Category: Cooking

REMEMBERING JAMES BEARD

Flying to Portland, Oregon, James Beard’s hometown where the 2010 IACP Conference was being held, I found myself rereading Epicurean Delight, the biography of Beard by my husband Evan Jones that was published five years after Jim died in 1985. So many lovely and telling reflections of his character surfaced that I wanted to jot them down but I didn’t have a notebook handy on the plane so I wrote them on what we publishers call the end papers of the book. In Epicurean Delight the endpapers are illustrated with a montage of immediately recognizable action drawings that the artist Karl Stuecklen sketched of Jim at play in his kitchen—whisking the eggs, sniffing the soup, tending the grill, and just contemplating his domain. As I filled in all the blank spaces I could find, writing across Jim’s forehead or the apron covering his ample chest and tummy, suddenly the words seemed to be popping out of Jim himself and the whole mosaic of bons mots came vividly to life.

Here is a sampling of the quotes starting in the upper left hand corner:

  • “In the beginning there was James Beard . . .” wrote Nora Ephron.

And from Beard himself:

  • “Designing hors d’oeuvres is not different from designing sets and costumes . . . Food is very much theater.”
  • “We’re Americans and can do as we please.”
  • “When I walk into a market I may see a different cut of meat or an unusual vegetable and think, ‘I wonder how it would be if I took the recipe for that sauce I had in Provence and put the two together?’ So I go home and try it out. Sometimes my idea is a success and sometimes it is a flop, but that is how recipes are born. There really are not recipes, only millions of variations sparked by someone’s imagination and desire to be a little creative and different. American cooking is built, after all, on variations of old recipes from around the world.”
  • “A cookbook should reflect the personality of the author along with his or her kitchen technique. Some cookbooks are put together like paper dolls. There is no feeling of humanness in them. I write about things I like and the way I like them.”
  • “Hands are our earliest tools. Cooking starts with the hands which are so sensitive that when they touch something they transmit messages to your brain about texture and temperature.”
  • “Freshness in vegetables is more important than anything else.”

I realized as I read these excerpts how much I had absorbed from Jim Beard over the years. I always loved working with him because he helped me develop a more relaxed and creative approach to cooking and I could tell that he was much more comfortable working at the stove that having to tap out words on a typewriter. He welcomed any distraction. If the phone rang and it was Mrs. X from Iowa City he would happily take the call and go through all the steps of the recipe she was having trouble with to figure out why her cake hadn’t risen. Around noon he’d begin to get restless for lunch so we would descend the stairs to the kitchen where he would swing open the door of his large fridge and sniff around for leftover bits that he had tucked away, composing in his taste imagination a harmony of flavors. Half an hour later we would sit down to a simple and always delicious lunch, often interrupted by the sudden appearance of Larry Forgione, the chef proprietor of An American Place, or perhaps Carl Sontheimer, the father of the Cuisinart food processor, seeking advice or enlightenment. You didn’t need Google in those days if you knew James Beard.

I came to know him when one day in 1961 I cheekily picked up the phone myself to ask him if he would look at the advance proofs of a big book on French cooking that we at Knopf were about to publish. He didn’t hesitate to say yes and after devouring it in just a few days, he called me to tell me how impressed he was with the book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and that we must be sure to bring these unknown authors over from France to introduce them to the American public. Then he took charge and persuaded Dionne Lucas to put on a French dinner party at her restaurant, The Egg Basket, and he personally invited the key players of the food world to attend and meet the authors of Mastering.

That was Jim Beard—utterly sure in his judgment when he spotted the genuine article, unhesitatingly generous in his support, creative but at the same time realistic, and above all blessed with perfect pitch when it came to his palate. In a sense he was born before his time and he encountered considerable obstacles as he tried to awaken the American palate to appreciate really good home cooking and to make the most of our extraordinary regional produce. His cooking began in the marketplace in Portland where he would roam with his mother among the farm stands, selecting only the best to be transformed into delectable dishes that she served in her boarding house, or to visit the Chinese quarter with Let, their Chinese cook, so they could bring home the cod cheeks that the fish monger always saved for them.

