Illustration: Kitchen utensils
© Daniel Egnéus

Chili peppers, eggs and crime


As in life, so in the kitchen: Improbable-sounding pairings that work beautifully.

Two things that go very well together, I have always thought, are kitchens and books. The cooked and the written have a great deal in common, except that besides books, a whole lot of other objects also fit the kitchen very well. Deep-fat fryers, for example, waffle irons and rice cookers. I just had to have them all, and so soon there was precious little space left in my kitchen. After all, you also need room to stir, season, chop, sit, cook and eat there. So one fine day, I decided to make room by staging a radical clear-out of my cookbooks. From then on, a relentless “one-meter decree” applied: The books that found space on my designated one meter of shelf were tolerated, the rest winnowed out and recycled as birthday presents or gifts for kind hosts.

And so I appraised each of the many – all too many – books that had become ensconced in my kitchen over the years. Determined to judge fairly, I made a thorough job of it. Some of the decisions were very easily made. The moment I picked up British author Niki Segnit’s The Flavour Thesaurus, for instance, the verdict was obvious: “Has to stay! And take pride of place on the shelf.”

The title sounds off-putting, of course, thanks to that strange word “thesaurus,” which comes from the Greek and means something like “treasure chamber,” and according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “a book in which words that have the same or similar meanings are grouped together.” And that’s exactly what The Flavour Thesaurus does: It attempts to introduce order to the subject of taste. And it does so in an astonishing way: It seeks out pairs Why? Because one and one do not make two; they make much more than that. This is something we all know from areas of life beyond the kitchen. What would Laurel be without Hardy? What, the beauty without the beast, Hansel without Gretel? Bud Spencer without Terence Hill? A couple is unbeatable. Yes, that’s what this clever and entertaining book is all about – about the stories between the ingredients, their interaction, about flavors that belong together however curious their pairing may appear.

In addition to the familiar traditional twins chocolate and hazelnut (Nutella), pineapple and coconut (piña colada) and lamb and mint (very British), Segnit presents a wealth of aromatic combinations and culinary partnerships beyond the realm of expectation: aniseed and oyster; chocolate and cardamom; smoked fish and cherries; beetroot and anchovies; ginger and pork; goat’s cheese and chocolate.

In one chapter, the author homes in on chili peppers and eggs. An interesting combination, not just in terms of flavor, according to Signet, but also from a cultural point of view. She cites a scientist from a university in Wisconsin, or rather her essay “Peppers and Eggs: Red-Blooded Males and Mother-Worship in Italian-American Crime Culture.” In it, the chili pepper with its erect stem is equated with the male, the egg with motherhood. Following this pattern, the cooked result is first or all a popular southern dish, but take it one step further and the beaten egg and wilted pepper become a twin trauma in the mother-son dynamic – these are the kinds of abysses cooking can lead to.
Another cookbook to survive the one-meter decree was Marcella Hazan’s The Classic Italian Cookbook, probably my most important reference work of all. It contains a recipe that is my absolute favorite (at least as far as spaghetti sauce is concerned). This recipe isn’t a two-way relationship, though, it’s a love triangle. It goes like this: Take one can of peeled tomatoes, one peeled onion, a knob of butter, then simmer, salt and strain. Never has a ménage à trois been so simple, so uncomplicated, or so good.

Perfection: Sometimes it consists of two things, sometimes three, and sometimes it’s a meter.