Reigniting the Home Hearth
The big news in food this month is that Michael Pollan, author of Botany of Desire and The Omnivore's Dilemma has a new book coming out. In Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, Pollan finds himself in middle age, alone in a kitchen he doesn't really know how to navigate. "I made the unexpected but happy discovery," he begins, "that the answer to several of the questions that most occupied me was in fact one and the same: Cook."
To which my response is, Michael Pollan doesn't cook? The guy who wrote The Omnivore's Dilemma is -- what? Eating takeout? Relying on his wife? It's unclear from the introduction, but the impression one is left with is that while Pollan probably knew his way around the kitchen in a perfunctory sort of way (he admits to a lot of quick grilling), it was through examining the "natural history" of cooking that he sought to explore what cooking means, and what the stakes are for a society that has turned this crucial task over to industrial producers.
This book made me a little crazy -- though Pollan is a nimble writer who has a particular facility for portraits of the people he's profiling, the book seemed too long by about thirty percent, and suffers from a strange lack of focus. What does this book want to be? Is it the story of one man learning to cook and bake and brew? Is it a philosophical and anthropological treatise on the meaning of cooking? Is it a social critique of the ways the industrial food system has eroded our habits of home cooking and as a result, our health in general? And why is it organized by element? Polllan awkwardly shoehorns his argument into a framework built around the four elements, which he maps to specific cooking techniques: fire is barbecue, water is braising, air is baking, and earth covers fermentation. Frankly, this seems to me like the kind of thing that made a great book proposal, but it gets in the way, and winds up feeling artificial and imposed. Or perhaps it's just become habit by now, since he's used essentially the same organizational scheme for his other books. It worked then, but now it feels like a tic.
However, the thing that really bothered me is that Pollan's yuppie perfectionism works against the very thing he claims to be arguing for -- everyday home cooking. In the very first section he takes on barbecue, which is about as far from home cooking as a person can get. He goes off to North Carolina to work with a whole-hog barbecue master. Now, I'm a long-time home cook, and I give good parties, but I have to say I have never, ever cooked a whole hog. This is exactly the sort of thing that turns off people who don't cook -- they don't want to learn to produce barbecue sandwiches by the hundredfold, they want to cook dinner. The next section is a little more germane, but how many of us are going to go hire a chef to come to our homes and teach us to cook? I'm glad Pollan learned the importance of a good soffrito, and that once you've made a braise or two, it's a technique you can vary infinitely, but again, impressing upon folks who don't cook that you must learn to dice onions, carrots and celery into tiny, tiny mince before you can begin to do anything seems counterproductive. This section was the most personal, however, and Pollan is charming when describing how getting in the habit of cooking on Sundays, brought his son Isaac out of his teenage lair to hang out at the kitchen table -- the house smelled good, and the activity provided that crucial oblique attention that leads to successful adult-teenager communication (as did the father-son beer brewing experiment). The baking and brewing chapters seemed, like the barbecue chapter, to return us to those kitchen tasks toward which men seem to gravitate -- the ones that require a lot of equipment, and constant monitoring, and that produce the kinds of results that can be compared on Internet boards. Again, not exactly the everyday tasks home cooking requires to feed a family each night. I'd probably send someone looking to accomplish these tasks more consistently and efficiently to Tamar Adler's An Everlasting Meal, which I reviewed here last year.
All that aside, there is a lot of interesting information in this book. While I'm not going to barbecue a pig, I might do a better job next time I pull one of the frozen shoulders out of the freezer from the 4H pig we bought last year (although I think we're down to mostly hocks by this point). His suggestion to presoak whole grain flours has really improved the texture of my sourdough loaves. And the story he tells of learning to overcome his own impatience in the kitchen, of learning to see tasks like chopping onions not as drudgery to be gotten through as quickly as possible, but as a way to slow down the multi-tasking monkey mind that affects us all, will resonate with readers of Pollan's earlier titles.
There were two general cookbooks that came across my transom this month that struck me as related to Pollan's quest to encourage home cooking. While The Essential James Beard is a terrific, old-school general cookbook of classic American food, Jacques Pépin's New Complete Techniques (a reworking of La Technique, Pépin's now-elusive book of classic French cooking fundamentals) illustrates the classical skills Pepin learned in his French training, ranging from fluting a mushroom cap to butchering a baby lamb to making the perfect Bûche de Noel.
