Commentary, history, Peruvian Cuisine

On “The Exotic Kitchens of Peru,” a Cookbook

Peruvian Ceviche

Despite its boom over the last years, Peruvian cuisine is still not well known in the English speaking world. Peruvian restaurants have appeared in throughout the Anglo world, but the food has yet to cross the world of the expected and unspoken where people just know it like they do much Italian, Mexican, or Chinese.

It is still something exotic. This was the word chosen by cookbook writer, foreign service veteran, and importer, the late Copeland Marks for his book on Peruvian cuisine: The Exotic Kitchens of Peru. One of the first in English this collection of recipes was published by M. Evans and Company, a publisher which now has been folded into the scholarly Rowman Littlefield group although at the time it was known as a path-breaking publisher.

Marks had a relationship with M. Evans; they had previously published his cookbooks on Burma, India, and Indonesia as well as on Guatemala. With other presses Marks published works on Korea, the Sephardim, and North Africa.

Marks engaged in culinary adventure and registered it in his cookbooks. He was much like the nineteenth century explorers and traders in the exotic. They combined scholarship, political intrigue, and a desire to experience and know about different places and peoples. Peru came late in his game, almost at the end.

Published first in 1999 it was his last book and came scant months before his death in January of 2000. In its obituary the New York Times described him as follows.

”When everybody else was busy writing safe books on pasta, he was pursuing the exotic and the unusual,” said Nach Waxman, owner of Kitchen Arts and Letters, a culinary bookshop on the Upper East Side.

Copeland Harris Marks was born in Burlington, Vt., in 1921. After getting a degree in agriculture from the University of Vermont, he served in World War II, accompanying supplies over the Burmese hump to Chiang Kai-shek’s forces in central China, said Lawrence Kunin, Mr. Marks’s cousin. After the war he joined the Foreign Service but left after eight years to go into business, importing and exporting textiles and works of art. He lived for stretches in Mexico, Guatemala, India and South Africa, and developed his passion for remote cuisines and cultures.

His was a kind of quick and deep visit, gather information (along with exportable arts and crafts) which would then result in a cookbook joining history and description, including descriptions of people’s homes and kitchens with recipes that could be cooked up in New York or elsewhere among people who desired to claim the exotic as part of their own explorations and manifestations of self. Again the New York Times.

Mr. Marks was never trained as a cook, historian or anthropologist, but he was a quick study. Typically, he would select a region, then spend anywhere from several weeks to several months there, cooking with people in their houses. On returning to New York, he would seek out people from the area he was studying and cook extensively with them. It was a method that raised doubts among many food professionals about the depth of his scholarship.

”He did stuff that nobody else did, and that made it valuable,” said Cara de Silva, a food writer. ”But when you go someplace for a brief period of time and then you’re writing about it, it’s necessarily going to be somewhat superficial.”

The word he used several times in his titles “exotic” encompasses this. It contrasts with the ordinary of his English-speaking, New York world, the taste maker and Ur point of American life. At the same time it nicely puts the people subject to this word “over-there”, distant and removed. Not only does his text rely on the distance it also relies on his ability to travel and make known.

The Exotic Kitchen of Peru
The Exotic Kitchen of Peru

Marks wrote before the current boom in culinary tourism, yet he wrote at the time of Peru’s developing neoliberal economy and a boom in immigration of Peruvians to the US and elsewhere which would establish their cuisine as part of the repertoire of masses of immigrants in greater New York and elsewhere. (Patterson, New Jersey is the epicenter of Peruvian life in the US, for example).

Marks wrote after Edward Said, a prominent New York intellectual and cultural critic called out orientalism. He named and challenged the ways European and American writers and people thought about the Middle East and elsewhere as “exotic”. For Said this was particularly important for its politics which created a powerful group and a group lacking power as the object of attention, the exotic.

While this play between exoticism and orientalism becomes strong in critiques of Mark’s works on North Africa, the Middle East, and India given his apparent Jewish-centrism, it also develops in his notions of Peru as exotic and his weak grasp of Peruvian cultural and social history when he reduces it to the Incas.

Nevertheless, The Exotic Kitchens of Peru performs a service as he tours the length and breadth of Peru and provides recipes and occasional stories.

Marks often gives multiple versions of a single dish that he locates in different regions. He sees Peruvian cuisine as plural and not as singular. Indeed, as historian Paulo Drinot notes, Peruvian cuisine was notoriously divided along more than regional lines. It was also split ethnically and by class because of the peculiarities of Peruvian history.

Shortly after Marks’ cookbook appeared, Tony Custer published the Art of Peruvian Cuisine and made it singular. This singularity was also wrought by social historical forces in Peru, including the current State with its project of social-cultural unity and its strong narrative of mestizaje, the mixing of many peoples into one, while claiming strongly the indigenous roots of the country. The singleness reaches culmination in conjunction with the publishing jeremiad of Phaeton when it published this year Peru: The Cookbook by Gaston Acurio.

Marks’ cookbook desperately needs editing. It is filled with misspellings of names of dishes and ingredients that makes it, at best, confusing unless one has a strong prior knowledge of Peruvian food and can make sense of his errors. Some recipes are also mangled. Unfortunately, Marks passed on shortly after the book went to press and so it remains, errors and all, a monument to his exoticism and to a complex moment in food publishing and in the Anglo-speaking world’s becoming aware of the Peruvians among them.

At the same time, despite its failings, it is a useful reference for the cooking and for understanding the food of Peru, singular and plural.

References:

Copeland Marks, The Exotic Kitchens of Peru (M. Evans, 1999), reprinted 2001 under the Rowman Littlefield name.

Paulo Drinot, Food, Race, and Working-Class Identity: Restaurantes Populares and Populism in 1930s Peru. The Americas 62:2:245-270, 2005

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