. Santiago and Chile were cosmopolitan after Peru and Bolivia and so was Mendoza, a much smaller town. I spent a pleasant week in Mendoza in particular catching up on eating. Although I’d enjoyed the food elsewhere, I’d been missing out on red meat and Argentina was a meat lover’s paradise. I was on a very tight budget and it helped that the exchange rate was terrific. The small Argentinian empanadas were to die for. They were just plain beef, but the quality of the meat was incredible. I was young and I ate them by the dozen. I was also impressed by the steaks and the mixed-grills that seemed so cheap. I was staying in a comfortable guesthouse and engaged in tourism during the day. I remember having a sleep at the end of each day and then getting up to arrive at an Italian restaurant at around midnight and ordering a glass of wine and a lasagne al horno, which was beefy and fantastic. I must have enjoyed it because I did this almost every night.
From Mendoza I flew to Cordoba. I can’t remember anything about Cordoba, except I was searched in disembarking incredibly thoroughly. They even found a fragile Mexican ornament that I’d wrapped in my sleeping bag.
The Tupamaros in Uruguay had been systematically massacred by the military a year or two before. Young left wing activists in Argentina were protesting and engaging in covert underground activities. This led to a coup and a military dictatorship in 1976 and the dirty war where the junta disappeared over 30,000 of its citizens mostly young people.
In Buenos Aires I stayed for two weeks with a British family, whose deceased father had been British Ambassador. The family were now more Argentinian than British and had decided to stay. The food was good but the barbecues were memorable. My friends tried to dissuade me from eating two dishes. The stuffed intestines were good, but they were right about the bull’s balls, an acquired taste.
More Memorable Meals
I was re-united with Ansie in South Africa and stayed about 18 months before returning to Canberra to take up a PhD scholarship. There was much that was novel in South African food. I enjoyed the braaivleis or barbecues. The coiled boerwors when well-made is an excellent sausage.
The best steak I had was a T-bone in Botswana, from grass fed semi-arid zone cattle. The steak was bought from a butcher in Gaborone and cooked in a frypan over an open fire, in the veldt beside the road. Giant prawns from Mozambique cooked peri-peri style were excellent. I also liked antelope biltong from culling near the Kruger National Park.
However, my favourite unique food in South Africa were samosas. These were made from triangular wonton-style pastry wrappers and deep-fried. The meat was spicy beef with onion. They were nothing at all like Indian samosas. I’ve never liked the pastry they are made from in India and the fillings are often uninspiring. These samosas were an old mingling, in the terms of 1974, of Portuguese, Indian and Cape Coloured cuisine. Like nothing I’ve had since.
Over the years, I’ve always become excited over something new and an unfamiliar taste sensation either in Australia or when travelling. I loved Indian cuisine when I first went there in the early 1980s, but have become less enamoured with over exposure. The best swordfish I’ve ever had was in the Philippines. Balinese and Javanese food in 1980 was special. Regional delicacies in rural France and Italy can be wonderful. I’ve always liked Thai food in Australia and Thailand. Vietnamese food in Vietnam can be amazing. And that’s just a few. I still love eating food and especially regional and ethnic cuisine. We are so lucky to live in these times, but some foods are disappearing.
The Concept of International Peasant Foods
Winnipeg and the six-month trip down from Canada and through parts of Mexico and South America were both necessary and sufficient to solidify the idea of International Peasant Foods.
International Peasant Foods was to be a restaurant with a small, condensed menu, say 3 starters, 3-4 mains and 1 dessert that displays the best of a particular country, region or style of food. A cook rather than a chef would be in charge. The menu theme would rotate regularly (say monthly, six-weekly or bi-monthly). Each different theme showcases food of peasant origin from street food to local or regional food. One would avoid menus that competed directly with any ethnic restaurant nearby but this would be unlikely anyway.
The difference is authentic and unusual food from around the world that is earthy, regional, country based and potentially tending to disappear from the planet in its true form. The rotating menu is also unique.
The menu themes would need to be well-researched and unusual. For example the rotating menu for a year might include: 1 Thai Street food from Bangkok; 2 Bolivian food from La Paz; 3 Sicilian favourites from Palermo; 4 Chinese mysteries; 5 Greek Island temptations; 6 Mini-rijsttafel from Indonesia; 7 Argentinian Barbecue; 8 Philippino seafood delights; 9 Isan food from northeast Thailand; 10 Peruvian cocina from Lima and the coast. These descriptions are indicative but don’t quite hit the target.
The purpose is regional cuisine that reinvents itself into something different every cycle.
Indeed, International Peasant Foods is an old-fashioned title more appropriate for the 1970s. A better name is required. In today’s era we are trying to recapture something that has almost disappeared. We now have the demand for local ingredients, for farmers markets, for rediscovering local and regional delicacies that may be almost unobtainable in our industrial food era. We are looking for the slow food movement in Italy. We are seeking the hand-made and for cooking techniques that have almost died out. But there is more than nostalgia involved.