I have to admit that unwrapping The Essential James Beard Cookbook felt like reconnecting with a long-lost friend. There might have been some clutching to my chest. I learned to cook from James Beard's Theory and Practice of Good Cooking and The New James Beard. Back in the 1980s, when I was a starving editorial assistant working on the Best of Gourmet series, my mother gave them to me for Christmas. They came together in a slipcase, and while that's long gone, I still have those brittle paperbacks in my cookbook shelves. The first thing I did was go looking for my old standby recipes. There, on page 158, was the roast holiday goose with apple and prune stuffing, safely bound in a nice solid hardcover book. The first time I made this was in my twenties for a group of friends when we lived in Telluride, and twenty years later it's the reason one of them reconnected on Facebook. "Do you remember that goose?" he asked. I've done it a couple of times since over the years, most recently for a raucous group of adults and kids on Christmas Eve about five years ago, when our usual hostess was on the verge of having a baby. It's foolproof and delicious and when you use the goose fat to roast potatoes in a separate pan people will crowd into your kitchen reaching into the roasting pan with forks. And look! There on page forty-four, the Garbure Basquaise, that bean and sausage and veggie soup that I lived on those couple of years in New York, when I was so so broke and there were still German butchers, with lovely smoked sausages hanging from rods above the meat cases. Like any great recipe, this one is infinitely variable, and will feed a hungry person all winter long if need be. Flipping through the book I find others, the chicken with forty cloves of garlic that Beard made famous, and that sounded so wildly exotic to our sheltered 1970s palates, and the long-lost Romaine Soufflé. I've been searching for the Romaine Soufflé for years -- my personal madeleine of mid-1970s cooking. It's the first "fancy" thing I ever learned to cook, and I remember my brother's incredulous laughter at the mere notion that we were going to make a soufflé from lettuce. Again, all I can tell you is that you must make this. It is delicious. I do wish they'd included Beard's chicken spaghetti -- a lovely recipe from his Oregon childhood, where he learned to cook while helping his mother run a boarding house, but I was pleased to see that another of his early-twentieth-century recipes, Peking curry-tomato sauce on noodles made the cut.
Lest you think this collection is merely an exercise in nostalgia, let me be clear. This is a terrific collection of basic American recipes, all of which are fairly simple, easy to complete, and delicious. The book would be a wonderful present for college graduations, weddings, or for anyone interested in learning to cook simple recipes of the sort that can impart real confidence in the kitchen. It's a traditional cookbook organized by courses and type: from first courses and cocktail food through soups and salads followed by separate chapters for the different kinds of entrees. There are separate chapters for eggs, pasta, vegetables, as well as several chapters categorizing the different types of desserts, and finally, he ends with a section of basic stocks and sauces. While there are no photographs, Beard was justly famous for his clear instructional text. He made his living not as a chef, but as a cooking instructor, and it shows. What I love about this book is that it's exactly the kind of book that will help you learn to do what Pollan is advocating, learn to cook dinner every night, at home, with enough skill and variation that you won't go crazy. There are very few "fancy" or "exotic" ingredients in these recipes, and most ingredient lists are fairly short.
My love for Jacques Pépin is well-documented in this column, and while New Complete Techniques can in some ways be seen as the polar opposite of The Essential James Beard, containing as it does step-by-step directions for kitchen tasks most of us will never take on, it is also comprehensive enough to be a useful reference for the ordinary home cook. It's especially useful for those of us who are buying more and more of our meat as whole animals, or whole animal shares, since Pépin covers not only butchering but also a number of techniques like rolling and stuffing that are terrific with lesser cuts. But really, this book is sort of magical. Imagine cheery Jacques Pépin, with his mad skills, standing over your shoulder showing you with photographs exactly how to do all sorts of cooking tasks. There are instructions for simple foods like omelets, vegetable gratins, and how to carve a roast chicken. There are instructions for classical French techniques like making duxelles, clarifying stock with a raft of egg whites, or making puff pastry from scratch (I highly recommend the puff oaste #3, also known as "rough puff"). There are very few kitchen techniques you might run across that are not covered in this book, and although it's not the kind of thing you're going to cook your way through from front to back, it's going in a treasured spot on the reference shelf of my kitchen book corner.
While it makes sense for Michael Pollan, in the process of researching a book, to go apprentice himself to a barbecue master or artisanal bread baker, or to hire a chef to teach him to chop onions and braise lamb, the rest of us rely on cookbooks. It is hard to go wrong with James Beard and Jacques Pépin, despite the fact that neither of them is young, tattooed, or advocating an "extreme" approach to cooking. They are, simply, the kinds of experts who have spent decades explaining the basics of good cooking to home cooks, and guiding us as we stumble along, picking up skills. So while Pollan can teach you a lot about the anthropology of cooking pots, or the lost germ in whole wheat flours, or the newly emerging science of the biotic ecosystems that provide our digestive capabilities, Beard and Pepin can teach you to make the kinds of dishes that won't break your bank, that you can make with variations for years to come, and that will lure your children into the common space of the kitchen, that will, in that sense, reignite your home hearth.