I bought “A Tale of 12 Kitchens” by artist and designer Jake Tilson just over a year ago and have been trying to find a reason to write about it on the site ever since. The book isn’t particularly about gardening or cooking from garden fresh food, although it does have brief sections describing the author’s family food gardens and a section about homegrown herbs that I will describe later. Regardless, I’ve given up looking for a valid reason and have decided it fits, however loosely.
I initially bought the book to take with me on a train trip to Montreal. At the time this cookbook meets travelogue was the perfect accompaniment to a colourful Fall journey. I particularly love traveling by train and the ride between Toronto and Montreal is my ideal. It’s long enough to really dive into a book or spend ample time daydreaming through the window at beautiful passing landscapes but not so long that you can smell the scent of hell’s inner depths wafting from the toilets every time the door is opened, or that your knees start to ache forcing you into awkward positions in an attempt to get some relief and reminding you that you are old and could drop down dead at any minute. That’s what it was like that time we thought it might be fun and “productive” (I’ll read two books and finally finish that knit hat and by arrival I will have conquered the world!!) to take a 12 hour train trip to New York City. Or was it 14 hours? Or was it forever? Maybe I’m still on that train. Never. Again. So help me god. But the trip to Montreal is perfection. It has this way of deluding me into believing that train travel is the only way to go anywhere, period. I’d go once a season if I could afford it. Come to think of it, three seasons; I’ll skip winter. There’s a reason why I live in Toronto rather than beautiful Montreal, home of the brutal 1998 ice storm.
In my travel experiences food is always tied into the delight and adventure of discovering new sights and smells. Whenever I think about the places I have been I can’t help but think about the food I ate. I can often remember exactly what I ate and where I ate it. Cooking and eating, like gardening, happens within context and always comes with a story. I like to look at cookbooks but for the most part I only like the ones that say more than, “Make this dish. Here’s how.” One of the reasons I love this book is because Jake Tilson has managed to combine a cookbook with a travelogue in a way that is both instructional and inspirational. I feel like I am reading a story or am invited along for the journey and I can experience the book on that level without ever making the recipes. In fact, I have had this book for over a year and have bought two additional copies for friends but had not made a single recipe until just a few weeks ago. It’s like two books in one!
We tried the pancakes on page 104 and they turned out to be the best pancakes we have ever made, hands down. His idea to whip the egg whites first made “cakes” that were amazingly light and fluffy, especially since we used spelt flour, which often turns out flatter “cakes” in my experience. We ate the pancakes with black currant jam.
How we eat and what we eat, especially while traveling is wrapped up inside all kinds of interesting packaging both literally and figuratively. One of my absolute favourite things to do when I visit any new place is go to both the local markets and the larger commercial supermarkets if they have one. I love to see what people eat, how they buy it, and how it is packaged. I often bring back cans of completely average products or candies and wrappers that are completely different than anything I have seen at home. As a graphic designer Tilson has a love for food packaging and has filled the book with labels and photos of food purchased around the world. Each page is a visual treat with all kinds of cookbook covers, shopping bags and packages I have never seen before.
One of my favourite pages in the book (choosing one is no small feat) shows fresh herb packages that he designs and sends to friends from their family home in Tuscany. All of the herbs including bay leaves, juniper berries and fennel flowers are harvest on the property. Yum! I also give away some of my freshly grown herbs and do package them up, and while I have designed packages for pickles and tea sets I have never done so for the herbs. Looking at the book again has inspired me to go that extra mile with next year’s herb.
I can hardly wait.