The first morning of the IACP Conference we took a Being James Beard Tour in downtown Portland and although urban growth has swallowed up the outdoor market where Jim and his mother shopped, the memories still remained. Robert Reynolds, who has sometimes been called the poet chef of Portland, read passages that he had selected from Epicurean Delight at each stop and I could see that he was deeply moved connecting with this man he had never really known before.

The last night of the Conference I had the good fortune to eat at Robert’s very special restaurant, Chefs Studio. The place consists of one room large enough to accommodate a dozen or so at a big table. Votive candles were lit and strewn across the white paper-covered dining table, set for fourteen with big glasses awaiting good Oregon Pinot Noir. On three sides the rough walls consisted of exposed beams and a few posters while the remaining wall was open to the kitchen. There we could watch Robert and his crew of four performing their ballet, adjusting flavors before carefully plating each dish.

From start to finish the food was superb, exactly what Himself would have loved. All the dishes were based on the season’s bounty: freshly gathered morels, tangy ramps and radishes and radish leaves, young spinach greens molded into little vegetable timbales, tiny berries and slim stalks of early spring rhubarb. The only item that had traveled from afar was the grass-fed lamb from the Southwest. As we were relishing its good, pure-lamb flavor, we talked to the rancher who had nurtured the herd—a young woman who clearly loved her calling—and we all exchanged sample bits of our life in food, ending with more stories about Jim.

To me that evening at Chefs Studio was the highpoint of the IACP Conference and I wished that there could be more of this kind of sit-down dinner where people could get to know each other and experience the regional products. Meanwhile I look forward to a visit again in a few years when the dream of the James Beard Public Market that is being planned will have become a reality and I can wander through the stalls and visit with the vendors and learn more. I hope I’ll find some cod cheeks to bring home.

THE PLEASURES OF COOKING FOR EIGHTY

What would it be like, I wondered, to cook for eighty hungry people, particularly for someone like me who is used to cooking for one. So I decided to try it and last Saturday I joined forces with the seasoned crew at Holy Trinity Church in the Yorkville neighborhood of Manhattan, who prepare a supper every week for anyone who is in need of a warm, nourishing meal.

Usually between eighty and a hundred people show up and the kitchen crew has to be ready to serve by 5:15 with the tables nicely set. The schedule is tight because the premises are given over to the Trinity Thrift Shop that same day and there are stacks and hangers full of secondhand clothing spread out all over the ample basement with last minute purchases being toted up. Then suddenly it’s time to clean up the clutter and transform the space into an orderly dining hall before the doors open and the hungry, lined up outside, descend. But this moment of tension only lends to the drama. And that’s always part of the fun when you are giving a dinner party.

Meanwhile, we the sous-chefs have been busy doing the prep work, slicing the baguettes and boules from six large sacks of crusty breads (made even crustier because they are yesterday’s loaves) that Eli’s has donated. That’s a lot of bread. But just when I start to ache I remember Julia Child’s characteristic remark when someone complained about beating the egg whites by hand: “Nonsense. It’s good for the upper arm muscles.”

Suddenly as we are finishing up, about a dozen teenagers descend the basement stairs and are introduced by our pastor as new helpers. It seems that they are from a Staten Island high school and that they wanted to do something helpful so they Googled soup kitchens and read about Holy Trinity’s program. They immediately throw themselves into the work, quickly clearing out the dining room, arranging the long tables, covering them in sheets of white paper to simulate linen table cloths, and setting places with real cutlery—no plastic knives and forks for the HTC guests.

As I look around the busy kitchen, I realize that the unassuming Bob Noorsesion, whom I’ve just met, is secretly the maitre de cuisine here, as though he had been born to the task. He doesn’t give orders; he just performs, gracefully and efficiently. It’s as though he had a timer in the back of his head, and we fall into step, taking up the choreography as we fill big baking trays with commercially prepared breaded chicken breasts, which he pops into the hot oven and automatically clocks. At the same time he tends to the frozen vegetable mix that goes into one of the huge pots of boiling water on the large restaurant stove and to the pasta which he shovels into another pot. When his automatic clock goes off, he hoists the pot (which I couldn’t have lifted without a crane) from stove to sink and drains the chunks of pasta, then tends to the veggies.

