THE LANGUAGE OF FOOD

I have been thinking a lot recently about food and language. It all started last summer with the Independence Day Parade in the little village of Greensboro, Vermont, when the former State Poet Laureate, Galway Kinnell, was ceremoniously driven on a float through Main Street and delivered to the library, where he gave a poetry reading to an appreciative audience.

The first poem he read was “Blackberry Eating”—a poem I’ve long cherished because it evokes so sensuously the pleasure of picking the fall blackberries in the woods all around us. But I’d never heard Galway read it aloud and I was once again struck by the power of the language of food. As he mouthed the words strengths, squinched, splurge they became the essence of blackberries and we were pulled into the “silent, startled, icy black language of blackberries in late September,” happily licking our lips.

Then I was asked to be on a panel at the Oxford Symposium, which takes place once a year, gathering food writers from all over, and the subject was to be on Food and Language. How could I resist? So it got me thinking even more about how we use—or don’t use—language to express our feelings about food.

As I looked at the literature, I couldn’t help but agree with the critic Clifton Fadiman who wrote in an introduction to M.F.K. Fisher’s The Art of Eating: “We Americans do not take gladly to the literature of gastronomy . . . We must feel there is something licentious or censorable about it.” Certainly I grew up in a household where it was considered impolite to talk about food at the table and we were always being told to shut the kitchen door so the cooking smells wouldn’t escape. Furthermore the food industry ever since the nineteenth century had been telling us that cooking was demeaning and that the poor little housewife shouldn’t have to stoop to such lowly work (so buy our products instead).

What a long way we’ve come in just about fifty years. Finally the veil has been lifted and we’re able to enjoy the art of cooking, to slap the dough around, massage the chicken with butter, and sizzle the garlic until it smells up the whole house. And to write about it with joy. There is also a lot of interesting investigative reporting going on that has alerted us to some of the current practices of the food industry, and we are so much more aware of what we eat thanks to this kind of writing

So good, evocative writing about food has been a part of our culture now for more than half a century, ever since M.F.K. Fisher first wrote ecstatically about picking and eating fresh peas to the sound of a cowbell in the Swiss Alps and, more practically, Julia Child described the signs of doneness in a roast chicken as “a sudden rain of splatters in the oven, a swelling of the breast, and a light puff of the skin, and the drumstick is tender when pressed and can be moved in its socket.”

But at the same time the art of writing a recipe—and it is an art—has not improved; in fact it has deteriorated. In the interest of saving space, magazines, newspapers, even most cookbooks have reduced recipe writing to a formula that isn’t even particularly effective and certainly isn’t sufficiently instructive.

For example, a typical recipe today will tell us, “In a bowl, combine the first mixture with the second mixture.” Why does the bowl have to come first? (That’s not even good English). What exactly is meant by “combine”? Do we stir, fold, toss, mix (aren’t these more accurate terms?)? And what is “the first mixture”? Is it the milk in the first step which was warmed with a little sugar (does that make it a mixture?)? And where is the second mixture? We have to go chasing around for that. Why not say the warmed milk and then refer to the batter or the dough, or whatever the second mixture is? That way we learn accepted culinary terms. Or use old fashioned, serviceable expressions, such as “the dry ingredients” or “the wet ingredients.” I also wonder, if they are trying to economize on space, why the directions constantly tell us to “Set aside.” What are we going to do: throw it out after we’ve done all that combining?

I also find the insistence on telling us the preparation time for a recipe is a joke. Who is doing the prep—Jacques Pépin or you or me? There would certainly be a difference, and anyway who cares! What I miss in these recipes is the voice of the teacher, empowering the home cook, enabling us to make our own judgments, and be creative about correcting, adding, and substituting. It is only through that kind of careful, creative language that we come to understand the heart and soul of good cooking.

LEARN FROM YOUR POTS AND PANS

In writing a story the other day for Saveur, about the evolution of my kitchen, I was made aware once again of how much one’s work space is a reflection of the person whose domain it is. Over the years I’ve not only become attached to my batterie de cuisine but so many of the pots and pans and kitchen implements and memorabilia, even my Garland stove, have taught me valuable lessons in cooking.

When I decided that there was a need for a good book on the strategy of cooking for one, I realized that an important part of reducing recipes and making them work in single portions lay in adjusting the pan size. I had to rethink my cooking habits, and gradually I stashed away the big equipment on top shelves. I hung close to the stove, within easy reach, my 4-cup Le Creuset pot, my trusty 8-inch iron skillet, a small wok, an omelet pan, and my father’s miniature square skillet. They have become my fellow conspirators in conjuring up new dishes.

The wok gave me the idea of sautéing a leafy green vegetable in a little olive oil and a few slivers of garlic until almost tender, then nestling in an egg (or 2) to steam with the greens. The omelet pan always beckons when I’m looking for a quick supper and can put to use some of the tidbits I’ve stored in the fridge to make an omelet or a heartier frittata. The small square frying pan that my father left me inspired me to reduce my Potato Dish for Julia to a potato dish just for me; it was just the right size and shape.

My 6-inch iron skillet is probably the pan I use the most. It is the right vehicle for a dinner-in-one-dish because it lends itself to quick searing and then resting in the oven (just remember to use a sturdy potholder when you take it out). It is the perfect pan for making a dinner such as fried eggplant slices with a thin layer of meaty cutlets; you do the frying and layering on top of the stove, splash in a bit of tomato sauce and broth, top with cheese, and then slip it into the oven for a final 10 minutes. I’ve found that both skirt steaks and fillets of fish are best seared quickly in my iron pan and then left to finish cooking for a few minutes in the oven; when I take them out, the sizzling hot skillet is ideal for making a fast pan sauce. A quick dressing for pasta can also be made in that pan or in the wok while the pasta cooks and then—à la Lidia Bastianich—I fish the strands out of the boiling water with a big mesh spoon and tongs and drop them into the sauce for a final cooking.

Sometimes just seeing a pan in a kitchenware shop can be an inspiration. That’s what happened when I first encountered the relatively new popover pan with its separate cups. I had to have it and went right home to experiment with making just two popovers, which worked (and, of course, you can bake them in Pyrex cups). The individual tart pan with its fluted edge and removable bottom sets off my taste memory and I am thinking of all the possibilities of a little quiche.

I remember that when Evan and I returned in 1951 from three and a half years in Paris I was determined to bring home the cocotte I had bought in the flea market there. I had learned to make in that heavy iron pot reasonably good stews and braises and I suspected that I would never find anything like it in those days in New York, where light aluminum for the frail, beleaguered housewife was still the rage. But there was something deeper here: I knew that that cocotte connected me to the French for whom cooking was a pleasure and sitting down to a meal was to be honored, whether en famille or alone (perhaps even more so if you are alone).

A brief video of Judith on the Wall Street Journal site

Greetings, all. There is a pleasant little video of Judith on the Wall Street Journal’s website. It’s worth a look. It’s accompanied by a brief Q&A.

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