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April 15, 2008

High hopes

Filed under: Cookbooks — Mr. Henry @ 7:03 pm

“Luv” back at you, Poochie, for your comprehensive and very informative letter on Disney restaurants.

At Epcot and at the resort hotels they do serve passable fare. Mr. Henry has eaten at the Swan and Dolphin, at the Beach and Yacht Clubs, and at most of the country pavilions, but he has yet to eat anything really delicious. The hamburger at Spoodles was probably the best meal he had in all of Disney World (with Sam Adams on tap, to boot).

At Animal Kingdom, soaked from hat to shoes after the Kali River raft ride, he froze solid in the Rainforest Cafe’s air conditioning even before being seated in their windy frigidarium.

The real problem at Disney World is not the absence of good food but the near impossibility of getting a table. You have to book months in advance. (“Is a 5:00 reservation alright?”) A vacation lacks a certain spontaneity when you know exactly where and when you’ll be eating lunch and dinner each day.paulawolfert.jpg

Pilgrim writes that the Moroccan restaurant at Epcot serves great food. Well, yes but not quite. Mr. Henry ate there once and remembers it as a pale approximation of the real thing. Paradoxically, Moroccan cooking is one of the great undiscovered cuisines of the world, but not for lack of restaurants.

After his first trip to Morocco Mr. Henry, high on the vapors of couscous and nectarines, decided to abandon his research into modern Moroccan cultural and political history so as to write a Moroccan cookbook instead, one that captured the genius of Esther’s recipes. Landing on the American shore, he straightaway went to the bookstore to discover a freshly published book by a first time writer, Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco by Paula Wolfert (1973).

Although Mr. Henry may cavil with the inclusion of smin (rancid butter) in some recipes, a special bugaboo of his, the book is a monumental achievement. In addition to capturing the wild spirit of the place, Wolfert offers a spot-on description of the most celebrated and difficult Moroccan dish, basteela, (Paula calls it basteeya) a savory pie of braised squab, curdled eggs, and toasted almonds. You haven’t lived until you’ve tasted a great one.

On reading Wolfert’s Couscous, Mr. Henry abandoned his high ambition and returned to the drear of academe, defeated and directionless.

Wolfert noted then that no restaurant anywhere – not in Fez, Marrakech, or Paris – prepares food that even approximates the delicacy and refinement served at home. This remains true even today 35 years later.

Mr. Henry believes the clue to this riddle lies in the sexist and medieval division of labor that marks Moroccan society. Although women do all the cooking at home, and all the rest of the housework as well, they are not permitted to leave home to run service businesses like restaurants. Consequently, no Moroccan restaurant anywhere has a real Moroccan chef in the kitchen.


At Epcot last month, having been refused service by Europe and North America, Mr. Henry quickly dusted off his Arabic as he approached the hostess of the Moroccan pavilion. “Do you have a table for seven?” he asked flawlessly. She disappointed him both by refusing to find a table and by responding in French, the same way the deracinated Algerian youth in Paris respond, despite their militant identité arabe. Oh well. Mr. Henry’s high hopes were bound to be disappointed, and not for the first time, either.

Wolfert, by the way, now lives in San Francisco. Only in California, where the climate mimics Morocco’s, can you find the exceptionally flavorful tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and the like that are essential to Moroccan cuisine.


  1. I recently happened across the Morocco episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. Well before the hour was up, I was in serious need of a drool bucket watching those women make basteela and other delecacies.

    Alas! I can live in California all I like, but nothing is going to make Mr. Twistie brave enough to try squab or curdled eggs.

    Perhaps I can find out where Ms. Wolfert lives and ‘happen’ into her and then cadge an invitation to dinner…except I’m more likely to find myself ‘mistaken’ for a stalker in that situation.

    Comment by Twistie — April 16, 2008 @ 8:56 am

  2. Click on her name or on her picture and you’ll find her website, dear Twistie. From her writing style she seems like a lot of fun, loose and spontaneous. Look her up! Mr. Henry might do the same one day.

    And tell Mr. ‘T’ that squab is delicious. It’s the poor man’s pheasant – intensely flavorful dark meat.

    The eggs are cooked in the reduced chicken (or squab) broth so they have a slightly toothy texture and carry the full rich flavor of the stew itself. Don’t explain, just serve it up. No man has ever refused it.

    Comment by Mr. Henry — April 16, 2008 @ 9:07 am

  3. I ate some of the most interesting as well as some of the most puzzling foods in Morocco. I would go back at any time, please send ticket.

    Locally, we have a largeish north African population, but more Tunisians than Moroccans, and every Saturday at the halal butcher I can buy homemade breads that one of the Tunisian women makes. My favorite is thin and floppy, comes apart in layers and is sort of egg yolk colored. I asked the name but couldn’t say it even that very moment. I just go in and say I want the yellow bread.

    Comment by Judith in Umbria — April 16, 2008 @ 2:50 pm

  4. I’ve never been to Morocco but I’ve spent some time in Tunisia. If you ever go to Tunis you absolutely must try Le Grand Bleu. Unbelievable cuisine.
    But, there’s nothing like a home cooked tangine…and I make a mean one!

    Comment by nancy — April 16, 2008 @ 11:33 pm

  5. Mr. Henry,

    I hope the info helped. I’ve been soaked on Kali many a time (once I had to buy new pants because I was soaked through!) so I know how good it would be get some yummy food afterwards. It is a challenge, especially in the parks, because they have to serve over 25 million people a year. Crazy!

    A table for 7, especially at the main meal time is hard to come by. The best thing is to make reservations through WDW-DINE. It helps to get you seated faster. We used to make reservations at a few places so we had some options. They don’t love that idea, it is nice to call back to cancel the ones you don’t use, but you can “work” the system.


    Comment by Poochie — April 18, 2008 @ 8:33 pm

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