Treasuring the Past Joyce Goldstein preserves heritage of tastes in recipes and restaurant

November 22, 1992|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

Tradition.

It's a big word this time of year, one that carries a lot of emotional weight. It seems almost everyone spends part of life trying to escape it, and another part trying to embrace it.

But for Joyce Goldstein, San Francisco chef, restaurateur and cookbook author, nowhere is tradition more compelling than in cuisine: "Classic dishes are classic for a good reason -- people remember what they taste like."

In 12 years in the restaurant business -- she's chef-proprietor of Square One, a noted spot on a park at the edge of the city's financial district -- she has seen tradition take some hits: "I've seen what's happened to the menu, all the sort of sensationalist, weird combinations, things being thrown together, where the menu looks the same almost all the way around the country, . . . and what it makes for is a lot of unmemorable food."

It's natural for new immigrants to the United States to want to live, act and eat like Americans, she says, but it means a lot of the good and healthful food from their backgrounds gets forgotten. "Maybe once a year somebody's aunt or grandmother cooks something, but a lot of that stuff is fading. People haven't written the recipes down, people don't remember what they were."

For Ms. Goldstein, the restaurant "is like a museum, and the recipes are the artworks and we take care of them. We can cook them for you so you don't forget what they are." When you give people a dish that accurately reflects their heritage, she says, "They go crazy, they really do. You can touch people very deeply."

One night when she served a Romanian dish of quail stuffed with mushrooms, wrapped in pancetta and served with polenta with several cheeses, a customer stopped her and said, "How did you know about this? This is from my village."

She has drawn upon this world of traditions -- Romanian, Italian, Persian, Turkish, Greek, English, Indian, Russian, Greek, Indonesian, Spanish, Brazilian, Moroccan, French, Japanese, Armenian, Mexican and many others -- in her latest cookbook, called "Back to Square One" (William Morrow, 1992, $23). It's subtitled "Old-World Food in a New-World Kitchen."

In a thoughtful introduction, she writes, "Today things change so fast many of us are beginning to feel a special need to be connected to our past. While constant change can be stimulating and exciting, it's impossible to keep up. We're bewildered by too many options. It's no wonder that we reflect on how nice it would be to have established traditions, live a simpler life, and reduce stress by reducing choices. We look with nostalgia at the lives of our grandparents. Maybe life was harder for them physically, but emotionally it seemed clearer and less confusing."

One of the most powerful ways to connect with that past, she says, is through family food traditions: "We need to keep in touch with our own food history, before our taste memories are lost forever."

Americans addicted to "burgers and fries" have much to learn from traditional cultures, Ms. Goldstein says. Some of the best fast food in the world she says, is Italian. "The Italians have fabulous natural fast food, with pizza and calzone, and the little sandwiches and some of the antipasto items. . . . When I was living in Rome in 1959, we used to go for lunch to these places. . . . You stood up there and you had a calzone and you were out the door."

Besides, she adds, traditional foods that are not frozen and have no additives are simply more healthful. "I think you see that, in a lot of the peasant cultures, people ate a lot more vegetables, fruits and grains, and much less gross animal protein. And I think if the flavors are wonderful and the food is artfully prepared, you don't need 16 ounces of beef, or a whole chicken. . . . I think that a lot of this 'old' cooking is actually better for us, better balanced for our diet, than what we've been accustomed to eating. . . . It's very simple food."

One of the reasons for writing the book is to allow people "to re-educate themselves, to see if any of those foods fit into their contemporary lifestyle. Some of them are very time-consuming; some of them, with recent equipment like food processors and blenders and things, are very fast."

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