When I was three or four years old, I learned to read in a large, thin volume with the words printed in thick black letters underneath the pictures. Those letters attracted me perhaps more than the pictures themselves: the stepladder A, the snaky S and, in particular, the hypnotic gaze of the double O that seemed to be watching me, goggle-eyed, even after the page had been turned. Had I known about predestination, I might have said that the double O marked the twin avocations of my future life: looking at books and cooking food.
Both passions began very early, in a house that no longer exists on Trumpeldor Street in Tel Aviv, where my father was the Argentine ambassador and where I grew up until the age of seven. I kept my books and my toys in the basement room where I slept along with my nanny, but I liked playing in the walled garden best, where four tall palm trees stood in a perfect square that outlined the imaginary island on which I pretended to be shipwrecked. Here I survived on chunks of Parmesan cheese and baking chocolate that Sam the cook, a refugee from Berlin, surreptitiously slipped into my pocket. Sam was a large, cheerful man who enjoyed preparing a kosher version of Alsatian choucroute garnie, chicken lasagna and beef boiled in vinegar, and who taught me German beer-drinking songs that I can still sing when the mood takes me. The taste of cheese and chocolate, and the scent of the chicken broth he prepared first thing in the morning to be used for lunch and dinner, are my earliest gastronomic memories.
Many of the stories I liked best spoke of food. There were the jam tarts that the Knave of Hearts stole from the Queen in Wonderland and the "bread whiter than snow" that the Slave of the Lamp brought Aladdin. There was the strange substance called jelly that Enid Blyton's Famous Five had for tea but I'd never tasted, and something called porridge (hot or cold) that Mother Goose said you could have for the asking. One day someone gave me a toy kitchen, to which my father objected because he said it was for girls. I played with it for a while, but eventually, I gave it up on my own. Books allow you to perform the stories in your mind, but with cooking, you want material results, not just pretense.