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A Meeting

March 19, 1997|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Claudia Roden's first book had a vast impact on me 25 years ago. "A Book of Middle Eastern Food" quoted from a medieval Arabic cookery manuscript, and suddenly it was obvious that the cuisines of the Middle East, which have so many similarities, share a common history that you can actually trace in documents. If you can get your hands on them, that is.

This sent my life on an unexpected trajectory. In 1980, as a starving freelance writer, I gathered every dime I could get my hands on and blew it all on a two-month trip to Egypt and Syria to collect medieval Arabic cookbooks. I'll probably spend the rest of my life studying them.

On the way home, I stopped off in London and looked up the author of that ambitious book that had changed my life. I had to ask around among the London foodies to get her secret phone number because Roden was a major food celebrity in England. Along with Elizabeth David, she's one of the handful of writers who introduced English cooks to the riches of the Mediterranean.

I called her and introduced myself as the Californian who had been pelting her with letters about medieval cookbooks. She invited me over for coffee at her modest house in Golder's Green, a traditional Jewish neighborhood in north London. When I arrived, she apologized for not having a Middle Eastern feast to greet me. All she had were some odd cookies and pastries, which I now suspect were early research for her current book.

She referred to herself disarmingly as "very Oriental" (in England, the term includes "Middle Eastern"), and I had been struck by the same thing. Not because of her thoroughly unplaceable accent but because of her manner. I'd have picked her anywhere as Egyptian.

After all, I'd just come from the country where Roden grew up. I happened to have a newspaper photograph of an Egyptian actress, Madiha Hamdi (described in the caption as exemplifying "the simplicity and nobility of the Egyptian girl"), who was a dead ringer for Roden: eager, gentle and gracious, with a faint suggestion of amused flusterment.

Of course, I knew it was not serious flusterment. It was an Egyptian brand of charm. One which never fails to work, by the way.

Such was her position in England that she could probably have stuck with Middle Eastern food forever, but she didn't. Over the years she wrote books on coffee, picnicking and Italian food. And all the time she was working on the immense panorama of "The Book of Jewish Food."

People who happened to attend various little conferences on food history could watch this book assemble itself over the years. At a conference in Greece, Roden spelled out the traditional cuisines (the several traditional cuisines) of the Greek Jews. At symposiums in Istanbul, she naturally had a lot to say--her great-grandfather had been the chief rabbi of Constantinople a hundred years ago. She'd always have some odd angle to explore at the annual Oxford Symposium.

The new book will certainly turn out to be her magnum opus, the most concentrated expression of her unique mixture of curiosity, enthusiasm, nostalgia and, doggone it, charm.

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