When I first left home at the age of 20, for what turned out to be a largely nomadic existence, my grandmother gave me a packet of salt and a piece of bread inside a small jar. There was, she told me, an old Jewish folktale about a traveler who is given such a gift by an angel to make sure he would never go hungry. So that I too would never lack food, she wanted me to carry the jar wherever luck might take me. After dwelling in countless homes in more countries than I care to remember, the jar sits now on a shelf in what I hope will be my last kitchen, a reminder that stories are not just food for the soul.
I have always been attracted to literature in which characters spend time at the stove or gather around a table. As a child, I wanted to know more about the pie in which Peter Rabbit's father sadly ended his days and what was that mysterious substance called "jelly" that appeared so often in Enid Blyton's books and of which we, in Buenos Aires, knew nothing. When Captain Nemo serves Monsieur Aronnax a sumptuous breakfast 20,000 leagues under the sea, I too wanted to taste "what you believe to be meat [but] is nothing but fillet of turtle" and "dolphins' livers, which you might take for ragout of pork."
One summer during my adolescence, lost in J.R.R. Tolkien's fantastical Middle-earth, I came upon the Vales of Anduin, which are guarded by the Beornings. These rather unfriendly people are vegetarians: Their main dish is a wonderful kind of honey cake. I decided I had to try to make it. The house we had rented for the summer had an ancient German cookbook, freckled with splattered butter and mottled with chocolate fingerprints, and in its venerable pages I found the recipe for lebkuchen. Perhaps these spicy hazelnut-honey cookies were not what Tolkien had in mind: I didn't care. I measured and mixed and cut and baked, and in the end I had a batch of Beorning cakes that allowed me to taste my way across fantastical landscapes as I lay on a lounge chair under a jacaranda tree in the garden.