September 6, 2015
By Corinna Lothar
MY ORGANIC LIFE
By Nora Pouillon
Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95, 288 pages
NONG’S THAI KITCHEN
By Alexandra Greeley
Tuttle, $14.95, 160 pages
Nora Pouillon was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1943, the third daughter of a middle-class family; her father owned a glass factory; her mother was a free-spirited housewife. “My Organic Life” is the story of her journey from “one of those magical places of childhood” spent partly on a farm in the Tyrolean Alps, to chef/owner of Restaurant Nora in Washington, D.C., the first organically certified restaurant in the United States.
From her years on the farm, she learned about food grown the natural way. As a teenager, Nora traveled with her mother and sisters to Italy. During a trip to Yugoslavia, she met a dashing French journalist, whom she married, although he was 17 years her senior. When husband Pierre Pouillon was offered a job at the Voice of America in Washington, the couple moved and started a new life.
“Overwhelmed by American supermarkets” and shocked by the lack of fresh food, Ms. Pouillon began her search for better ingredients. Her mantra became “the most important thing was the ingredients – they should be fresh, seasonal, and natural” prepared simply, “letting the flavors speak for themselves.”
The Pouillons became part of a circle of foreign diplomats and journalists from whom and with whom she learned to cook. (Her comment that life was difficult on Pierre’s annual salary of $10,000 is disingenuous; $10,000 was a substantial income in mid-’60s Washington.)
Ambitious, passionate about organic food and talented, Ms. Pouillon quickly became known for her cooking. She accepted a job as chef at the Tabard Inn, and later, opened her own establishment, Restaurant Nora. In 1999, Restaurant Nora became the first restaurant in the country to receive an organic certification.
In the meantime, the Pouillons had two sons. The marriage disintegrated and the children lived with their father. She had a daughter with her longtime life and business partner, Steven Damato, and they adopted a little girl from Russia.
The second part of the book is about Ms. Pouillon’s efforts to improve the American table with healthy, organically grown products. Today, her children are grown, she is separated from Steven Damato, but her involvement with the organic food remains her passion.
“My Organic Life” is a curious medley of interesting facts and pedestrian writing (written with Laura Fraser). Much of her account is honest and direct, yet the book lacks charm and humor. She speaks throughout of delicious food made only with organic ingredients, but fails to include even a single recipe.
Like Nora Pouillon, chef-restauranteur Nongkran Daks, of “Nong’s Thai Kitchen,” was “born to cook.” At the age of 7, “she was required to make ten curry pastes each afternoon to sell at the local open market” in her small town of Langsuan in southern Thailand where she was born. During high school in Bangkok, she cooked for her friends.
In 1965, the same year that Nora Pouillon married Pierre, Nongkran married Peace Corps volunteer Larry Daks. The marriage brought her to the United States. In the years that followed, the couple lived in various places in the United States and in China, Laos, Taiwan and Thailand. Nongkran taught cooking in Thailand and ran a snack bar featuring Thai and Western food. She gave cooking classes and catered food for diplomatic parties while living in Beijing.
Upon returning to the States in 1996, Ms. Daks gave cooking classes in her home and finally was able to fulfill her dream of opening her own restaurant, Thai Basil, in Chantilly, Va. She was the winner in the Food Network’s “Pad Thai Throwdown with Bobby Flay” in 2009. After her subsequent appearance on the Food Channel, she became “something of a local legend.”
Unlike “My Organic Life,” however, Nongkran did not write “Nong’s Thai Kitchen.” She supplied the 160 recipes. Alexandra Greeley, who lived in Thailand and has broad knowledge of Asian cuisine, is the author. Ms. Greeley explains that Thai cuisine is a product of migrant Chinese, Indian, Burmese and European influences, as well as from neighboring countries of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia. The Chinese “made three major contributions to Thai cuisine:” rice, the wok and fish sauce. The Portuguese missionaries contributed the chili.
There are color photographs in the book illustrating each dish. Most recipes are easy to follow and include preparation and cooking times for each recipe. The book is replete with charming anecdotes and legends, and cultural information.
The many ingredients used in Thai cuisine are listed and their uses explained. Ingredients can be purchased in the Washington area in most Chinese groceries or at Thai grocers such as the Thai Market in Silver Spring, Md.
• Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.