Charles Perry

Interview by Rafram Chaddad
Photography and video by Michael Cukr

Apartamento Magazine - Charles Perry
Apartamento magazine issue #26

This article was originally published in issue #26 of Apartamento, out now!

Los Angeles
: Depending on where your own interests lie, it’s possible to arrive at the life and work of Charles Perry in more than one way. Born in LA, in 1941, Perry’s known as one of world’s foremost experts on medieval Arabic cuisine, having majored in Middle Eastern studies at Princeton and then UC, Berkeley, and having spent a year studying Arabic in Shemlan, Lebanon, in the early ‘60s, giving him his first real taste of the region and its food. Back in the US though, Perry found himself the college roommate of Owsley Stanley, the man who supplied around six million doses of LSD to the San Francisco Bay Area. Stanley also worked as a sound engineer for the Grateful Dead, and Perry soon became the resident dope editor of Rolling Stone magazine, reporting on illicit trips, nose candy, Jerry Garcia, and rock ‘n’ roll. Later, he became a food writer for the Los Angeles Times, and in 2005 Perry translated from Arabic A Baghdad Cookery Book, also known as Al-Baghdadi’s Kitab al-Tabikh, the only medieval Arabic cookbook known to the English-speaking world. The city’s golden era produced this and several other books full of the recipes from opulent banquets; Perry says the number of cookbooks written in the region before the year 1400 is bigger than for the whole rest of the world combined. Personally, I came to Charles Perry via Claudia Roden and Anissa Helou, two of his colleagues from the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery. Roden, one of the most important food researchers in the world, wrote to tell me that Perry is a ‘brilliant scholar’ for anything to do with Ottomans and thin dough, while Helou, a renowned food writer of Lebanese and Islamic world cuisine told me it would be hard to find Perry, since he’s probably somewhere on the outskirts of LA, working out the differences between aubergine recipes from the 16th century. That’s exactly how I found him, jangling between facts and history and exotic stories about the woman who will never marry if she cannot make the perfect kibbeh— between history and myth, just like the food he’s researching.

Apartamento Magazine - Charles Perry
Apartamento Magazine - Charles Perry

You were born in LA and then suddenly you find yourself researching food from Lebanon, Turkey, Baghdad, this whole area, and you translate one of the most important Arab cookbooks. How did you find yourself on that side of the world?

I had no connection with the Middle East. I just came across a description of the Arabic language in the Encyclopaedia Britannica and it fascinated me. It was unlike any other language I knew about. In fact, I was 15 years old. I wondered whether the Arabs had just made this up in order to scandalise foreigners. I checked it out and in fact, they really did speak it. Then I got caught up in it. It’s a seductive language. I think of it as being like a sports car straight from the factory. Classical Arabic is really cool. It may not have air conditioning, it may not have radio, but it does 0–60 in no time. It’s a really fast, speedy kind of language. I majored in Middle East studies in college and then I got on a program from the Carnegie Foundation in 1962 to study Arabic in Linau at a Britishrun school there. Have you ever heard of the MECAS school in Shemlan, Lebanon?


Local politicians always claimed, ‘Why are there foreigners wanting to speak Arabic? They must be spies’. In fact, the year before I was there, there actually was a Soviet spy at the school.

Did you know that before, or you found out after probably?

Everybody was buzzing with it the year I came. Anyway, this was in 1962 and it was before Americans had ever heard of hummus, falafel,
and tabbouleh. They were to come about two years after, and immediately they would be ruined by health foodies who thought that tabbouleh is a way of eating bulgur, and hummus is a way of eating tahini. That’s not what they’re really like. I had the real thing and fell in love with Lebanese food and am still very fond of it. I was interested because none of the ingredients was particularly unfamiliar or exotic. Sesame, all the vegetables, the meats, everything like that—the aesthetic effect was different, and I wanted to know why. That’s how I got interested in food. Then when I went back to the States to finish my education, I had Lebanese cookbooks and there was a lot of interesting Greek cooking, so I had some Greek cookbooks, and I came across some Indian and Persian cookbooks. About the time I bought a Turkish cookbook, it dawned on me that a lot of the same dishes were being cooked over this whole area, so there had to have been a medieval food culture. If there had been anything worthwhile written about it, I would have just read it and gone on and done something else. In fact, it turned out I had to pretty much do the studies myself. It was out of a personal infatuation, or madness, that I devoted myself to the study. Particularly after I read Claudia Roden’s first book, which quoted some medieval recipes. I said, ‘Ah ha! There are recipes, there are books, I can go look this up’.

