Why We Cook: For Times Like These
I’ve never met Bookslut managing editor Michael Schaub, or site founder and editor-in-chief Jessa Crispin, for that matter, but over the past few months of writing the Cookbookslut column, they’ve come to feel like people in my orbit -- and so when I heard Michael’s terrible news about losing his brother, it was all I could do not to put the Le Creuset in the car and head to Oregon to make him a pot roast. Pot roast is what I make for the bereaved. Pot roast is what my friend Nina made for me. The afternoon I got that terrible visit from the Assistant Coroner of Park County, Montana, who came into my yard to tell me that my brother hadn’t shown up to walk the dogs because he’d gone off an embankment in the dead of night, it was my friend Nina who spent those last few quiet hours before the news broke making not one, but two pot roasts in my kitchen. “You’re not Jewish,” Nina said. “But it’s still shiva. There’ll be people in the house. They’ll need something to eat.”
She was right. I’m lucky to live in the kind of town where there were people in my house, that week, and for much of that first year. There were a lot of pot roasts and roast chickens and cookies and salads as people wandered in and out and told stories. There was wine, and a big tub of pasta our friend Jim brought over after closing his restaurant, leaving a “death in the family” sign on the door. That’s what we do, we bring food when disaster strikes.
And for me, at least, this strikes at the very heart why it is important to know how to cook. Not to be trendy. Not, God forbid, to acquire the horrendous moniker “foodie.” We cook because we love. We cook for the happy times -- all those birthday cakes and holiday dinners and those dishes we break out when we’ve met someone we really like and who we want to get to know better. But we also cook for the dark times. Sometimes there’s nothing you can say, nothing you can do but just be there, and for those times, you need pot roasts and soups and chilis and dishes that can go back in the oven and be reheated when your sorrowful loved ones can’t bring themselves to eat just now.
There are a lot of cookbooks that wash up at my door these days, and while they’re all interesting, most of them are just full of recipes. Often, they’re interesting recipes, and many times they are recipes I’d like to eat if someone served them to me, but I’m probably not going to go out and source them just to cook one recipe. What I want are more cookbooks that teach me how to get away from recipes, and just to cook. My model is always James Beard’s Theory and Practice of Good Cooking. This is the book from which I learned to cook, and to feed myself and others during those lean lean years when I lived in New York in my twenties. I was so poor. I was an editorial assistant, who worked mostly on cookbooks, and I got paid like an editorial assistant. Unfortunately, unlike many editorial assistants, I did not have parents who were helping with the rent, or sending me checks. I had to live on that eight bucks an hour. And so, because all other entertainment was pretty much out of reach, I learned to cook, and much of what I learned was from this book. Beard wrote it after teaching for decades, and it was his attempt to bring his cooking classes to the page. It’s organized by cooking method, beginning with boiling, and proceeding to roasting, braising, sautéing, frying and baking. This is not a book of disconnected recipes, but a book of recipes that teach techniques, a book designed as Beard notes in the introduction, to set the novice cook free, to bring that cook to the point where he or she “no longer needs to follow slavishly a set recipe, he can rely on his own skills -- his taste memory, the understanding he has gained of techniques, flavorings, and food combinations -- and build on his knowledge” (or hers. What can we say? Beard was a man of his time when it came to the ubiquity of the male pronoun). If I could learn to cook from this book, in a crappy Manhattan galley kitchen, with pots and pans from the Salvation Army, on a budget of about $25 a week, then anyone can learn to cook. And should. Learning to cook when I had no money was one of the great pleasures of my impoverished years in New York. There were a lot of things I didn’t love about the city, but the famer’s markets and tiny Italian grocers and Chinatown, all of those were an adventure and a joy.
Of the recent books I’ve seen that fall into the category of books that are designed to teach you fundamentals, there are three that really stand out: Diana Kennedy’s The Essential Cuisines of Mexico, Eileen Yin-Fei Lo’s Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking, and The Flavor Bible by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenberg.
Diana Kennedy is the grande dame of Mexican cooking, and with Clarkson Potter, she’s done an admirable job of not only combining into one volume her first three landmark books about Mexican food (The Cuisines of Mexico, The Tortilla Book, and Mexican Regional Cooking), but of revisiting and updating the recipes as well. She’s also added about thirty new recipes that didn’t appear in those earlier books. Kennedy is old school. I heard an interview with her on The Splendid Table in which she declared that the recipes weren’t hers at all, that she was merely the conduit by which traditional Mexican cooking could be properly communicated to an English-speaking non-Mexican audience. Unlike me, Diana Kennedy does believe in recipes, and that they should be followed exactly, using precisely the ingredients she has listed. She believes in correctness, and authenticity, and she is a master at her craft. The recipes in this book are impeccable. They work. Depending on where you live, you might have to search out sources for some of the ingredients, but once you find them, you’ll have real Mexican food, not the cheese-drenched stuff of the combination platter. Kennedy’s Enchiladas Sencillas, or simple enchiladas, have gone into regular rotation around here (especially the version made with scrambled eggs, which we like for breakfast), as have a number of the soups including the tortilla soup and the angel hair pasta soup. Her Posole de Jalisco is to die for, and finally gave me something to do with the package of pork neck bones from the pig we bought last fall (although I chickened out on finding the half a pig’s head included in the recipe). While there are complicated recipes in this book, those aren’t the ones I gravitated toward. What I wanted, and what I found here, were several really great flavors, in reasonably simple preparations, that I can learn to make without having to keep coming back to the book.