At last a cook’s task falls to me when the bowl of steaming pasta is put on the table. I get to toss it with butter and season it with salt and pepper until the balance is right. Fortunately as part of our bread service, we had peeled the foil wrappers from masses of those little pats of butter that restaurants serve so there is a huge pile of butter pats waiting to be tossed in and absorbed (Julia would have approved of that!).

Even the dishing up, arranging the food on real plates with a dollop of tomato sauce on top, is done with care. Just before everyone dives in, Lydia Colon gives the guests a touching welcome. As a seasoned hostess of this kind of neighborhood service, she has learned how to handle the sly ones who try to stuff their pockets with sweets. The Two Little Red Hens Bakery on Second Avenue, just below 86th Street, always sends a dazzling array of beautifully wrought cakes to the suppers, and evidently if we’re not careful they’ll disappear before everyone gets a fair share. But Lydia knows how to fox them: she has the cakes artfully cut up in the kitchen, each slice containing one of the enchanting flowers sculpted with the different color icings and these portions are served with the dinner so that no one can say “I didn’t get my piece of cake.”

Anyway, the night that I am here, there is plenty to eat and second helpings to go around. Of course, there are a few complaints from some about what they can and can’t eat but there is a good feeling all around and, as I pour coffee at the tables, I feel the warmth and the appreciation. These people are our guests and they are glad to be at our table. There is even one table made up only of women, who seem to come regularly less out of a need for food than for the company.

A part of me wishes that we had really cooked the food we are offering. But then I thought of what that would entail: probably forty pounds of meat to make enough for a beef stew that would satisfy these appetites, to say nothing of all the prep work and careful tending involved in cooking up a really good boeuf bourguignon. We’d have to chop up enough onions to rival the pile that Meryl Streep produces in Julie and Julia. And think of all the big skillets needed for braising the onions and mushrooms separately to get a good glaze. No, I am enough of a realist to reluctantly bury that fantasy. But I do learn that by early summer the HTC kitchen gets fresh vegetables from the Community Supported Agriculture group that supplies garden produce as it comes into season. So I’ll be back to peel the carrots and wash the greens.

Meanwhile I cherish what one of the old regulars said to me as I poured him a second cup of coffee, and the look on his face as he said it: “Thank you, sweetheart, for bringing the sunshine.”

The Pleasures of a Plate-Licker

There’s nothing like having a dog around when you’re cooking. He (or she) is always there to catch whatever morsels you may drop, to show his appreciation with a lick of the tongue, and to relieve you of the job of scraping and rinsing all the dishes before they go into the dishwasher. That pre-rinse is particularly appreciated when you’ve given a dinner party and had to play chef and chief bottle-washer, to say nothing of hostess, all at the same time.

It’s more than a year now since my Corgle (short for Corgi-Beagle) Prince Madoc died of old age and I still miss him every time I come home. As I headed for the kitchen he would be several steps ahead of me. If I put down a plate that had a mishmash of leavings (never my plate!), he would always maneuver his long tongue around it to separate the meat scraps and juices from the veggies. When he’d consumed the good stuff, he would look up longingly, hoping there was just a little more to come. Then he would return to the plate for a final lick after I’d put it in the dishwasher just to make sure he hadn’t missed anything.

Madoc 

I would often speak French to him because it was a good way to practice my langue de cuisine. I liked the fact that he never talked back, correcting my accent and grammar. And I could tell that he loved the expressive lilt of spoken French.

Some months after Madoc was gone, I tried to get a small dog from a rescue shelter in Long Island and I foolishly picked a very forlorn little creature, naming him Precious as I snuggled him in my arms and took him home. But I should have been suspicious when I gave him his first bowl of food and he hardly touched it. It developed that he had been so abused that he couldn’t trust human beings, and in the ensuing days, though he gingerly ate a little more, nothing really worked, neither love nor good food, and I had to face the painful lesson that he was as unhappy as I was. So Precious had to be returned.