Claudia’s is considered one of the first books, one of the first to describe the kitchens of Egypt and Syria.

Yes, I still cook from it. I still have the book. Anyway, in 1980, I had collected information and studied the shelf lists of foreign libraries at the UCLA library and made a list of things I wanted to check out. I was a freelance writer at that time, and living kind of hand to mouth. But I took every dime I had—because the only thing I really wanted to do at the moment was find out more about these books—and went to Egypt and Syria, stopped off in Paris and London and also Dublin; there were some things at the Chester Beatty Library there.

Apartamento Magazine - Charles Perry
Apartamento Magazine - Charles Perry

That was in your 20s, yes?

No, 1980, I was 39. I remember that first morning in Cairo walking down the street in Zamalek, where my hotel was, and thinking, ‘How often in life are you doing exactly what you most want to do?’ Nothing else. This is all I really wanted to do and here I was doing it. I cleaned out the National Library of all the manuscripts I could get. It took a while.

Did you find a good collection of books in Cairo?

Yeah, there’s a good collection. Unfortunately, the conditions there are not necessarily very good. Some of the books are not in good shape. For the really good copies, you want to go to Istanbul. The Turks, the Ottomans, had very good library practice. They made very clean copies.

The Baghdadi book is also there, no?

The original Baghdadi book ended up in Cairo with several other manuscripts of it. Then they all went to Turkey, and I think the Turks saw it as a precious link to the days of the caliphs of Baghdad. That’s why they were so devoted to it and why, for instance, Shirvani translated it into Ottoman-Turkish. By the way, are you aware that my translation of al-Baghdadi has been translated into Turkish?

I didn’t know that. It was translated from English to Turkish?

Yes! It’s just silly how proud I am of that. Anyway, so I collected all these manuscripts and continued to look for others in libraries in India and other places. Then I started translating them. Well, first of all I started writing articles on various aspects of food history that I saw mentioned in these books, including the North African and Andalusian cookbooks.

Have you been here to Tunis?

I’ve always wanted to go there. I’ve never managed to do it. Did you ever know Alan Davidson?

The British ambassador? Yeah, I know of him.

He started the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery and the Petits Propos Culinaires magazine and so forth.

The famous fishing days.

Yes, he wrote about fish in particular.

Fish names are a big mess here because every city has a different name for fish and most of the Sicilian fishermen that used to live here gave the fish their Sicilian names. There are the Tunisian names, the Sicilian names, and you have Amazigh names. It’s really a big shakshuka.

It was a major piece of scholarship and very useful to everybody who has written about the subject since. He also gave me a lot of material that he’d picked up in Tunisia in various journals, people writing about the history of Tunisian food and about regional Tunisian dishes. I’m always kicking myself because I have never got to Tunisia. By the way, I’m wondering about your first name. Is that a Jewish name?

Mine? It’s a Jewish name, yes.

It looks like one of those names that’s an abbreviation of the name of some rabbi.

Yes, a Talmudic rabbi.

I minored in linguistics, so I think about things like this.

Apartamento Magazine - Charles Perry

My family name, Chaddad, is very popular among Christians in Lebanon and Muslims and Jews here in Tunisia. My family name is very versatile. But my first name is very Jewish. Anyway, there are not many Jews left in Tunis.

