- In “Cooking to Save Your Life,” the economist, social scientist and MIT professor embellishes each recipe with a story and illustrations by Cheyenne Olivier.
Economist and social scientist Abhijit Banerjee has been interested in food ever since he can remember. He began cooking “an occasional family dinner” when he was about 15. That passion for cooking never left him. As an adult, Banerjee has cooked nearly every day, usually making three, sometimes four courses each night, from a souffle to a lamb curry or a simple lemon dal or pasta. Now, the Nobel laureate and Professor of Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has written a cookbook, “Cooking to Save Your Life,” in which he explores the social dimension of food.
Banerjee shared the 2019 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences with his wife Esther Duflo and Michael Kemer for their experimental approach to alleviating global poverty.
The book began life as a collection of recipes Banerjee planned to give his brother-in-law for Christmas. But he told BBC that as he put them together he thought there might be something more in his instincts and insights as a cook. “Cooking is a social act,” he told the news network. “It happens in a context. Sometimes, a meal is a gift to your family, sometimes it’s an act of seduction, and sometimes it’s self-expression.”
The book is punctuated with drawings by Cheyenne Olivier, who was an au pair with Banerjee and his wife Esther for three years.
Although the book might seem like a deviation from his work as an economist and social scientist, he told The Hindu that his cookbook is connected to his work as an economist. “We are exploring the social dimension of cooking,” he told the paper. “I thought it would be boring to just write recipes, to be honest. I wanted to spice it up for myself. So every chapter has an introduction, which is more social science.”
In its review of “Cooking to Save Your Life,” The Hindu notes that the book is accentuated by Cheyenne’s illustrations which are “deliberately light, playful and accessible.” She told the paper that she chose to illustrate because “photographs are too idealistic. The reality is you are coming home from work, the kids are around, you are tired… you are cooking in the middle of all that.”
Cooking is Banerjee’s way to relax when he returns from work. “I cook every single day,” he told The Hindu. “We don’t really go out.” Banerjee follows a schedule during his daily cooking. “Three days a week, I make Indian food, a vegetable, dal and meat. Otherwise, it’s pasta, some soup and salad, or Asian food, like stir-fries,” he told The Hindu.
And it’s no wonder that The Hindu notes that Banerjee’s recipes are “charming and irreverent, a collection of tweaked classics and innovative staples, focussing on practical ways to get impressive results, in the midst of the chaos of everyday life.”
The BBC notes that “Cooking to Save Your Life,” is” cheeky and charming, telling you not just how to whip up a raspberry ceviche or a comforting bowl of dal, but also when you should do so.”
Banerjee tells The Hindu that one is always cooking for a reason. “Because you have someone you want to impress or someone you are scared of.” And so the dishes in the book are “tailored for specific occasions,” the paper notes. “From raspberry ceviche for when ‘you invite the boss home’ to masala chips, tossed with minced onions, green chilies and chaat masala, for ‘the kind of enemy you have to invite home from time to time.”
On its website, publisher Juggernaut Books offers a preview of the chapter on salads. “When I came to America in the early 1980s, no one, or at least no one I knew, ate salads for pleasure. For expiation, yes, to please or impress a friend, in the hope of fitting into that nice dress again, but rarely out of a love of the way salads taste.”
Noting that the cafeteria at MIT will “sell you a half-decent salad for the equivalent of an hour and a half’s work at the Federal minimum wage,” he observes that in his experience, “a salad is rarely the centerpiece of an American meal, as it often is in Southern Europe, the Middle East or in Southeast Asia.” He says it’s possibly because of “the fact that for most Americans the centerpiece of a meal has to be meat or fish and, ideally, a reasonable quantity of it, amounts that would be unseemly (and annoyingly dominant) in a salad.”
He continues: “Despite the growing openness to vegetarianism, especially among younger women, Americans on average ate more meat in 2018 than ever before, and much more meat than most other rich countries – 40 percent more than the average of the European Union and more than twice that in Japan.”