Now I am looking again and I’m a little wiser. I realize that the refusal to eat is a profound sign of distress in a dog. Moreover, it’s a handicap to humane training methods because how can you use a treat to give a command or reward a fellow when the lure isn’t tempting?

I’ve often wished I could take a dog to Paris with me. I love the way the French treat their dogs, taking them everywhere, letting them run free in the parks and treating them to lunch at a neighborhood bistro, where the chef is likely to send out a little bowl of something delicious pour le chien settled under the table. I am told that the French are considerably less indulgent these days than they used to be, but they are still more civilized than we are. You can see it in a dog’s cocky stride as he accompanies his family shopping in the busy outdoor markets of Paris.

When I was about nine years old, my parents agreed to let me have my first dog. I had been begging for one and they finally gave in when they thought I was old enough to take care of the creature myself. That meant not just walking her but cooking for her because in those pre-World War II days canned and dried dog foods couldn’t be found in your local grocery. So when we brought a Scotty named Sally MacGregor back from Vermont, she settled happily into New York life—primarily, I liked to think, because she loved my cooking.

I certainly loved cooking for MacGregor. It was my first experience alone at the stove and I could do what I wanted, cooking up chopped meat with whatever leftover tidbits I could find. She particularly loved liver and bacon (perhaps that’s where I got my early start appreciating organ meats).

Jeffrey Steingarten wrote a delightful piece some years ago for Vogue describing his moment of revelation as he was grilling fat sausages for himself over an oak and mesquite fire, and his companion, Sky King, a young male Golden Retriever, looked on. After he had been given his bowl of dog food, “Sky King’s look was eloquent,” Jeffrey wrote. “‘I know that you are a fair-minded human,’ he seemed to be saying, ‘and that you have only my best interests at heart. But are you absolutely sure that I should be eating this pile of dead and desiccated pellets while you experience the feral delights of flesh? Who’s the carnivore here anyway?’”

It was a turning point and from then on Jeffrey dedicated himself to preparing such delicious and healthful dinners as Roasted Marrow Bones for his canine friend. He talked with French chefs and, of course, got a positive response (and more recipes), but most of the vets and dog food company spokesmen he consulted worried that Sky would not be getting a “complete and balanced” diet.

But Sky is doing well and Jeffrey is doing well and I think I will join them in practicing what’s-good-for-me-must-be-good-for-my-dog as soon as I find the perfect hungry creature, just little enough so I can tuck him or her under the seat when we fly off to Paris.

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?

MILKWEED, FIDDLEHEADS, AND THE LEMONS OF THE NORTH

Somehow it disturbs me to walk by my neighborhood fruit and vegetable stand, when the wintry winds are blowing, and to see bundles of scrawny asparagus displayed. Who wants to eat asparagus when your fingers freeze as you try to extract the several dollars that the overpriced asparagus will cost?

I was raised to eat everything in season—in fact, that’s all we could get from our local groceries. Even though we moaned about being tired of oversized carrots and turnips, potatoes and rutabagas, to say nothing of large heads of frost-bitten cabbage, the long wait for spring only stirred the appetite for the good things to come and it made biting into the first spring asparagus all the more satisfying. Although my mother was of English background and very particular about table manners, we were taught that it was quite correct to pick up the stalks and eat them one by one down to the coarse end of the stem, even though melted butter or Hollandaise would be dripping from our chins. So I have always felt confident, almost defiant, about eating asparagus with my fingers wherever it is served—in fact, it’s a large part of the fun.

