A Cook and a Book: Tayari Jones Cooks Through Nik Sharma's New Cookbook, 'Season'
When the novelist Tayari Jones lived across the street from a pawnshop, she’d bake for the guys who worked there because “they act like they’ve never seen a cake before,” she says, standing in the parlor of her apartment on the third floor of a Brooklyn brownstone. “They would get cake in their hair,” she recalls, remembering the satisfaction derived from watching them. “Baking for men is more pleasurable because men do not have a hard relationship with food … they eat it and they treat you like you’ve invented cake.” A pair of bracelets sparkles and shifts up and down her arm as she gathers the spices and citrus for today’s batter. The baubles are two of many purchased from that pawnshop; the batter is for food blogger Nik Sharma’s Upside-Down Orange and Fennel Cornmeal Cake, from his forthcoming debut cookbook, Season.
Jones will share this cake with her current neighbors—Ms. Jenkins, the septuagenarian owner of the building who occupies the first two floors with her son, or, as the writer refers to them affectionately, her “landmother and landbrother.” She chose the recipe because it reminded her of her grandmother, for whom the featured grain was a staple. “I always associate the texture and flavor with my father’s mother,” she says, before sharing some family history. Her parents come “from very different culinary traditions”—her mother from Oklahoma, her father from Louisiana—and from “different socioeconomic backgrounds.” Jones’ Southern grandmother “wasn’t an elaborate cook. Her food was very practical, filling, yeah, like using cornmeal in many ways.”
Coincidentally, Sharma, a Bombay, India–born immigrant who came to the U.S. to study molecular genetics and now lives in San Francisco (where he started his blog, A Brown Table), borrowed a trick he learned from his grandmother when developing the recipe for this dessert: “When making cakes with a coarse meal or flour, such as cornmeal,” he writes, he lets “the cake batter sit overnight in the refrigerator, so it absorbs as much liquid as possible. It gives the cake a very tender crumb.”
And yet, this is not, as they say, your (or anyone else’s) grandma’s cake. It starts with a layer of Valencia and blood orange slices set into a well-greased pan that’s been sprinkled with fennel seeds and sugar; when baked, the vibrant fruits’ juices will combine with the butter and sweetener to develop an oozy caramel infused with that warm, anise-like spice, which is also ground into the not-too-sweet, pleasantly gritty batter. Jones doesn’t have time to let it sit overnight, or a 12-inch baking pan to put it in, so she settles for a Dutch oven and moves it to the fridge for the couple of hours she can spare.
Next, she moves onto another recipe that caught her eye: Chile-Sumac-Pomegranate Nuts. She creates a paste of cayenne, sumac, ground anardana (dried pomegranate seeds), salt, sugar, pomegranate molasses, and ghee, which she uses instead of the recipe’s regular butter, because now that Sharma has introduced her to the Indian clarified version, she is enjoying its deeper flavor and versatility. She coats cashews, pistachios, and walnuts in the wet spice mix and bakes them. “I would like to say,” she discloses later, “those nuts, I ate them all.” And: “That pomegranate molasses is good drizzled over ice cream. It’s good in a cocktail.”
The equally cocktail-friendly nuts are an example of what she appreciates about Sharma’s cookbook—that it introduces people to a “diversity of ingredients” in an approachable manner: “He doesn’t talk to you as though he’s talking about an unfamiliar thing.”
Encouraged by the success of the snack, she turns her attention to the Eggplant Pilaf, the recipe she’s been looking forward to since she first flipped through the cookbook. “I really liked the fact that you toast the rice, then you add everything. Maybe I was anticipating the bottom of the pan. Also I quite like eggplant, and I liked that it had so many spices, especially the cardamom.” (And did you know, she asks, that when she grinds her coffee, she puts a little of that spice in there?)
The dish delivers, crispy-rice crust included. Plus, “it did not require skills” and makes the whole house smell terrific. “You know what else is really delicious about that pilaf?” she adds. “It has lime juice in it. When you put in the water, you use the juice of three limes or so. It brings all those spices out ... I think that is the secret ingredient, actually, the magic ingredient.”
As a carnivore, she isn’t sold on Sharma’s bid that it can be a “one-pot meal” (“You, sir, are no entrée,” she addresses the pilaf directly) and proposes it’s “probably really excellent with a nice lamb shoulder.” She’d also, if she might, suggest a tiny edit: Aubergine Pilaf sounds better, in her opinion. But she’s partial to that word. The typewriter she calls Genie was named for the purple nightshade. She typed most of her latest novel, An American Marriage, on that machine and dubs it her favorite, though she loves all of them—Tuscadero, Kermit, Andre, Sofia B., Wilbur, a new Olivetti, the Underwood Ms. Jenkins gave her, along with a few that are too old to use. They fill her apartment like characters in one of her books.
Both Jones and Sharma are storytellers; her medium is literary fiction, his culinary memoir. “Mine is the story of a gay immigrant, told through food,” he writes in the introduction to his cookbook. “It has been a journey of self-discovery I embarked on more than a decade ago, one that taught me to recognize the inherent tension between originality and tradition, and to opt for the former without rejecting the latter. It’s been a journey of acclimatization, adaptation, and acceptance.” He could be describing the trajectory of one of Jones’ protagonists.
This afternoon, in Brooklyn, it’s just her and the typewriters. So when she’s eaten her fill of pilaf, she packs it up and places it in her “food archive,” which is what she dubs her freezer. In a few months, she will move back to her hometown, Atlanta. She’ll bring her fleet of typewriters—and a copy of Sharma’s book, with its promise of more stories and good meals to come.