Eileen Yin-Fei Lo is, like Beard and Kennedy, someone who has long been teaching cooking classes, and like Beard, she organizes Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking as a series of lessons, many of which focus on technique, others which focus on ingredients. For Lo, Chinese cooking is all about the market, which can feel a little alienating to those of us who don’t live in a city with a Chinatown, but which puts proper stress on the crucial importance that the quality of ingredients plays in Chinese cooking. Her chapter on “Creating a Chinese Pantry” has introduced me to several new ingredients, all of which are on my shopping list for my upcoming trip to Seattle, as well as inspiring me while I’m there to finally add a clay pot to my batterie de cuisine. (This from the girl who once sent a foil-wrapped Chinese roast duck through the x-ray machine at the San Jose airport. “They don’t have ducks in Montana?” the security guard asked me. “Not Chinese roasted ducks,” I replied.) Lo has a recipe for roasted duck in this book, although I haven’t tried it yet. Part of the joy for me is always the sight of those ducks and pig parts hanging in the Chinatown window. She also has recipes for a lot of staples, from chili sauce to scallion oil to red chili oil, which will be really useful when I run out between visits to the coast.
Although I’m a dedicated fan of my rice cooker, I decided to try Lo’s method for "Making Perfect Rice," and while it probably won’t lure me from the convenience of my electric cooker, the rice was indeed perfect, and I’ve been using her ratio of rice to water, which has vastly improved my rice-cooker rice. Alas, many of her vegetable recipes are going to have to wait a few weeks -- although it’s impossible to source good gai lan and bok choi and choi sum, I have some started out in the garden under hoop houses. I can’t wait to try Choi Sum in Oyster Sauce or Shanghai Bok Choi or Long Beans with Sesame Seeds, and I’ve been anxiously watching the patch of Chinese Garlic Chives so I can start eating Stir-Fried Chives with Scrambled Eggs for breakfast. Her Shrimp and Ginger Soup was a big hit on a cold Montana evening, as was the Panfried Egg Noodles with Pork. Frankly, I’ve hardly touched the surface of this book -- for instance, the chapter on steamed breads, which I loved the winter I spent in Taipei, or the dim sum recipes, which look delicious but will have to wait for a weekend where I’m looking for project cooking. My sweetheart keeps pointing out the wonton and potsticker recipes, which again, require an afternoon of folding wrappers, an afternoon I just haven’t found recently. But that’s one of the great attractions of this book, it’s a book you can cook out of over and over again, a book you can return to when you’re ready to learn a new technique, when you want to add something to your repertoire.
The last book I’m reviewing this month has been out since 2008, and won the James Beard Award for Best Reference book in 2009. The Flavor Bible, by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg, isn’t a cookbook at all, but two chapters about how we process and experience flavors, and how to use them creatively, followed by an enormous compendium of flavor charts. The charts are organized in several ways, by ingredient, by seasons, by ethnicities, along with really useful sidebars describing what goes with what and how-to tips about cooking with these ingredients and flavors. There are also many useful quotes from chefs about how they use ingredients, and why. I love this book. It’s the kind of book you can flip through when you know you want to cook something, but you don’t know what. “Hmm, I have half a chicken, what do I want to do with it?” Or when you’ve found some intriguing ingredient and you don’t know what to do with it, like the smoked Turkish pepper a friend brought back from one of his trips. I particularly like the flavor profiles by cuisine, Brazilian Cuisine (cardamom? I wouldn’t have thought of that), Greek Cuisine, Afghan Cuisine. Not only do they list flavors, but also Flavor Affinities, for Brazilian Cuisine we get “pork + beans + greens + onions + orange” while for Venison they list combinations like “venison + curry + pomegranate seeds” and “venison + pears + rosemary.” We eat a lot of game around here, and those are combinations I would never have thought up on my own. I can see using this book much like I use Elizabeth Schneider’s Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini, to figure out either how to cook an ingredient I’ve come across by chance, or when I get a yen for a particular flavor, like Vietnamese food. Since I’m out here in the sticks, if you decide you want something like that, you need to learn to cook it for yourself.
Which brings us full circle to the question with which we began -- why we cook in the first place. Michael told me in an email that his brother loved to cook with his fiancée, and that they’d found some interesting new books from these reviews. That cooking together was a pleasure for them. If there’s one simple reason why I cook it would be that one, because it’s a way to share pleasure with the people I love. My brother and I were roommates for almost five years, and I remember one of my Silicon Valley co-workers expression of surprise that we ate together every night. “Every night?” she said, as though that was somehow strange. But knowing what I know now, that those nights were limited, I treasure every one of them, from the holiday meals to the nights Patrick would just make some pasta and sauce. And now, although it drives me a little crazy that my sweetheart doesn’t want to eat dinner until after dark, which gets later and later and later as the summer approaches, I also know that I don’t want to eat without him. It’s not just about the food, it’s about sitting down together, talking about your day, sharing a meal. Maybe it’s the lapsed Catholic in me, but cooking and eating together does seem sacramental. Although project cooking is fun, and learning complicated recipes or techniques carries it’s own sense of satisfaction, for me it always comes back to the same question. What are we going to have for dinner? With the emphasis on the “we.”
What I’m looking for in cookbooks are the traits all four of these books share, they have a scope that’s larger than recipes, they seek to teach us ways of eating upon which we can expand, and I think in all of these books, there’s that sense that the people for whom we cook become family, that learning the traditions of other cooking cultures can bring us together, cause us to understand one another a little better. So perhaps in honor of Michael’s brother, Randy, and all our lost loved ones, I’d urge everyone out there to cook a meal for someone they love this month. Sure, it’s a little corny, but in the long run, better a little corn, than regretting not making the gesture.