Not as many as there were. Some years ago I went to Uzbekistan and was in Bukhara talking to a retired caterer. They all say that Samarkand is a city for bread, but Bukhara is the city for pilafs. ‘We made a hundred different kinds of pilaf here’, and he started listing all of them. Finally I said, ‘Which is your favourite?’ He said, ‘Oh, that Jewish pilaf. It’s such a shame we don’t have any Jews anymore’.

I think the subtitle of Claudia’s Jewish cookbook is ‘from pilaf to something else’. Pilaf was important. I read that you are also a researcher of yufka, which used to refer to a whole range of Turkish doughs and breads and now mainly refers to a thin type of dough, usually layered. Here in Tunis we have the brik, which is similar to ciborek from Istanbul, and you have the katmer in Gaziantep, and the mutabak in Jerusalem and Amman. It’s very interesting to zoom in on one item of food, especially yufka.

I concentrated on yufka because I got interested in the Turkish influence in the Middle East, which previously scholars had thought was unimportant. They thought that the Turks lived on yogurt and shish kabab. In fact, I found out that they lived mostly on grain. They raised all their flocks so they could come to the cities and trade for grain, because it’s a very convenient food when you’re travelling. They came up with a lot of different breads and so forth, and I found out that the word yufka exists in all the Turkish languages, kind of like it’s a theme that runs through the cooking of all the Turkish nations.
In Central Asia, yufka is often layered. They make the layers in different ways. It seemed pretty plain to me that that’s where the idea of baklava came from, when the Turks moved into areas where they could access ovens. In fact, the oldest recipes for baklava are fried. They had to fry them in a pan and put another pan on top and flip it over so it would cook on both sides. Obviously, once they got a chance to get ovens it was a lot more convenient.

When I was last in Istanbul I went to the restaurant Ciya, and I asked Musa, the owner, about Tunisian brik—if he thinks it has some roots in Istanbul. He told me there are a few places in Istanbul that still fry the dough, the phyllo basically, with egg inside. But it was not very popular in the past few years, so it’s struggling to survive. Here, it’s part of the Tunisian cuisine. Basically with ricotta cheese, tuna, or potato. It’s really interesting how it’s evolved here.

The pastry that you use in Tunisia is not derived from yufka. It’s something that developed in Andalusia. There was a fascination with making layered breads. In the beginning, they were not intending to use these layered breads with a filling or anything like that. They would just have a particularly delicate bread. They go to a lot of trouble to make all these layers and then they crumble it. I haven’t found the exact ancestor of warka or Tunisian malsuka in Andalusian writings, but it’s clear that that’s where it must have come from.

I find that really interesting. Because there is a big confusion regarding etymology here in Tunis. Brik is usually connected to burek. Also we have lablabi, which is almost like hummus. It takes its name from dried chickpeas in Turkish, but it has nothing to do with it. And we have keftaji, which is like the person who makes meat kefta, but here it’s just fried vegetables with eggs. And some people use the word baklava to refer to our local basbusa, although there is not even the smallest connection between the two.

I think you’re right about that, and by the way, in my research I noticed that the Tunisian tajine always seems to have eggs on top.

Apartamento Magazine - Charles Perry
Apartamento Magazine - Charles Perry

Yeah, they call it tajine, but it’s not tajine like Moroccan tajine of course. The Jews call it maakud or menina.

I once wrote a paper called ‘Moorish Ovomania’. In some of the Andalusian cookbooks, they top three-quarters of the stews with eggs and they send them to the oven so the eggs cook on top.

That’s the joke about Tunisia. You just pass in the street and somebody breaks an egg on your head. And of course shakshuka, the dish that was appropriated by Israel but comes from here. In Tunisia we have this term yolkgazma, used for shakshuka, for brik, when the yolk is running.

Tunisia is the place where that tradition survived. It didn’t survive in Morocco or Algeria, so far as I know. There are a couple dishes in Morocco that have eggs on them, but not like Tunisia.