In an interview with Vogue India, Banerjee spoke about how he developed an interest in cooking. It began as an excuse to spend with his mom who was an academician and activist and “was always running all over the place.” The only time she managed to catch her was when she was cooking, so he became her unofficial “sous sous sous” chef. It was all about a young boy’s need to connect with his mother.”
Because his mother would often travel on work, it was a choice between the cook, “who was very nice and competent but unwilling to experiment, or me making different things,” he told Vogue India. So when Banerjee took over the kitchen, he laid the dining table with “lots of roasts, cakes and pastries.” Some learned from watching his mother, some from recipe books.
Banerjee’s passion for cooking is evident in a blog he’s written on Mint Lounge. “Each morning, as I make my way to MIT’s campus on my new kick scooter (a habit picked up during the lockdown when we were trying to avoid the metro in Paris), my mind drifts to the work ahead—papers, classes and the endless meetings— before settling on the most important subject of the day. What should I cook that evening?”
He shares some of his recent menu pairings. “Two days ago, it was stuffed baby eggplants (with coconut, garlic, coriander seeds, sesame and tamarind), fried karela and lamb with a tomato rasa… The day before he wrote the blog, he made “burgers, guacamole, roast corn and reheated the leftover ribollita (a marvelous Italian cold-weather vegetable soup thickened with day-old bread) that I had made for dinner three days ago. The menu for that evening had also included store-bought mushroom ravioli in a mushroom sauce and roast artichoke.”
On the day of the blog, he was to take his wife “out to a fancy meal to celebrate the end of a hard week of work.” But that didn’t mean a break from the kitchen. “But I will be cooking for our children,” he wrote, “most likely a rich, unctuous macaroni cheese,” he adds. “I am the family’s cook, the food shopper, the menu planner.”
But it’s more than just the food, he admits. “I love thinking about meals, the people I will feed, the stories being told, the shape of bodies around the table, the sound of laughter, the quiet of mindful eating.” And that’s why, when he cooks for a dinner party, he “especially likes creating a story around the food I am cooking.”
Some of his menu plans are “ironic,” like “Andhra-style Ribs with Nepali Alu Achaar and Stir-Fried Green Cabbage, as a comment on the American classic, ribs-potato salad-slaw,” while others are “political: the wonderful Afghan Kabuli Pulao with the Spinach Pachadi from Kerala, at the very other end of the subcontinent, for the orange, green and white combo that represents the harmonious ideal embodied in the Indian tricolor, alas increasingly forgotten.”
Or some are served “to maintain peace when different preferences pull in different directions.” Like that Thai Pomelo Salad “with shrimps cooked separately, for those who eat shrimps and tempeh for the rest, with a chickpea soup rich in saffron to start and some strawberries with black pepper and balsamic vinegar for dessert—a meal with something for the vegans and the rest.” Banerjee writes that he often uses these plans “to present the meal—the best meals are good stories—though of course there are times when it’s better to hold your tongue.”
With all these recipes Banerjee wants to offer readers “a path away” from all the confusion some associate with cooking. His aim in writing the book was “to anticipate every possible source of confusion and either avoid them or at least address them.” Although he “won’t entirely succeed,” he says he has “tried hard.” He urges his readers to “ideally read the book from start to finish because I find it too tedious to repeat the tips, and you might miss something useful if you skip directly to a recipe.”
And he offers some tips “important caveat (pre)emptor,” as well. The readers shouldn’t buy his book if they really want a cookbook to save their life. “It makes no pretense of being about healthy food,” he warns. “The goal here is to make delicious food with ease and confidence, to help liberate your inner gourmet cook from the weight of many cooking projects gone wrong. That often means getting knee-deep in fat, starch and sugars.” But he doesn’t want his readers to worry. They don’t have to cook from this book every night,” just when you want to make a splash.”
There’s also an “embarrassing admission” Banerjee makes. “This book is written the way I cook – expensively. I am fortunate enough not to have to be frugal and I am not. I try to buy very high-quality ingredients (when they are not available, I make something else).”