Bill Buford puts it eloquently at the end of his book Heat, 2006. He spent three years working in a restaurant run by chef Mario Batali and chasing Mario’s career in Italy and the UK. He apprenticed with the best butcher in Italy, Dario Cecchine from Panzano in Tuscany. The Maestro is an older man whom Dario’s dying father told him to learn from.
Italians have a word, casalinga, homemade, although its primary sense is “made by hand”. My theory is just a variant of casalinga. (Small food: made by hand and therefore precious, hard to find. Big food: from a factory and therefore cheap, abundant). Just about every preparation I learned in Italy was handmade and involved my learning how to use my hands differently. My hands were trained to roll out dough, to use a knife to break down a thigh, to make sausage or lardo or polpetone. With some techniques I had to make my hands small, like Betta’s. With others, I made them big like the Maestro’s. …
The Maestro will die. Dario will die. I will die. The memory will die. Food made by hand is an act of defiance and runs contrary to everything in our modernity. Find it; eat it; it will go. It has been around for millennia. Now it is evanescent, like a season.
This is why International Peasant Foods is important. It is another variant on casalinga.
International Peasant Foods was a good idea in the 1970s. Today it is a brilliant idea. I hope someone takes it up in some way, shape or form. It would probably start as an individual restaurant but hopefully grow to a number of branches and reach a threshold where international cooks could be invited as guest chefs.
Key Words: International Peasant Foods, Restaurant idea, cook, chef, Chef’s Table, Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain, Heat, Bill Buford, Montreal, New York, New Orleans, gumbo, jambalaya, Mexico, Mexico City, Peurto Vallarta, Guadalarjara, heuvos rancheros, mangoes, prime rib steak, tortillas, tamales, Peru, Lima, Valparaiso, empanadas, ceviche, paella, Pucallpa, Yarinacoche, Amazon Basin, Ucayali River, Arequipa, Cuzco, altiplano, Machu Picchu, mate de coca, Lake Titicaca, Bolivia, La Paz, sajta de pollo, black potatoes, Chile, Santiago, Argentina, Mendoza, Buenos Aires, stuffed intestines, bull’s balls, South Africa, braaivleis, boerwors, samosas, street food, local food, regional food, rotating menu, casalinga
The photography is sub-standard. Up to Mexico I was using an ordinary family style Canon fixed lens camera. From Peru on I purchased a little pink and green plastic camera with a hemispherical plastic lens. Given the camera the photos are interesting!
Malcolm Gladwell popularised the ten thousand hour rule in his New Yorker essay Complexity & the Ten-Thousand-Hour Rule (you have to look it up, as the site keeps bouncing the link) and in his book Outliers 2008. Gladwell isn’t always right but he spins a good story. The rule has been supposedly debunked more recently but the evidence is no more persuasive than the original rule. Although it perhaps doesn’t extend to all forms of expertise.
Anthony Bourdain Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly 2000
Wikipedia provides a reasonable description of Kitchen Confidential
Bill Buford Heat 2006
I found Bill Buford’s book entertaining and enlightening because it describes the careers of two chefs Mario Batali and Marco Pierre White and one butcher Dario Cecchini, plus intimate descriptions of Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich Italian restaurant Babbo in New York, its functioning and the staff employed over a year. Subsequently, Mario Batali has been accused of sexual misconduct and has exited his restaurants and food enterprises. Marco Pierre White is just difficult.
The New York Times provides a comprehensive review.
Chef’s Table is the second original Netflix documentary series. Each episode of the series profiles a professional chef. Creator David Gelb considers it a follow-up to his documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. There have been thirty episodes from 2015 to 2019. I think that the episodes are gripping and I admire most of the chefs featured.
Episode 1 Season 5 features Cristina Martinez. Martinez continues a family tradition of making a Mexican regional dish called lamb barbacao, which is difficult to make. She began as an undocumented worker in the US to become the proprietor of a famous street eatery in South Philadelphia.
Lamb barbacao is exactly the style of regional, ethnic, unusual and relatively unknown fod that International Peasant Foods is designed to explore. Barbacao is probably too difficult for a non-barbacoa cook to prepare authentically. But, should International Peasant Foods grow sufficiently to invite overseas cooks to prepare a guest menu for one or several restaurants in the chain then Cristina Martinez, or perhaps a less well-known exponent of the style, would be exactly the type of guest cook who might be invited.
Javier Cabral gives an eloquent and passionate description of the episode, the politics and the food.
Restaurant Review & News Site Eater also provides a good article on the story.
Episode 2 Season 6 features the charismatic butcher Dario Cecchini from Panzano in Tuscany and featured in Bill Buford’s book above and in the quotations cited. Cecchini’s story is also movingly told in some detail in the chef’s Table episode.
Restaurant Review & News Site Eater gives a summary of Dario Cecchini
Dario gives his own account.
Barramundi in Australia
The ABC in Australia queries where our barramundi comes from.
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