Thirty years ago when my husband Evan and I got our house on Stannard Mountain in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, one of the challenges for this city couple (flatlanders, the locals call us) was not only to start a garden but to get to know the land. We wanted to be able to forage for what the woods and meadows had to offer to enjoy every morsel from early summer to fall. Fortunately we met a wonderful woman, Adele Dawson, who used to give workshops on wild edibles and medicinal herbs (she was also a dowser), and she agreed to walk our land with us. As we wandered together over the terrain she would stir up leaves or poke through branches with her stick and point out the hidden treasures of early spring: milkweed shoots, fiddleheads, young dandelion leaves, wild garlic buds. Adele not only guided us in what to look for and where, but how to cook according to the time of year each item was harvested. For instance, the delicate spring milkweed shoots were best simply sautéed in a little butter or light olive oil; then in July, as soon as the milkweed developed purplish blossoms, the tight heads should be plucked and dipped in a beer batter, then fried until lightly browned and eaten with just a squirt of lemon; by late summer, the pods form and they are equally delicious—but different—stuffed and then steamed or deep-fried.

I learned particularly to enjoy sorrel in a rich creamy soup or with eggs or as a tart accent to fish or fowl. I first encountered it as a weed that invaded a patch of heather we were trying to cultivate and I was ruthlessly pulling up the leaves and dumping then on the compost heap—that is, until Adele enlightened us.

I’ve always been drawn to gooseberries, perhaps because they were a mystery fruit whose acquaintance I first made in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. I loved the sound of English puddings like Gooseberry Fool and Gooseberry Flummery. But the berries are hard to find these days even in farmers’ markets. We soon found out why. In our search for a couple of bushes to plant, we learned that during the Roosevelt years, it was discovered that gooseberries caused a pine blight so the President ordered his C.C.C. men all over the country to root them out. It has since been proven that the bushes were a threat only to the white pine and that if they were planted a sufficient distance away, there was no problem. But in the meantime America lost all its gooseberries, and we were intent on restoring them, at least on our hilltop.

Our two bushes, along with one rhubarb plant, now give me plenty of delightfully tart accents not only for desserts but also for sauces and preserves. Once on a trip to Wales, stopping at country inns, we sampled for the first time mackerel served with a gooseberry sauce, as well as the more familiar salmon with sorrel sauce. These—gooseberries and sorrel and rhubarb—are the lemons of the north, I thought to myself. I realized that in northern Europe and the British Isles, where lemons were once a rarity, they have long contributed essential acidic flavor to many a savory dish. In fact, it is ingredients like these that give regional character to our cooking—something we don’t want to lose by eating asparagus from South America in the middle of December.

Nova Kim, her granddaughter, and Les Hook
Nova Kim with her granddaughter and Les Hook at Bryn Teg, my house in Vermont

Several years after our introduction to Adele I got to know Nova Kim and Les Hook, naturalists who seemed to be born with the gift of knowing the secrets of the earth. They have now developed a following among food lovers and chefs in Vermont, supplying them with local wild treats from early summer through fall. They bring me generous samples of the wild mushrooms they seek out and gather—morels in late spring, chanterelles all summer long, boletus and hen-of-the-woods in fall, as well as many others. And I’ve learned to recognize one or two species on my own. There is nothing more exhilarating than spotting a patch of chanterelles thrusting their golden heads up through the soil at the edge of our woods and then bringing them home and cooking up a feast.

As I write this I have been snow-bound for several days in northern Vermont where I was scheduled to talk about my new book in a few of the independent bookstores up here. Fortunately my niece Sally and her husband Tony, whose house is not as inaccessible as mine in a blizzard, have given me food and shelter. A little while ago Tony had an inspiration: why not salvage the rest of the lettuce still in cold frames in his vegetable garden? Insulated by the snow, some of the leaves had survived, last time he checked. So we headed out, bundled in down coats and boots and scarves, with a below-zero wind whipping us, and we managed to scoop up the last of the tiny damp leaves—only a handful after they had been cleaned. But they added considerable sparkle to our salad that night and it was a loving way of celebrating the end of late fall, moving into winter.

A RETURN TO HOME COOKING

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.

Jason Epstein at Di Palo in New York

Although Judith won’t be there, I’m sure she’d want you to know about her friend, colleague, and author, Jason Epstein, author of Eating: A Memoir, who will be signing copies of his new book on

SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 21

at the wonderful Di Palo’s Fine Foods in Little Italy in New York. It’s at 200 Grand Street, NY, NY 10013, between Mott and Mulberry, and it’s one of the most fascinating cheese (and assorted other Italian goodies) shops that you’ll find in the city.

