In early October I was on a panel with a number of writers discussing the future of food writing—from books, magazines, and newspapers to blogs and twitters. It took place at the Mount, Edith Wharton’s home in Lenox, Mass., and I couldn’t help thinking that just in my lifetime food had come a long way; it was being honored here as a serious topic, launching a series of programs on the written word.
After much talk about current trends in restaurants and how the electronic media is changing the way we get our information, I suggested that what I really felt people were yearning for was a return to good home cooking. And a cheer went up from the audience. The same happened a few weeks later in a church in Norwich, Vermont (we had had to move from the bookstore to the church because so many food-loving people wanted to attend).
So there seems to be a movement afoot to get back into the kitchen and enjoy cooking. Maybe the downturn in the economy is having an effect. I think often of the artist Ed Giobbi, who wrote so affectionately about how, when he was growing up before World War II in a dreary New England industrial town, his family and neighbors would make frequent excursions to the coast to gather mussels (then considered trash fish by the rest of America). He wrote: “I suppose I remember these occasions because they were joyous and I tend to think of the Depression with some nostalgia. The gathering and preparing of food was a group effort and everyone was loving and open. Perhaps that’s why I have a special reverence for food.”
I have been particularly impressed recently by the number of young people—especially those faced with their first kitchen, usually tiny—who really want to cook for themselves. One of the things that inspires them, I believe, is a nostalgia for some of the good ethnic tastes they may have grown up on or were exposed to through travel. And because there is a growing awareness of how food is a means of telling about a culture, there is a new respect for learning about this endlessly fascinating subject. They not only save money but they eat better and enjoy the satisfaction of doing something creative.
Last week I was in New England promoting my new book The Pleasures of Cooking for One and I was asked by Nancy Supporta Sternbach, a professor of Spanish and Portuguese studies at Smith College, if I would meet with some of her students, who wanted to prepare some dishes for me before my talk at the Odyssey bookstore in South Hadley, Mass. It developed that she was teaching a course called What’s in a Recipeand it attracted students of different nationalities. I met with about ten of them—some with origins in Asia, India, the Middle East, France, and Italy. They delighted in getting together and making some of the dishes that had an interesting past. So they presented me with a sampling to fortify me for my talk. One student had made a tapenade and a spinach-yogurt dip; then there was a delectable rich winter squash soup; and the young lady from France had baked an interesting bergamot-seasoned cake, which was delicious dipped in tea. The elusive flavor of the bergamot led naturally to a discussion of what bergamot was and which countries used it and how.
Then an idea surfaced. Considering the success of reading groups all over the country, why not launch a series of food-and-book clubs? The focus would be on ways in which different authors treated food in their writing and members of the group could make dishes based on these descriptions. For instance, they might try to reproduce the dinner that Anne Tyler describes in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, in which the son in a dysfunctional family, now a chef, makes an eggplant soup with bananas—which, alas, doesn’t exactly succeed in pulling the family together.
Or the reading group might sample different cookbooks and find out which worked for them—which were genuine teaching books and which, through the sensuous description of a creation, inspired the novice cook to try what might have seemed a daunting recipe.
The handicap our young people face today as they start to cook is that most of them haven’t had the privilege of learning by osmosis, watching their mother (or father, or grandparent) cook, and absorbing all the subtle techniques. They are alone in the kitchen and there’s no one to turn to when the sauce curdles. But don’t despair. Help is now at hand. Once again Julia comes to the rescue.
About twenty-five years ago when Julia Child was at the height of her fame, we decided it would be a huge help to the home cook to create a series of tapes devoted to teaching all the basic techniques, from how to make a cream sauce and a hollandaise to cutting up a chicken and forming a tart shell. So I went out to Santa Barbara, where Julia was wintering, and worked with her long-time producer and director Russ Morash to produce a series of six teaching tapes called The Way to Cook. They were, and are, remarkable—the best 6-session cooking class you could ever attend. The only trouble was that the technology then was not up to the task. On those old tapes there was no instant access so you might have to go patiently through hamburgers, Sautéed Veal Scallops, Calf’s Liver, and Pot Roast before you got to the all-important technique of degreasing a sauce. Furthermore, you could only play these tapes on your TV screen, and most of us didn’t have televisions taking up space in the kitchen.
But now with DVDs we can, with our remote at the kitchen counter or stove, order up instantly that degreasing segment. We can take Julia into the kitchen on our desktop computer so it is just like having her standing there beside us when that sauce curdles (and she’ll tell us how to rescue it).
Watching The Way to Cook is mesmerizing and addictive. But you’ll come away a fine and fearless cook, I promise you.