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Colonialism, a Humble Spice, and Our Dwindling Respect for Nature
Amitav Ghosh uses nutmeg as a parable for our environmental crisis
“It's really ironic — I think it's only since the 1990s, just as the climate crisis was beginning to accelerate, that literature became focused almost entirely on identity issues. So that people who wrote about other things were automatically marginalized as writing science fiction or fantasy. And I think that is the real catastrophe, that just as the problem was becoming more urgent, all our systems were pushing us to not look at them.”
We have an unusual, special, and super interesting guest on today’s episode of Food with Mark Bittman. Melissa and I were joined by writer Amitav Ghosh, who is best known for his complex and wonderful fiction. In the last two years, he’s generated two intriguing and original nonfiction works; his latest, The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis, is especially deserving of our attention, because it focuses on food, colonialism, and the climate crisis. It’s an extremely powerful book.
Our interview is dominated by Amitav’s enviable depth of knowledge on just about every topic we brought up. So: here we go!
Please listen, subscribe, and review. The recipe featured in today’s episode — Nutmeg-Scented Pound Cake — plus an another nutmeg-friendly gem, below. And may I recommend getting your nutmeg (and other spices) from our friends at Burlap & Barrel? Their spices are wonderfully sourced and can’t be beat.
Thank you, as always. — Mark
Nutmeg-Scented Pound Cake
Makes: At least 8 servings
Time: About 1 ½ hours
Classic pound cake gets its name from four basic ingredients: a pound each butter, flour, sugar, and eggs. Here the formula is roughly cut in half to make one standard-size loaf, with a couple of my spins — most notably an unexpected and generous boost of nutmeg — to increase flavor. I also suggest using cake flour for extra tenderness; if you don’t have it, the results with all-purpose will still be quite good.
1⁄2 pound (2 sticks) butter, softened, plus more for greasing
2 cups cake flour or all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
1/4 to 1⁄2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg (to taste)
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1. Heat the oven to 325°F. Grease a 9 × 5-inch loaf pan with butter.
2. Whisk the flour, baking powder, salt, and nutmeg together in a medium bowl.
3. Use an electric mixer to cream the butter in a large bowl until it’s smooth. Add 3⁄4 cup of the sugar and beat until it’s well blended, then add the remaining sugar; beat until the mixture is light in color and fluffy. Beat in the eggs, one at a time. Add the vanilla and beat until blended.
4. Stir in the dry ingredients by hand just until the mixture is smooth and everything is incorporated; don’t mix it too much and don’t use the electric mixer.
5. Transfer the batter to the prepared pan and smooth the top with a rubber spatula. Bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 1 hour. Let the cake cool in the pan for 5 to 10 minutes, then gently run a knife around the edges and remove the cake from the pan. Set the cake upright on a wire rack to finish cooling. Serve warm or at room temperature. When completely cool, store at room temperature, wrapped in plastic, for 3 days.
Makes: 4 servings
Time: 30 minutes
A decadent and sort of old-fashioned dish that doesn’t make it to the table often enough. Other vegetables you can use: pearl or cippolini onions, whole shallots, garlic cloves (you’ll need lots, or cut the recipe in half).
Salt and pepper
6 onions (about 1 ½ pounds), trimmed and peeled
1 cup cream
2 tablespoons butter
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it. Cut the onions crosswise into thick slices; there’s no need to separate them into rings. Plunge the onions into the boiling water and cook for about a minute; drain well.
2 Put the cream and butter in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and bring to a boil; cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions have absorbed a lot of the cream and the sauce is thick, about 5 minutes. Add a tiny bit of nutmeg and sprinkle with pepper. Taste, adjust the seasoning, and serve hot.