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A party, Paula Wolfert, and the food of Morocco

The waiter brings the lamb tagine, a stew lightly seasoned with turmeric, in a wide, shallow dish similar to the bottom half of a clay tagine vessel. But instead of setting it in the middle of our table, where we can scoop it out with our fingers as is traditional, the waiter holds the bowl and hands the first guest a spoon so he can dish as much of the stew onto his plate as he wants.

We are sitting on fat cushions around a low table, in a temporary tent-like structure behind the Raleigh Hotel on Miami Beach. There’s a Maybach in the pool, atop a platform just high enough that the water laps at its tires on all sides. The party is part of the general Art Basel celebration. This party, which celebrates the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art as well, is sponsored by the Kingdom of Morocco and Maybach, a luxury car that Mercedes-Benz announced just days ago it would stop producing by 2013.

I am here to learn more about Morocco, a country that has long been high on my where-to-go-next list, but has somehow never made it to the top, and to meet Paula Wolfert, author of the seminal 1973 book, Couscous and Other Good Food From Morocco, and a just-released reworking of that book, called The Food of Morocco, with many new recipes and a recognition of how eating habits have changed there.

Wolfert moroccoWolfert, who lived in Morocco on and off between 1959 and 1976, talks lovingly of the country, its food and its people. She was able to write such a comprehensive cookbook, she says, because she went into private homes and learned how women cooked dishes that had been handed down without written recipes. When she went back a year ago, as she was working on the new book, she saw major changes, caused by the fact that so many people had moved from the countryside into the big cities, modified their eating habits, bought their food at the supermarket instead of the souk.

The food we’re eating was inspired by Wolfert, an admitted stickler for authenticity, but it is not true Moroccan cuisine, she says. Wolfert says she and the chef conferred by phone. She made some suggestions, but told him to make whatever variations he needed to, based on the ingredients available in Miami and what he was comfortable with. She won’t take either credit or blame for the food – the chef, taking her at her word, has created dishes that are at best cousins to true Moroccan cuisine. Wolfert talks wistfully, like the author of a best-selling novel that has been turned into a screenplay that doesn’t follow the book as closely as she might have wished.

Perhaps the most significant departure is the way we are eating the lamb tagine, a stew named after the distinctive lidded clay pot in which it is cooked. The tagine is central to Moroccan life, says Wolfert, because a family eats it together, out of the same dish, scooping it out with three fingers. Not only does this habit create fellowship, but by leaving the stew in the tagine, it stretches to feed however many people are eating, supplemented by bread and vegetables. Divide it among separate bowls, though, and the portions might be tiny.

I look around at the well-dressed crowd – stylishly short cocktail dresses, painfully high heels, fashionable sports jackets and lots of jewelry – and know these people aren’t going to be eating stew with their fingers. So I spoon some onto my plate, along with couscous, roasted cauliflower, and a chunk of whole roasted red snapper, and I eat my dinner with a fork. And think maybe it’s time to move Morocco to the top of that list.