February 2015

Teri Vlassopoulos


Eager for the Kitchen: Prune and Twelve Recipes

I tend to read cookbooks the way I read books of poetry -- rarely sequentially, but rather by opening the book up randomly and relying on serendipity to guide me through. It's not necessarily the way the book is meant to be read, but the format lends itself to it (sorry, poets; I don't think cookbook writers mind so much). But occasionally I'll come across a cookbook that has more of a narrative arc to it, and I'll read it straight through. Properly. I felt this way about Gabrielle Hamilton's Prune and then Cal Peternell's Twelve Recipes, but for different reasons.

First Prune because it was a bit of an enigma. The book has no introduction or table of contents, so I kept turning the pages wondering if some kind of explanation would eventually pop up. I'm not sure what kind of explanation I was looking for since I was already familiar with Hamilton. Like so many others, I loved her memoir, Blood, Bones and Butter (reviewed by the original Cookbookslut over here). It was a hot mess of a book, but I mean that in a good way. Food memoirs tend to have a cloyingly facile tidiness to them, and Hamilton's memoir did not. It was fascinating, smart, and passionate, and it's not surprising that her cookbook shares these characteristics. In one of Prune's first recipes, Hamilton emphasizes that the bread to be used for Deep Fried Shrimp Toasts must be Pepperidge Farm Original brand and nothing else. "Don't use anything better in some attempt to make this 'gourmet,'" she writes. "We are not that kind of restaurant." I imagine she put Prune together with a similar attitude: This is not that kind of cookbook. In fact, Prune's conceit is that it isn't a cookbook at all, but rather the instruction manual for cooks working at the restaurant the book is named after. So of course this kind of collection wouldn't have an introduction (or an index or headnotes). There are simply recipes and the occasional handwritten notes from Hamilton, which aren't necessarily helpful to someone cooking at home. In the recipe for cold pâté sandwiches, instead of giving step-by-step instructions she just writes, "Come find me and we'll do it together." Other helpful but not-so-helpful notes fall along the lines of, "Keep your mise fresh each day," "Keep your knife skills in shape," or "Save wishbones for birthdays."

It would follow that an anti-cookbook cookbook would have an anti-design as well. It looks as though it's a photocopied facsimile of the reference guide actually used in the restaurant -- stained pages and all -- with recipes typed hastily in Times New Roman and then marked up with a Sharpie by Hamilton. These touches make the book interesting, but also occasionally maddening. For instance, because of the lack of index, once you've finished your initial read you have to flip around to find the recipes you remember seeing, which vary in complexity from calf's brains to butter and sugar sandwiches. She covers everything -- bar snacks, lunch, lunch dessert, brunch, mains, main desserts, drinks, mise, her mother-in-law's recipes -- so there's a lot of flipping around. There's even a section called "garbage," which showcases Hamilton's aversion to waste. Why throw anything out when you can dry and grind the skins from blanched tomatoes to a powder, use leek bottoms as décor or deep fry sardine spines like potato chips?

The book ends with guidelines for Family Meal, the meal each cook is responsible for making for the rest of the staff. While the specifics can't really be applied to home cooks (i.e. there's a list of forbidden foods that must only be saved for the restaurant, like expensive cheese and "brunch pickles"), there are still lessons to be learned, like how to approach a meal and give it cohesiveness and the importance of cleaning up after yourself.

It's the insider-y stuff, along with Hamilton's authoritative tone -- she is your Chef, your boss -- that make the book so fun. Exciting. It reminds me of when Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential first came out and made us feel like we were in on the secret. Don't order fish on Mondays, etc. -- we suddenly knew how to do it right. These days "behind the scenes" exposés are a dime a dozen, but Prune manages to be surprising and fresh, the gimmick not too gimmicky, but just right. I read it straight through the way I read Blood, Bones and Butter.

And then I was lucky enough to follow up Prune with Cal Peternell's Twelve Recipes. Unlike Prune, which assumes you have a certain level of training and throws you into the kitchen to muddle through on your own, Peternell's book is meant to be a reassuring guide. It was written for his son who left for college lacking some basic cooking skills and there's definitely something paternal about the book, not just in its instructions, but its writing ("My son Milo has only recently come to enjoy exotics like cockscomb, bone marrow, stinging nettles, and the clanking music of Tom Waits..." Daaaad!), but it never comes off as condescending.

The book takes on twelve recipes, gives a basic introduction and then provides a handful of riffs on the original, starting with toast and building up from there. Like Hamilton's voice in Prune, it's Peternell's voice throughout that makes it a good read. While it has its share of photos and sketches, it's text heavy and chatty, which is why I found myself bookmarking where I was until I made my way through the whole thing.

It's an easy book to cook from as well. It inspired me to make spaghetti and meatballs, minestrone, braised chicken legs. Simple things that I've made before, but fell out of regular rotation until I was reminded that they were there, easy to make, but also easy to switch up and turn into something slightly different. As Peternell writes, Twelve Recipes is "neither a lifestyle guide nor an ethical screed but a set of directions for succeeding with simple, delicious dishes, for bouncing back when you fail, and to turn to when you're ready for the next level." And it succeeds.

Both Prune and Twelve Recipes made me eager for the kitchen, which not all cookbooks do: Prune because I wanted to make something different and Twelve Recipes because I needed some new staples. Hamilton had this final reminder in Prune, which applies not only to working cooks, but us following along at home: "To feed ourselves and each other is the name of the game and should bring you great, thundering pleasure." Right, that is the point, and how wonderful to have equally good guides to nudge you in the right direction.

Teri Vlassopoulos lives in Toronto. More of her writing can be found at http://bibliographic.net.