La Briffe

La Briffe is “A newsletter about cooking, eating and making life more delicious.” It is written by Ruth Reichl.

Here’s a sample:

My mother is leaning into the refrigerator, tongue clucking as she surveys a landscape of aging dishes. She is pulling out a bowl, sniffing it like a cat. Then she is scraping off the thick blue layer as she mutters, “A little mold never hurt anyone.” And now she is offering the bowl to me.

I am two years old and in this one moment my mother has taught me two important life lessons. The first is to taste very, very carefully before making a commitment. The second is that you can learn a lot about a person simply by opening their refrigerator door. Looking into Mom’s refrigerator would have revealed that she was taste-blind: she once made a stew using two-week-old turkey, dried-up cheese ends, shriveled broccoli and leftover apple pie. She thought it was delicious. 

But I suspect Mom would have been as horrified by my refrigerator as I was by hers. She would have recoiled at the massive collection of condiments – and then she would have concluded that I was insane.  There is some truth to this: I find it impossible to pass a bottle of hot sauce, an unusual miso, a strange nut oil or a jar of tahini without experiencing an overwhelming urge to possess it.

I blame it on Crete. In the 1970s, when my first husband and I were backpacking through Europe, we picked up odd jobs to stretch our money. Just outside of Chania, we spent a day in the olive groves beating the fruit off the trees. To my disappointment, the farmer paid us in olive oil. In those days, the olive oil in the US was nasty stuff – always old, often rancid – and meant mostly for medicinal purposes. I loathed it. But the farmer looked so offended that I took the tiniest, most tentative taste. And then I took another.

My first thought was: this is what spring would taste like. My next was: where has this been all my life? From that moment I could not get enough. I began sampling olive oil at every stop, appreciating the way the taste changed every few miles as if the roots were pulling flavors from the earth.

Then I moved on to vinegar, which turned out to be even more expressive of the land. By the time our money ran out I had amassed a fine collection. It got us through that first New York winter; whenever bleak skies got me down, I’d open a bottle and find myself back in the Mediterranean. I’d always been fascinated by food but this was new: I had discovered that food and memory are deeply intertwined.

You surely know where this is going: every voyage yields new condiments. In Thailand I collected fish sauce and chili pastes. I returned from China laden with jars of salted Sichuan vegetables, osmanthus blossoms and fermented bean pastes. In Japan I discovered the deep, mysterious flavor of aged artisanal soy sauce, the golden glow of new-pressed sesame oil and the deep umami jolt of miso. The Middle East yielded handmade tahini, sweet-tart pomegranate molasses and tangy mango-flavored amba sauce.

My pantry shelves grew increasingly crowded. When friends discovered my condiment passion things got worse. A Japanese friend sends me shipments of her homemade miso along with the tart pickled apricots called umeboshi. People arrive for dinner bearing vinegars they’ve concocted, just-made hot sauces and once a bottle of homemade Worcestershire sauce so delicious that I dread the day the bottle runs dry.

But my real downfall came with the advent of internet shopping. All manner of arcane condiments, once available only in their country of origin, are now a mere click away. My shelves hold colatura from Sicily, artisanal gochuchang and snail black vinegar from Korea along with a wild array of Indian pickles and chutneys. Just knowing I own them all makes me absurdly happy.

It also makes me a better cook. But lately it’s occurred to me how much improved my childhood would have been had Mom shared my obsession. After all, when your refrigerator is filled with condiments there’s no room for aged leftovers.

[Each issue also has a product recommendation, a recipe, and an old menu. SB SM]

One thought on “La Briffe

  1. Wonderful post! Ruth Reichl is a national treasure who writes about treasures. She’s the real deal – a foodie’s foodie without any pretentious attitudes. I’m glad you included the Green Eggs and Dan video of Ruth’s fridge. I eagerly look forward to La Briffe every week and read them cover-to-cover as the saying goes. Her historical perspectives are gems – like her M.F.K. Fisher pieces.

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