Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Q&A with Laura Kumin

Laura Kumin, photo by Willem Bier
Laura Kumin is the author of the new book The Hamilton Cookbook: Cooking, Eating & Entertaining in Hamilton's World. She is the creator of the MotherWouldKnow food blog, contributes to The Huffington Post, and teaches cooking and food history. She worked as an attorney for more than two decades.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Hamilton Cookbook?

A: Actually, I didn’t! The publisher came up with the idea. But they had a title and no concept. They figured they would get a ghostwriter, but [a consultant] said, I know someone who might be interested! [And they] let me be the author.

They expected a straight cookbook, a bunch of recipes…I wanted Hamilton and his food, not just Hamilton and his name.

Q: How did you select the recipes, and how much did you need to change them for modern cooks?

A: I agreed to do the book without any understanding of what I was getting into! But it turned out to be fine. The Library of Congress has a collection of cookbooks that’s digitized. I found them online, and then I went to the Library of Congress and did research on the recipes that were popular at that time, in the areas where Hamilton lived.

I was finding more geared toward the Founding Fathers who were Southern, and Adams, from New England. I was deciding what recipes were appropriate for Hamilton. I looked at his background [in the Caribbean and the New York area] and that of his in-laws, who were from a farm near Albany.

I looked at books—I was in the rare book and manuscript room for a couple of days, and they let me touch and look through some of the very oldest cookbooks. I wanted an illustration, and there were not many in these books. The first time I touched one of those books, it was like touching a Torah!  I was transported…

Q: So did you need to change the recipes much?

A: I did change them in some respects, but part of my concept was that I wanted people to look at the book and say, That’s something you can make in a toaster oven. That’s something you can make in a slow cooker.

They did everything in weights we’re not used to. “A teacup”—well, how much is a teacup? With chocolate puffs, they say, Make them the size of a sixpence. I was screaming to my husband to look up the size of a sixpence! Is it the size of a quarter, or a dime?

And people were cooking on fireplaces—“cook until done.” It isn’t temperature or time. I researched modern versions of recipes, what people were doing with similar recipes…

Q: What surprised you most in your research?

A: The book has three distinct parts: Hamilton, his times, and food and entertaining. I learned something about each. I have not seen the play; I didn’t listen to the music. I didn’t want to be unconsciously limited. But I was very touched by how tender Hamilton was and how physically brave he was. Our current president is neither tender nor brave.

Some of the other founding fathers, I learned there was great animosity between and among the founding fathers. I had not understood that. I hadn’t really thought about the fact that the Adamses, Abigail and John, detested Hamilton. Jefferson wasn’t a great fan.

And the context of his times—I loved learning what New York and Philadelphia were like. The internet is a beautiful thing—I was learning about how small these cities were. You don’t think about those things.

There was a huge growth in entertainment. I learned with food and entertainment what the rules were, what the expectations were of people. They were trying to do things like France and England. This is the era of the royal courts…

Q: What do you think accounts for the popularity of the Hamilton musical and all things relating to Alexander Hamilton lately?

A: I think two things probably. The musical is probably genius...the Ron Chernow book is inaccessible to most people, and Lin-Manuel Miranda has a very complex grasp of it. He read it and internalized the story, and put it out in a popular way. He translated Hamilton in a way that everybody can understand.

But it goes farther back. This is a compelling dramatic story. Aaron Burr and Hamilton knew each other at all these stages. They were in the Revolutionary War together…

One of the things that fascinated me, and is a sign of what I didn’t know, is that I had not thought about the role of slavery in the non-Southern states. It was legal in Philadelphia and New York. Hamilton bought slaves for his brother-in-law…That to me, now when there’s all this stuff about the issues of what should we do with people who were slaveholders, it’s very complicated.

Hamilton and his friends started a society to abolish slavery…he thought it would be gradual. Hamilton was the only one [in the group] who didn’t own slaves. Everything I started to look at, there was something in it that blew me away. It fed my interest. There are some things you’d do because you had to finish the project, but with this, there was always something new that kept me going.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have a couple of ideas. I do really love the idea of marrying history and recipes from the time. There are a lot of books with adapted recipes, old-fashioned recipes, but showing you the actual page it’s written on, it does something for me…

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I would love people to understand that it’s much more than a cookbook. I really want people who wouldn’t buy a cookbook to take a look. To me, a well-enough-sourced-historically adult can [appreciate the history] but it’s also simply enough written that a 12-year-old can learn something that’s accurate…

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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