Clay, fire, food, family and friends
by Sydney Bender
In West Tisbury, at the home of Eisner Award winning cartoonist Paul Karasik, hats hang like art on bookshelves that border a big open living room. Half completed crossword puzzles drape over paperback novels on a large wooden coffee table. Doors are left open, exposing the front porch and backyard garden. Spices inside glass jars look like sand art; the reds and yellows and greens accent the open wooden pantry shelf. Wind slithers inside the house; cilantro leaves on the cutting board flutter. The décor of the house tells its own story, but the stories the Karasiks tell are much better.
They’re quick-witted people. Inside their home there’s chatter and laughter, you can hear the seashell wind chime from the outside and the rattling of a newspaper being folded up like a map from the inside.
Dinner parties where you don’t know everyone are always interesting. Dinner parties with a conehead-shaped pot make for especially interesting times.
“Tagine,” Paul says. “Tonight we are eating cod tagine.”
Tagine (also spelled tajine): The name refers to the clay vessel this traditional Berber dish is both cooked and served in.
Tagine is also the name for the meal itself. The word has Moroccan heritage; it means a shallow earthen pot, which describes the two-piece clay conical-shaped cooking vessel that slow-cooks the meal.
Paul credits his stepdaughter, Gia Winsryg- Ulmer, as the cook of the house. She’s been cooking tagine for the family since the late ’90s, when her love for the cuisine first blossomed. After a semester stay in Africa for a study abroad program through Brown University, Gia introduced her family to tagine. Soon after she returned to the United States, the rest of her family made visits to Morocco, the birthplace of Gia’s husband, Rachid Bachabella. But without needing to travel, it’s through food that the Karasiks get a taste of Africa. Tagine dinner parties instantly transport them back to Morocco.
Tagine in America is a meal for all seasons, Gia boasts, because the protein is the variable. “We eat beef more in the winter,” says Gia, “But in Morocco there’s not much of a division between winter and summer, so tagine is more seasonal in the U.S.”
Gia, a willowy woman with big apple cheeks, pours a cup of tea while holding her baby girl, Asiya. She looks like a woman in a Johannes Vermeer painting.
And like that artist, everything Gia does is with care.
“My mother and Paul moved to Martha’s Vineyard when I was 13. I came here in the summer, every summer since I was 13. Before that, we lived here when I was a year old, then we moved to New York and I became more of a summer resident on the Island,” says Gia, who spent one year, 8th grade, at the West Tisbury School.
“And Gia’s always liked to cook,” Paul adds.
“I like to cook. Marsha and I trade cooking recipes,” she says of her mother. When Gia was little, Marsha baked pastries and bread in New York City at the 14th Street Union Square Farmers’ Market. Later on,
Gia baked pastries and bread at the Ag Hall for the West Tisbury Farmers’ Market.
Gia takes cod out of the refrigerator and unwraps the paper off it delicately. “In Morocco, you’ll never see a filet like this; you see the whole fish. Filet is Western,” says
Gia, “My husband says fish tastes better with the bones.”
The biggest difference between tagine in Morocco and tagine on Martha’s Vineyard is the cooking vessel. Authentic tagines in Africa are easier to break and thus cheaper. In America they are much more expensive and not as easy to find. But no matter where in the world you eat tagine, the style of cooking and eating never changes.
The Karasik kitchen counter is a smorgasbord of cutting boards the color of potato and turnip skin shreds, miniature glass teacups, and hand-woven baskets, each one with a story about how it was made or
where it’s from. Missing from the kitchen counter are measuring cups and utensils. Gia says she doesn’t measure ingredients.
“She makes it so often,” says Paul’s sister, Judy, “she just knows.”
Judy’s right; Gia knows.
It’s therapeutic watching Gia cook. She prudently picks up sliced vegetables and layers them into the tagine like a stained glass artist, creating her own circumactum mosaic; potato slices, pepper peels and tomatoes create a fan shape.
The only thing that can interrupt Gia from cooking is little Asiya. Her tiny head fits right into the palm of her hand, and she rocks her bundled baby back and forth, almost in sync with the wind swaying the tree leaves bordering the house.
Marsha takes Asiya, freeing up Gia to return to cooking.
Gia places the pot onto the stove. “Here’s where the real magic happens,” Paul says. This begins the slow cooking process where flavors start to develop because inside the tagine all condensation returns to the bottom of the pot. This waiting time is also for relaxing; it’s a time to go for a swim or a take a walk around the serene West Tisbury property.
“Want to see the garden?” Paul asks.
Walking around the Karasik’s garden is like getting a peek of a Leonardo da Vinci gallery.
After smelling some of the sweetest red tomatoes on Martha’s Vineyard, we walk back inside and sit on the couch. About an hour and a half have passed since I first arrived, but the tagine still won’t be ready for another twenty minutes. The bread on the counter seem the counter has risen since I last looked. The mounds under the draped cotton cloth look like ghosts.
Judy says, “Tagine is a good thing to break the social barrier.” Sitting on the floor facing each other, we all roll up our sleeves.
The most important part about tagine, according to this family, is cooking for those you love. “Always cook for people you really like because then you’re relaxed about cooking,” says Judy.
“It’s true,” says Paul.
Serving the meal is the easiest part: the clay top is removed and the bottom piece is placed in the center of a table, family style.
Gia piles the bread into one of Paul’s baskets and hands it to Marsha to start passing around.
“Bread [in Morroco] is not sacred in a religious sense,” Gia says, “but you always save the bread, save the scraps. Bread is just so important.” There are no plates or forks or knives, just cloth napkins. The
bread becomes the utensil.
Everyone agrees that tagine is a meal that must be eaten together. “We always sit on the floor,” says Judy, “Like this.”
Everyone around me smiles, nodding their heads and closing their eyes. I feel a hand on my shoulder. “You’re going to love cod tagine,” says Paul’s mother.
The tagine is placed in the center of everyone. Judy takes a piece of bread from the basket, rips it in half and hands it to me. The bread is warm. The floor is comfortable. This is what makes a house a home.
Sitting around the tagine, we scoop out fish, tomatoes, potatoes, preserved lemon.
Conversation turns to what we’re tasting, how it tastes, what it reminds us of. We talk about the lemon seeping into the flaky fish, the taste of tangy juice that leaks from the olives during the cooking process.
The spices, the setting, everything comes together.
When we finish the tagine, we’re served a plate of nectarines and peaches. The Karasiks like to finish a meal with fruit. Gia talks about Morocco and her stories make the meal even richer. But Gia, as Paul reminds
us at the end of the meal, having perfected the most traditional meal in North Africa, will always be an Island girl at heart.
There’s one thing all tagine lovers to agree on: If the meal isn’t shared with friends and family it isn’t the real deal. The whole process, Gia says, is what makes tagine so exquisite.
You’re never too young to start cooking with your mother, whether it be a daughter by her mother’s side at a Farmers’ Market or a mother rocking her newborn next to the kitchen sink. And you’re never too old to eat with your family, no matter where in the world you are, be it around a fire in Morocco, or on the floor with people you just met on the Island of Martha’s Vineyard.