When I was working in Morocco a few years ago, I was with an old architect from Fez. When we drove close to Essaouira she showed me the house that Jimi Hendrix started to build. He also founded the Gnaoua festival, the Amazigh music festival. She told me that Jimi Hendrix once said that rock ‘n’ roll was born in Morocco. And then she told me that he liked to eat couscous hashish. The original recipe calls for mixing hashish with stuff like almonds and cinnamon, and it was eaten at weddings. This connects me to the next question I have for you, about drugs, since it was your field of writing at Rolling Stone. And of course there’s your history at college in the wild ‘60s with LSD and the Grateful Dead, and I know with food also. Does it all connect for you?

I’ve never asked myself that question. I suppose in some way it probably does, but I don’t know. My problem was that I had been a pothead. And when I started working at Rolling Stone I found I had to stop, because I couldn’t get any writing done. So there I was, the dope editor for Rolling Stone, and I didn’t smoke marijuana or take any drugs at all.

Let’s talk about LSD. Was it connected to your interest in food?

It was not connected with food. Well, actually, I had come across an Indian cookbook during the ‘60s, and so I cooked nothing but Indian food for three years, which was the period when my college roommate was pouring huge quantities of LSD into the San Francisco Bay Area. You’ve heard about Owsley Stanley?

Of course.

He’s the most unusual, eccentric character I’ve ever known. But he was very determined. When he experienced LSD he said, ‘Well, we’ve got to have a lot more of this and we’ve got to have the very highest quality’. Most chemists were just trying not to be noticed, they were afraid the police would get after them. He didn’t care, he just proceeded and boldly made huge quantities. He had a theory that the police were only looking for people who were trying not to be noticed. If you were flamboyant they’d figure there was obviously nothing going on. So he got away with it for a very long time. He made probably six million doses of LSD, that’s my best estimate.

Apartamento Magazine - Charles Perry

Was it good?

I was one of his experimental guinea pigs. He would try out a new drug and say ‘Here, try this’. I would come back a couple of days later and say, ‘Oh my god, everything turned into a river of butterscotch for three days’. He’d say, ‘Oh, that’s right, you took too much’.

That was during your Indian food period?

This was during my Indian period. It seemed sort of mystical, listening to sitar music, eating Indian food, and taking a lot of LSD. It all seemed to fit together.

But when writing about it, you didn’t touch it. Did other writers you worked with use it?

Well, other people did. I don’t think it did them any good. For me, if I was stoned, I could either write nonsense or things that are so true they’re meaningless. But there was a kind of middle ground I couldn’t reach unless I was—coffee became my drug.

As dope editor, did coffee go into this category?

I haven’t written so much about coffee. I went to Yemen in order to see the coffee plantations there. It was quite fascinating. It’s a shame the Yemenis do not have a very organised coffee trade because they have some wonderful coffee there. The farmers just raise some coffee and then they pick the beans and put them in a sack in the corner of their house. And when they need some money they sell some coffee, which means the sack is sitting on the ground and getting a little bit damp and the coffee beans develop that wine-like flavour that connoisseurs find in Yemeni coffee. I don’t know if it would be different if they were using modern technology for their coffee. Another fascinating country. All the guys have big knives in their belts and are carrying AK-47s. But when you get to know them they’re really nice guys. They have a sense of humour.

I found a small book in my library that was written by a Tunisian guy who went to Los Angeles in the ‘50s. His name was Robaire, and he had a French restaurant in LA.

Oh yes, his place was called Robaire’s!

Robaire’s, yes. His family name is like mine—Haddad—it’s Jewish Tunisian. The book title is From Tunis to Los Angeles. A friend in Tunis gave it to me; her father basically gave him the money for the boat ticket to the US. It’s a funny book. It’s about life in Tunis with the Sicilians, Maltese, Corsicans, and all these people that used to be in Tunis in the ‘40s and ‘50s. He was cooking for the American soldiers that came after World War II, then it talks about opening a place in Los Angeles, making them hamburgers.

So that’s how it happened? I never knew that.

