ERRATA

The bane of every food writer’s existence is the careless mistakes we can make: mistyping the amount of an ingredient or a detail in the directions, thereby sending out to trusting readers a flawed recipe. It happens all too often.

After my book The Pleasures of Cooking for One had gone to print, I discovered to my horror two such mistakes in it. The first disturbing revelation occurred when I was describing to a friend the flavor of the Sauce Gribiche that I love as “mustardy and pickly,” and she looked at the recipe and said, “But there’s no mustard in it.” She was right—it didn’t cut the mustard!

Then recently I had a letter from a former rector of the church I have been a member of for many, many years here in New York. He is now living in a retirement community in Ohio and was enjoying a copy of my book. In fact, he said he was cooking his way through it à la Julie with considerable success. BUT he met his Waterloo over Blanquette de Veau. Not enough liquid, so what there was boiled away and left the veal dry and stringy. With trepidation I looked up the ingredients listed in the setting copy, hoping it was the printer who had been at fault. No such luck: I had called for only ¼ cup broth, when clearly I had intended 1 ¼ cups.

Usually a sharp-eyed copyeditor can catch most errors, but in both these instances the omissions were hard to spot. There was no reason than anyone would know that the Gribiche had ½ tablespoon of Dijon mustard in it (except for me—after all I wrote the recipe and have made it dozens of times) and you’re not going to know that the blanquette needed that extra 1 cup broth until you see that the pan has almost dried out.

Fortunately, the errors have been corrected now in subsequent reprints, and I hope those who have early books will find this blog and make the changes. Meanwhile I am consumed with guilt over my pastor’s dried-out veal. I console myself that it at least put us in touch again (food has a way of doing that) and that he revealed himself as an instinctive cook by adding more broth, even if it wasn’t quite enough and a little too late.

What is important is for the author to come clean and confess to the mistake and then for the publisher to correct it. In the old days errata slips were sometimes tucked into copies in the bookstore but in this automated age that is hard to do. And many publishers would rather not be embarrassed by admitting errors. With good reason. Years ago, when Craig Claiborne was the food editor at The New York Times, I persuaded him to do a cookbook for beginners, which we called A Kitchen Primer. Alas, the first printing contained about a dozen errors. As soon as they were discovered we printed one of those errata slips and they were inserted into the books. The Primer was very successful and was nominated as one of the best books of the year by what we then called the Mustard Awards (this was before the days of the James Beard Foundation and the IACP cookbook awards and the modest ceremony was sponsored by French’s mustard). But when the company discovered those errata slips they withdrew Craig’s name and he was disqualified—for being honest.

It isn’t just cookbook writers, of course, who suffer the humiliation of errata. Mysterious things can happen to any writer’s work—usually beyond his control and often without his knowledge. For years every edition of Yeats’s Collected Poems contained a slip of the printer’s finger which changed the whole meaning of a line in one of my favorite poems of his, Among School Children. Aristotle in the botched version was called “Soldier Aristotle,” which never made much sense to me. Finally it was discovered that what Yeats had written was “Solider Aristotle,” comparing him to Plato in the line above, who “thought nature but a spume that plays/Upon a ghostly paradigm of things.” And that did make sense. Poor Yeats. All those years of being misrepresented.

Was it Yeats’s fault? Was it the printer’s? We’ll never know. Whereas with the cookbook writer, it is usually the careless author who is to blame.

Mea culpa.

CHRISTMAS DINNER, THEN AND NOW

Ah, a family Christmas dinner. It was once so simple: a wintry, hearty meal, perhaps embodying some of the ethnic accents that we all carry with us in this land of immigrants. Being of English origin my family invariably enjoyed a standing rib roast with Yorkshire pudding. We were usually about twelve at the table and I, being the youngest, had to wait the longest to get my share of what seemed to me pitifully thin slices of that rosy beef. My grandfather, dressed in Sunday spats and vest, was the designated carver and he performed with considerable flair, being particularly adept at those thin slices. But I wouldn’t have dreamed of complaining, and anyway I was rewarded with a generous spoonful of beef blood that had accumulated on the platter as the roast was carved.

For dessert there was always a steamed pudding, set alight and carried to the table as the blue flames flickered around the molded dark cake. The young ones didn’t much appreciate the strong brandy taste that lingered after the flames had burned out but there was lots of foamy sauce to soften the flavor. And we certainly would not have thought of suggesting an alcohol-free serving.

Today it’s a different story. What with the divided and extended families that many of us are a part of, we never know quite who the players will be. In the old days it was not only the menu but the cast of characters at table that remained the same until one by one we fled the coop.

Several days before Christmas I got a call from my niece whose extended family was coming to me for the holiday feast this year. Could her beloved’s adopted son’s girlfriend be invited to dinner? I counted my chairs and fortunately there was still one left that could be fit into my smallish dining so, of course, she should come.

Then I went over in my mind the various dietary restrictions I’d been told about: my niece is poisoned by garlic; she and her daughter are lactose intolerant; my cousin’s son is a near-vegetarian. So I had to devise strategies to get around these constraints (and still have a good dinner). I would forego the slivers of garlic that I like to insert in the lamb as it roasts and instead I’d indulge in the special sauce that Julia Child always loved with her gigot, which calls for a whole head of garlic. However, as she points out with its two blanchings and slow cooking in milk, the cloves turn buttery and tame. But not tame enough for the allergic, and my niece was warned not to go near the sauce. I also served her a little dish of leftover wild rice because the flageolets—those lovely little French dried beans—that I love to prepare with lamb cook gently with several plump cloves of garlic to enhance their flavor. Then I made a rich, filling ratatouille and a big salad for the meat-cautious.

Everything seemed under control until the day before Christmas when I got another call from my niece. She just wanted to remind me that the men in her family have huge appetites. Evidently they all work out fiendishly, thereby charging up their appetites. So I’d better be prepared.

I panicked. Was my 7 pound lamb going to be big enough to offer seconds all around? I rushed out to the Food Emporium to buy a couple of packages of lamb shoulder chops to strew around the roast—just in case. And I chased down an extra packet of those hard-to-find French flageolets.

I need not have worried. Everyone ate heartily and there was plenty for seconds.

For dessert I had decided to forego the traditional steamed pudding (I could predict anxious looks about all that suet in it) and I settled instead on rich, molten chocolate cakes. So far I haven’t found anyone (except dogs) allergic to chocolate so I thought it would be a safe bet. Arranged on individual dessert plates with a garnish of strawberries and several dollops of vanilla ice cream (non-lactose for the afflicted), each cake had been purposely undercooked so that when it is broken into, warm molten chocolate pours out and mingles with the other flavors and textures. A delectable sensation!

It was Joan Nathan who first introduced me to this dessert in her book The New American Cooking. It seems that the extraordinarily talented chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten created these delights by mistake. Somehow the little cakes had been removed from the oven when they were not yet fully baked and, before he could retrieve them, they had been served to his customers, who were in ecstasy as they devoured their first bite.

Trust a Frenchman to turn a mistake into a triumph. It is a good reminder that the goal of a dinner—any dinner for that matter—is to give pleasure. Isn’t that what cooking is all about?

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