August 2003

Tom Bernard


Prep Work

So the lovely wife and I decided to go out for a mid-morning coffee date the other day. We dropped off the kid at preschool camp and headed to the bakery/cafe place in the center of our suburban Boston town.

Imagine our surprise at discovering that at the prime calorie consumption hour of 9:00 a.m., for no adequately explained or remotely sensible reason, there wasnít a single muffin, scone, roll, bun, or bearclaw to be had in the entire bakery. I ask you: what kind of bakery adopts the business strategy of not carrying actual, you know, baked goods? Sure, I suppose we could have split an entire chocolate mousse cake, but I overslept that morning and hadn't made it to the gym, so that seemed like an unjustifiably excessive indulgence. Besides, I kind of had my heart (and stomach) set on a cinnamon chip scone and a hot chocolate.

This raises a point about food, and since this is ostensibly a column about food, I suppose making such a point is as good a way as any to begin my tenure as your resident Cookslut. Anyway, the point is this: by and large, we take food for granted until it disappoints us, disappears on us, or otherwise transmogrifies from a convenience to an unfulfilled desire. Here in the United States, weíre conditioned to take food for granted. There's just so much of it around, in ever escalating portion sizes (and with a corresponding escalation in our collective American waistline) that the notion of food as a need, a resource or an experience to be savored is something most of us have the luxury of choosing not to consider.

I'm as guilty of this as anyone. Iím hardly immune to the lure of convenient, mass produced, nutritionally dodgy chow. Iíve done my share of reheating prepared entrees when I'm too lazy to cook, and resorting to take out or delivery when I'm too lazy to reheat. As a result, Iíve eaten my share of meals that meet or exceed my dietary requirements without doing anything to satisfy my physical hunger or uplift my spirit.

Usually, when someone takes the reins of a column like this one, they are expected to map out a grand philosophical and navigational vision of where they, the intrepid writer, expect to take you, the faithful reader. These mission statements typically lay out what the writer expects to cover in upcoming issues, the ambitious ideas they developed in the time between landing the assignment and actually having to produce the column, and some exuberant promise or enigmatic hint intended to entice the reader back for the next issue.

You'll excuse me if I choose to buck this particular trend. In my experience as a writer and a reader, these ambitious visions rarely last more than three or four columns. Hell, Iím sure weíve all read columns that didnít last more than three or four installments. Deadlines, schedules, the availability (or lack thereof) of books, and topics that seemed more interesting in concept than in execution all conspire to alter or nullify the columnist's initial ideas. I've seen and experienced this phenomenon often enough to be wary of it this time out.

All right, faithful reader; if you insist I stand for something, let's make it something nice and simple. I love a good meal. Whether it's something as simple as a cheeseburger done right or as elaborate as a prix fixe tasting menu -ó my own depressingly limited firsthand experience in this area having been supplemented by better heeled friends' almost pornographic paeans to their gastronomic good fortune -ó I love meals where good ingredients prepared with respect for both the food and the diner force you to focus on food as an experience rather than as a simple biological imperative.

Much as I enjoy experiencing such meals, I enjoy preparing them even more. I love the whole process of having people over for dinner, from flipping through cookbooks and determining the menu to shopping for ingredients to putting the whole thing together and presenting it to my guests. It satisfies the frustrated chef in me, the one who thrives on preparing food for people, but who lacks the rigor and discipline to prepare the same dishes consistently night in and night out.

I'm always on the lookout for a new dish to try. Having pored through dozens of cookbooks, I appreciate the ones that are as literary as they are instructional. Cooking is a process that requires a certain amount of technical understanding to do well. Beyond that, it is also an art form, one with the potential to rouse the passions and enflame the spirit. I expect that if I can sense this passion in reading about a dish, then the experience of preparing and eating it must be even more uplifting.

And so, despite my best efforts to the contrary, it would appear I have a vision after all. Can't wait to see how it all works out.