Apartamento Magazine - Charles Perry

Usually Tunisians don’t go to the US, but he went there. He didn’t know so much about hamburgers, but he knew the French people. It’s interesting that Tunisians introduced French cuisine wherever they went—part of the common thinking that French cuisine was superior, but of course it was always with a Tunisian touch.

French cuisine was very fashionable in the ‘80s, but then Californian chefs learnt French cooking techniques and they started inventing dishes of their own, and they called it California cuisine. And French cuisine, people just forgot about it. It’s hard to find in Los Angeles now, although Robaire’s lasted for a very long time and was a very romantic place. All the murals on the walls suggested a romantic view of Paris, and once a week he had some Tunisian dishes.

I think it was the fish couscous, because the only place with fish couscous is Tunis and no one understands it—the Moroccans, Algerians, the Libyans. The Sicilians are now doing fish couscous after they visited. But Tunis is practically a fish country.

That was one of the things that makes the eastern Arab world different: there is not nearly so much fish as there is around Tunisia and Spain because of the warm waters where there’s an abundance of fish. So in the medieval Arabic cookbooks from Syria and Iraq and Egypt, when they have a recipe for fish they just say ‘fish’, samak. It’s whatever fish you can get; buri is the only fish that is ever named. But in the cookbooks from North Africa they’ll specify 15 or 20 different kinds of fish, which are used for particular dishes. It’s one of the great differences between east and west. I do know they have a strange belief in Lebanon and Syria that if you eat fish and yogurt together you’ll get sick.

Did someone try it?

I guess not! They didn’t know about this in the Middle Ages because there are recipes for fish with yogurt in the medieval cookbooks.I was talking to Youssef Ben Ismail, who studies the Ottoman Empire, and he told me that tomatoes were brought to the Ottoman Empire first, before they arrived in Europe.

I was talking to Youssef Ben Ismail, who studies the Ottoman Empire, and he told me that tomatoes were brought to the Ottoman Empire first, before they arrived in Europe.

Were they suspicious of it, because it was red like blood? In some places people didn’t like tomatoes for that reason. The leaves also look like the leaves of a well-known poisonous plant.

I know that in the US there was this physician in South Carolina that promised eternal life for anyone who ate tomatoes, to remove the fear from people.

On the other hand, during the 16th century the Italians were frying green tomatoes. They were treating them just like eggplant, harvesting them while they were still green and frying them like sliced eggplant. That’s a tradition in the American south, fried green tomatoes. I’ve never had them, but they’re said to be good.

Apartamento Magazine - Charles Perry
Apartamento Magazine - Charles Perry

In Baghdad, the aubergine that came from India is considered the sultan of the kitchen. How did it achieve this status and become one of the most important ingredients of this cuisine?

The eggplant originally came from Southeast Asia. Vavilov’s principle says that you can tell where a plant was first domesticated by the fact that it has the largest number of cultivated varieties there. In Southeast Asia, there are the red aubergines, tiny white egg-like ones, bitter green-striped ones, as well as native words for eggplant in Khmer, Vietnamese, and Thai. When India learnt of the eggplant, it adopted one of those Southeast Asian names for it, which was spelled in Sanskrit as vatingana. Unfortunately, in Sanskrit this word looks as if it means ‘belonging to the wind class’, and in India the wind is associated with madness. In Europe, madness is associated with the moon, because the moon’s appearance is ever-changing, like the unsteady mind of a lunatic; the wind also changes all the time. So when the eggplant entered Iran and then the Middle East, it came with a reputation for causing insanity. The Tuaregs still believe that if you eat eggplant every day for 40 days you will go crazy.
Doctors also found its appearance threatening because of the medieval ‘doctrine of the signatures’, where people thought that the medical nature of a plant was shown in its appearance. So the eggplant made people suspicious, because a raw eggplant does have a creepy texture, greyish and dry and spongy. Doctors warned that the eggplant would cause not only madness but a sore throat, freckles, and cancer. The reputation for causing madness even reached Europe, which is why in Italian badhinjana became melanzana, because of a folk etymology—mala insana means crazy apple.