Waste Not, Want Not – According to Lidia

So many times when I have been out talking about my new book, The Pleasures of Cooking for One, or joining in panel discussions about food, someone in the audience will ask what I think of the current crop of television food shows, and I have to admit that I don’t think much of them. In fact, it irritates me profoundly when the Food Network boasts, “We’re more than about food.” Why should they want to be “more” when food alone is such an endlessly fascinating subject? Why do they have to turn cooking into a competition, with testosterone as the main ingredient? But then I’ll pause: there is one exception, and often before I’ve said her name, someone will cry, “Lidia!” Everyone loves Lidia Bastianich—and with good reason. Lidia loves food with a passion and conveys her pleasure in cooking so persuasively that you can’t wait to get the pasta water boiling and to follow her lead creating yet one more delicious and often unexpected way of dressing it. Furthermore with every show we learn from her invaluable lessons in the finesse of cooking really good Italian food.

Recently I was in Boston with her where both of us were promoting our latest books, and we did a joint appearance at the Brattle Theatre. Talking about the research that she did for her just published, wonderful new book, Lidia Cooks From the Heart of Italy, she described vividly and lovingly the people she had met in some of the little-known parts of Italy she explored. Because the subject was food and food immediately creates a common denominator, she was able to get to the heart of each recipe, confirming her long-held conviction that what gives a regional dish its special distinction is the terroir, the soil and the environment that produces the fruits and vegetables, the olives and wine and cheeses, that lend a special character. In carefully ferreting out these secrets, she has been able to recreate the genuine flavors and bring them home to our kitchens.

But there was a deeper revelation that emerged in her search for recipes from the heart of Italy. In her introduction to the book, she says: “As overconsumption and greed have come to haunt us, it is now a time for reflection, for looking back at the generations before us, to understand their approach to the table. In my research into the twelve regions of Italy that I explore here, some answers came to light. The recipes I share with you reflect a respect for food—growing it, shepherding the animals, foraging for the gifts of nature in the wild, and hunting respectfully to put meat on the table, not just for sport. Nothing is wasted . . . This kind of respect also leads to a much more sensible and balanced intake of proteins, legumes, vegetables, and so on. In most of the recipes, it is evident that the dish is rooted in the reality of the times, when frugality went along with hard work, and home cooks made do with what was on hand. And of course they wanted dishes that would taste good. So you’ll find these recipes tasty, satisfying, relatively easy to prepare. But, most of all, they are a testimony to the harmony of elements that result in a harmony of taste.”

As we chatted together on the stage of the Brattle Theatre, sparring with one another about whether it’s more fun to cook for oneself or for a tableful of family and friends (both quite different experiences, we agreed) and whether or not almost any recipe can be successfully reduced to serve one (some disagreement there), I realized how much I have learned over the years from this extraordinarily creative, ever curious, and deeply responsible woman. In fact, my own theories about cooking for one took shape as I absorbed some of Lidia’s techniques for recycling leftovers in creative ways.

Several years ago when I was in her kitchen watching her prepare a lasagna with fresh pasta, after the dish had been assembled, there was just one stocking-like strip of pasta left, and I asked her (knowing full well the answer) if she was going to throw it out. “Of course not,” she answered, and promptly picked up the pasta, fit one end into a small baking dish and plopped a bit of yesterday’s bits of cooked meat lurking in her fridge on top. Then she folded and swung another portion of the pasta strip on top and covered that with her own tomato sauce (always on hand), and, of course, there was a layer of cheese. When the baking dish was filled she put it away for tomorrow when it could be quickly baked. Cook’s treat, she declared.

As our onstage conversation continued, Lidia offered a few examples from her book of the inventive ways in which yesterday’s bread can be used. One was a soup for which you first make a pasticciata, or layered casserole, of bread and fontina from Valle d’Aosta as well as Grana Padano or Parmigiano-Reggiano, all moistened with chicken broth, and when that has baked, portions of it are transferred to bowls and broth is ladled over it. The other treasure she revealed with an enthusiasm that was contagious was of Chocolate Bread Parfait. Here the leftover bread is soaked in chocolate and espresso and then spooned into glass parfait dishes with layers of whipped cream and sliced almonds.

