Dido does Chermoula

August 30, 2011

I am often intimidated by sauce recipes. Not tomato sauce–that I can manage–but the spicier sauces of Asian and African cookery that run a long list of ingredients. Chermoula is a case in point: cilantro, mint, lemons, serranos, shallots, garlic, cumin, coriander, paprika, olive oil, and salt. The recipe did not mention salt, but I can assure you that salt was very necessary.

Now that I list the contents, perhaps it does not seem so impressive. Perhaps it does not look so impressive either.

Chermoula is from Tunisia where it might be eaten with breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Queen Elissa (better known by her Latin name, Dido) though Phoenician in origin, traveled to where Tunisia now stands to found the city of Carthage.

Dido was a good ruler. Her city was productive, peaceful, and beautiful. Alas, Dido fell in love with Aeneas and Virgil tells us that when he left for Rome she stabbed herself, jumped into a burning pyre and swore eternal strife between her land and Rome. She was the original “drama queen.”  However, she was perfectly lovely at dinner.

Over several glasses of wine Dido explained that she was merely acting as a vehicle for the goddesses Juno and Venus in her flamboyant suicide curse. Left to her own devises she would have simply given Aeneas a good meal, a thorough tour, several chests of gold and sent him on his way. She would not have waged war for thousands of years. Love was a poor excuse for all that bloodshed. Salt, on the other hand, well…


Perhaps you have not heard of Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffman, but surely you know the Nutcracker. The Nutcracker ballet is based off of a translation by Alexandre Dumas of an E.T.A. Hoffman story called Nussknacker und Mausekönig written in 1816. Speaking of kings, Hoffman grew up in Königsberg in the late eighteenth century. And so we meet again dear old Kant–someday I’ll make a meal for him.

Nussknacker und Mausekönig is not about sugar plum fairies and little Clara. In fact, the girl’s name is Marie. A great portion of the book is backstory and my what a backstory. It gave me nightmares throughout my childhood. Here is what I remembered:

There was once a pretty princess. Her parents were making cheesecake and slighted the rats by not sharing. In revenge a rat bit the toe of the little girl and turned her ugly. Ugly ugly ugly.

I was terrified. I slept with my feet thoroughly mummified under layer and layer of cover in a futile attempt to deter rats (there is also a story about a crow taking someones toe while they sleep with different sorts of repercussions). An ugly spell seemed much worse than many other things–and even recently when I learned that a friend of a friend was bitten on the foot by a rat in the streets of New York, I took to wearing close toed shoes.

The real story is different, but not by much. I learned this after inviting Hoffman over for cheesecake.

“Cheesecake,” (in the background) I said, “like in your story!”

Hoffman politely corrected me. First of all, German cheesecake is made with quark, not cream cheese. Secondly, the queen was making sausages and she shares the fat with Dame Mouserinks–a witch rat–who takes more than her fair quota. Millions of rat relatives partake. There is scarcely anything left for the sausage party. That evening, when the sausage is served to the king, he begins to weep.

“A nameless sorrow seemed to be weighing on him. At last, after the doctor had tried every remedy he could think of–burning feathers under the king’s nose, and so on–the royal patient seemed to come around a bit. He stammered, barely audibly, the words, “Too little fat!””

Well, naturally the queen feels terrible (side note, Thomas Keller instructs vigilantly that when making a cheesecake one should NOT use lowfat anything and if you desire fewer calories, cut a smaller slice.) The king takes revenge by killing as many of the rat queen’s relatives as possible and then the toe biting incident occurs.

Hoffman is a romantic and a satirist. Some say that the rat king is based off of Napoleon. I asked Hoffman, but he wouldn’t say. Perhaps because his mouth was full of cheesecake? Perhaps.