How did it end up becoming normalised?

Eventually, people just decided to ignore the doctors. The 10th-century poet Kushajim wrote, ‘The doctor makes ignorant fun of me for liking eggplant, but I will not give it up. Its flavour is like the saliva generously exchanged by lovers in kissing’. The turning point appears to have been the famous ninth-century wedding of al-Ma’mun and Buran, the biggest party of the Middle Ages, which went on for over a week. In the 10th century we begin to see dishes named for Buran—badhinjan buran and buraniyya. Today there are dishes named borani or braniya everywhere from Iran to North Africa, and in Spain there’s alboronia. Buraniyya ramified into a category of stews of meat with any vegetable—although in Iran, borani was yogurt with a vegetable—and as a result these dishes are not made with eggplant today. New eggplant dishes have been developed, particularly since the 16th century, because the Turks fell in love with it.
So the answer to your question is: once people got over their fear, they developed a taste for the rich and meaty, if slightly bitter flavour of eggplant and its versatility—you can fry it, boil it, bake it, make it into a paste—and the Ottoman Turks featured it strongly in the cuisine that spread from Istanbul throughout the Arab world, except for the remote corners, like Morocco and Oman.

Apartamento Magazine - Charles Perry

What’s the history of street food around this area? It’s common to think that in traditional societies street food isn’t common because men are expected to eat at home. But Istanbul has broken this assumption for years.

Basically, street food is common in big cities but not in smaller communities. In medieval Paris a lot of people lived largely on street food, and I have read that in Tenochtitlan—the ancestor of Mexico City—virtually nobody cooked at home. Likewise, in a small town or rural region, people might have a tandoor oven in their homes, but in cities people commonly send the dishes they want to bake to a professional oven. I remember seeing children in Beirut carrying tray-like dishes of stew on their heads to the bakery. This may be because of the crowded nature of cities, meaning there’s less room at home, and because in areas with large populations there are always more economic specialisations.
There was something else I wanted to tell you. First of all, what I remember is that the cooking of Damascus has a very strong Turkish influence because it was a local administrative centre. A friend of mine from Damascus was homesick and he asked his mother to send him a list of all the dishes she used to make for him, so I have a great big long list of Damascus dishes. Another thing that strikes me that does not exactly fit the east–west division: there is sort of a line that goes from the Bosporus down to, say, around Algeria, and south of that line people eat olives as a snack or for breakfast and north of that line they also add them to dishes when they cook. French and Italian food has a lot of stews with olives in them, but that would never occur to anybody in Syria. I refer to it as the olive line.

The olive line. I think the joke is that in this area they also play dominos and not cards. Maybe it’s connected to the olives. But these lines are always interesting. Let’s go back east, to the area around southeast Turkey. You have the birth of monotheism there, you have the birthplace of the kebab, and also the birth of wheat, which is very interesting. Today with this Mediterranean diet that everyone talks about, is it like a retro thing, because in the beginning that’s where everything came from? This Mediterranean diet is also at the heart of many political discussions.

Oh yes, certainly. That’s where so many ingredients were domesticated: wheat and barley, chickpeas, olives. Once you got that, you got a good start.

For you, what’s the use of cookbooks, their most important character? Recipes or delivering stories?

Well, as a food historian, I am very conscious of the fact that cookbooks are just a tiny, tiny fraction of what was being cooked in the past. They’re just the tip of the iceberg. Everybody eats every day and they don’t necessarily write down their recipes. I’m humbled by the study of food history. I’m excited by it, but I know that I can’t possibly grasp the whole picture. Some cookbooks have stories. That 10th-century Arabic cookbook has a wonderful story in which it was claimed that the Persian emperor invented noodles. I don’t believe it. But there are stories like that. No, I’m interested in the recipes, because, as I told you, what interested me about Lebanese food was that ingredients put together systematically in a different way produce entirely different cuisines. And that’s what I’m looking for. That’s the thing that interests me.

Apartamento Magazine - Charles Perry
food, interview, issue 26
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