This is the kind of cooking that is so satisfying, particularly in these days of soaring food prices, and we can all say grazie to Lidia for giving such a wealth of recipes to have fun with.

MORE ON THE LANGUAGE OF FOOD—AND EATING

In my last post I explored the language of food, the subject of this year’s Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery. I had been asked to participate on a panel so I began exploring the subject last summer, but I got sidetracked on the issue that I feel so strongly about—good recipe writing. As it turned out, it was not a subject addressed directly by the panelists and presenters of papers at Oxford, at least as far as I could tell (there was no way I could take in three or four sessions all running at the same time).

I also missed Simon Schama’s opening address, which from all reports was brilliant. I’m particularly sorry I didn’t hear what he had to say about the tongue as the essential organ for communication as well as the transmitter of taste. But the day before the opening session Claudia Roden and I had become hopelessly lost driving to Oxford from her house in Hempstead and we only just made it in time for a fabulous, meaty dinner drawn from Samuel Pepys’ Diaries, which included Venison and Trotter Pie, Roast Quail, A Leg of Mutton, and a Fricassee of Rabbit. This was followed by food-themed poetry readings until we finally tumbled into our beds, sated. No sooner was I soundly asleep than a screeching fire alarm went off, arousing everyone in our dormitory from bed to descend the stairs and stand shivering outside in the cold, most of us dressed only in pajamas, until the all-clear sounded. This happened four more times, leaving me so ragged that I was unable to rouse myself in time for the next morning’s opening ceremony.

When I did catch up, I was confronted with a dazzling menu of subjects to be explored, such as “Toward a Phenomenological Semiotics of Cuisine” and “Reconstructing Food History Through Linguistics” as well as more earthy topics like “Sex, Food, and Valentine’s Day” and “The Nomenclature of the Pig and Its Parts.” The panel I was on was mostly bombarded with questions about the future of food writing in our electronic world.

It was unquestionably the best food conference I have attended, with writers and students from all over. And the food was superb, each meal built on a theme culminating in a Saturday night banquet celebrating “The Language of French Gastronomy from the Raw to the Cooked,” created by Chef Raymond Blanc.

Still, I felt that there was one component missing: the idea of recipes as story-telling. I wish that Jason Epstein, the innovative editor and publisher, whose book, Eating: A Memoir, has just published been by Knopf, had been there to speak in defense of the recipe as story.

In his book he even goes so far as to make the recipe itself a conversation: no extracted ingredients, no numbered steps. He wants us to get the feel of the food with “a hint of” this and “just a little of” that. His theory, based on Heraclitus, is that you never make the same dish twice. And each time you do, you improve it. So why pin it down to a formula?

The people Jason has worked with over the years as editor—from Norman Mailer, Vladimir Nabokov, Gore Vidal, and E. L. Doctorow to Alice Waters, Wolfgang Puck, and Maida Heatter—are all blended into his culinary journey, as are the haunts of his summers in Maine growing up, his first trip to Europe on the Ile de France, the Manhattan of the fifties and the neighborhood of New York bordering on Chinatown that he lives in today. And as he stir-fries his Eggs Foo Yung, he drops fascinating bits of lore into the mix.

Who knows—maybe Jason has invented a new recipe language. Surely Eating will help to loosen us up and we may become a little wiser each time we make a dish.

Meanwhile, Jason and I will be exchanging stove talk at the Strand this coming Thursday evening at seven. We’ve both been in publishing for over fifty years and we have also served one another as editors. Jason was the editor for the L. L. Bean Game and Fish Cookbook by that great huntsman, fisherman, and editor, a true Renaissance man, Angus Cameron, and I played a supporting role in the writing. It was published in 1983 and is still in print. Much more recently as an editor, I encouraged Jason to tell his story through Eating, and now he has given us this delicious book to savor.

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.

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