Atascadero native Tori Avey is a food sleuth.
Part history detective, part impassioned chef, she sifts through dusty cookbooks and yellowed, handwritten recipe cards to unearth long-forgotten culinary secrets. She shares her discoveries via two popular blogs, “The Shiksa in the Kitchen” and “The History Kitchen,” and columns for PBS Food and Parade.com.
“Sometimes you go back in those old cookbooks and you find something that just blows your mind,” said Avey, who lives in the Hollywood Hills. “You realize how much our tastes have evolved over time and how much things have changed.”
Avey, who grew up in Atascadero and San Luis Obispo, developed her taste for fresh flavors and international cuisine as a child, picking vegetables and pulling weeds in her grandparents’ garden in Templeton. Avid travelers with artistic tastes, they introduced her to the exotic dishes they’d eaten overseas — incorporating couscous from Morocco into one meal, spices from India into another.
“They were actually a huge influence on me,” said Avey, who graduated from Atascadero High School in 1997 and earned a bachelor’s degree in theater arts at USC in 2001. “I was listening to classical music when my friends were listening to New Kids on the Block.”
Avey developed an interest in Jewish cuisine after meeting her Israeli-born husband, composer and “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” co-creator Shuki Levy. Her first foray into kosher cooking was shakshuka, a North African dish featuring eggs poached in a spicy tomato sauce.
She soon became fascinated by Levy’s family history; his father is a Russian Jew whose Ashkenazi ancestors settled in Northern and Eastern Europe, while his Israeli mother belongs to the Sephardic Jewish community based in the Mediterranean and Middle East. That led her to delve into the stories behind his favorite foods.
She started “The Shiksa in the Kitchen” on Jan. 1, 2010, to share those dishes with fellow foodies.
Avey’s blog offers light, flavorful recipes such as roasted vegetable moussaka, sriracha seared salmon cakes and creamy baba ghanoush, with a special emphasis on seasonal and holiday cooking.
“Food is very reflective of culture and the particular conflicts that were happening at different times in history,” she said, noting that the Diaspora resulted in Jewish populations developing a wide array of cuisines. “Once you start looking at the food of a particular time period or area, it leads to a much larger story of what was going on in that (period).”
According to Avey, the inspiration for “The History Kitchen” came when she decided to research how her great-grandmother would have made a pie from scratch.
“It started an obsession for me of looking at these old cookbooks and trying to put myself in the time and place when they were published,” said Avey, who launched the blog about two years ago.
In her “History Kitchen” posts, the self-taught culinary anthropologist carefully researches the history and methodology behind such dishes as ambrosia fruit salad, apple pudding and raspberry cordial. She tests each recipe four to six times with the help of her full-time culinary assistant, Ashley.
In addition, Avey enlists the help of food historians and culinary whizzes including Louise Mellor, whose contributions include Southern-style barbecue sauce and Parker House rolls, and Gil Marks, whose American Cakes series reveals the origins of such favorites as carrot cake, red velvet cake and sour cream coffee cake.
According to Avey, it’s sometimes difficult to separate food fact from fiction. “There’s a lot of misinformation out there. There are a lot of wives’ tales,” she said, particularly when it comes to recipes associated with famous people like Abraham Lincoln.
Another challenge she faces is adapting historical recipes for contemporary audiences. Folks in the past used different equipment and different ingredients than today’s cooks and were notoriously vague in regard to measurements and cooking temperatures.
Although she acknowledges that some “History Kitchen” recipes are more fun to read than they are to make — Shakespearean funeral meats, anyone? — “For me, it’s all inspiration,” Avey said. “Once I make something it inspires what I do in everyday cooking.”
For instance, she now swears by a butter pie crust recipe she found in a 1942 pamphlet titled “Aunt Chick’s Pies.”
“It really gave me a foundation for how I make crusts now,” she said. “It’s so much better than store-bought pie crust, and so much easier than I ever thought it would be.”
Another favorite find was ful mudammas, a fava bean stew served with tomatoes, onions and hardboiled eggs. “It’s very healthy, but very filling,” said Avey, who encountered the dish while researching biblical food.
Avey also has uncovered historical recipes with Central Coast connections, including the famous soup served at Pea Soup Andersen’s in Buellton and Welsh rarebit, publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst’s favorite late-night snack at Hearst Castle in San Simeon.
Avey balances her blogging with a second career as a Hollywood screenwriter specializing in children’s programming. She and her husband are currently working on the television show “Tribe of the Wild” about five high school friends who are abducted by aliens.
Given her busy schedule, it’s not surprising that Avey always has history on her mind.
“I want a time machine more than anything,” she joked. “That would be the best gift anybody could ever give me.”