Geek of the Week

Around the World in 300 Cookbooks

James Zarsadiaz, assistant professor of history, explores cultures in the kitchen.

What makes you a geek?
I collect cookbooks.

How many do you have?
I have more than 300 cookbooks — in my studio apartment. I keep my academic books in my office because there isn’t room at home.

How did you get into cooking?
My grandmother helped raise me, and I would watch her cook traditional family dishes. Then, in high school, I was inspired by television personalities like Martha Stewart and Ina Garten. But the cooking really started when I moved to Chicago for graduate school. I taught myself by reading cookbooks. In those five years, I acquired 30 or 40 cookbooks. When I moved to San Francisco, I started cooking more seriously.

Do history and cooking overlap?
All the time. I have cookbooks on the culinary traditions, customs, and food histories of Oman, Israel, and Thailand, to name a few. I knew a bit about these places already, but often cookbooks meld cooking with culture. I travel the world through gastronomy.

What’s your favorite dish?
A Filipino dish I grew up with called sinigang. It’s a tamarind-based soup with vegetables and usually pork, shrimp, or fish. I often make it with pork ribs and serve it with steamed rice. It’s my go-to meal if I want comfort food.

How can cooking change the world?
Cooking gives people a reason to come together. It’s also a space with many opportunities for exchange — cultural exchange, learning about technique and flavors, and understanding the origins of dishes shaped by histories of trade, politics, or culinary trends over time. That exposure opens your mind to new things. Cooking takes you out of your kitchen and makes you a much more global person.

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