"I am at the Amber Unicorn in Vegas. Do you need/want this book?"
So went a text I received a month ago from Andrea Nguyen, a columnist and cookbook author (her most recent book is all about pho). She knew I was in research mode for the Lavash cookbook and had found a used copy of The Cuisine of Armenia by Sonia Uvezian. (This is what smart writers like Andrea do in Vegas: avoid the casinos and head straight to Amber Unicorn Books. I am lucky to have helpful and resourceful friends.)
I already had The Cuisine of Armenia, so I countered, asking if she had found anything on Russian cuisine.
Andrea did more digging. She found Cooking the Russian Way. And Croatian Cuisine: The Modern Way. And then she flipped through an Afgan one that had a recipe for "lawausha," which could be related to lavash. Did I want all of them? The books were 25% off, she said. Patrick looked at me, then he looked at the shelf of books behind me. "More books?" he asked. We live in a one-bedroom apartment. I shrugged. You gotta play to win.
This was not the only recent research-book haul. A few weeks later in New York, I paid a visit to Kitchen Arts and Letters for the first time. "Do you have anything on Armenia?" I asked Meredith Steinman, who was manning the front of the shop. Nach Waxman came from the back and stood behind the counter.
"Armenia, Armenia....We do have one," He said. "Let me look for it in the back."
Out came The Cuisine of Armenia, by Sonia Uvezian. "I edited the book," he said. "She was also an accomplished pianist."
"What happened to her?" Most of her books came out in the 1970s, but if The Cuisine of Armenia was any indication, they were well-written and thoroughly researched. I had tried looking up information on Uvezian a few months ago and couldn't find anything.
"She died young, at least I think she did," he said. "Her husband sent me a note to let me know."
"Do you have any of her other books?"
"There was one about living to 100 or something like that." And back he went, emerging later with a copy of Cooking from the Caucasus: The cuisine of the region in Russia where many people live to be over 100 (originally published as The Best Foods of Russia). Yes, all of this was written on the cover of the book. I also picked up The Georgian Feast, by Darra Goldstein, because Georgian food and Armenian food overlap, although the names of the dishes change. And I bought another copy of The Cuisine of Armenia to give to friends who are helping produce this book.
This isn't to say that I'm avoiding newer books. Tasting Georgia, which was recommended by a friend, and Kaukasis is appropriate reading, given the name. A couple of the books, like Kachka: A Return to Russian Cooking, and Istanbul and Beyond, arrived in the mail today. I also borrowed a dozen books from a friend in Armenia covering everything from Armenian food during lent to Armenian food as seen through the lens of an Italian-Armenian who likes pomegranates. The hard part isn't reading through them, it's ensuring that I set aside the time for them.
But these older books are worth the time. They often hold useful ideas that were unintentionally forgotten. Or they have ideas that feel completely contemporary but were probably ahead of their time. But most of all, they remind us how little things change. Take this excerpt from the first page of the introduction of Cooking from the Caucasus:
"Today, when there seems to be a cookbook on virtually every conceivable (and inconceivable) subject, it is astonishing that so little has appeared on the ancient and remarkable cuisine of the Caucasus, one of the most fantastically varied, exotic, healthful, and delicious ever devised and one that certainly deserves a place of honor among the great cuisines of the world."
Sonia, we feel the same way. And we're working on getting the word out.