November 2003

Tom Bernard


Third Helping

Apparently, the publication of this column makes me the Cal Ripken of the Cookslut set. I take my newly minted status as the Iron Man of the cookbook column circuit very seriously indeed. I might even go so far as to say, “Today, I consider myself the luckiest Cookslut on the face of the earth,” if that didn’t infringe on the late Lou Gehrig’s schtick.

So. How to celebrate this milestone? Fireworks are always impressive, but they’re so darned expensive. A ticker tape parade down Boyleston Street in Boston would be nice, but I’m entirely too lazy to go through the hassle of securing the necessary permits. As a ticker tape parade without permits is really just a flagrant case of littering, this brings me back to the expense issue, as bail and court costs can really run into money.

Since money is an issue, I suppose I could follow the lead of Emeril “Crest toothpaste” Lagasse or Rick “Burger King” Bayless (and speaking of BK, would someone explain me exactly how a “fire grilled” burger is any different from the flame broiled hockey pucks they’ve been schlepping for decades?) and get myself attached as a shill for, I don’t know, Mrs. Dash or frozen peas (slogan: “MMM, MMM! They’re pea-licious!”) or something, but ever since I mentioned the idea to my agent, he’s stopped taking my calls.

Then it hit me: this is a column about cookbooks, cooking and food. Perhaps the best way to commemorate my momentous achievement of this storied milestone of three consecutive columns -- I know three columns in a row may not sound impressive, but look at it this way, sports fans: I’m currently batting 1.000 -- would be to actually, you know, cook something and then write about the process and the outcome. Failing that, I figure I should at least find some poor cookbook writer to pick on, and carve ‘em up like a prize Thanksgiving turkey.

Unfortunately, despite the fact my last two columns have made me a household name, spoken in the same reverently hushed tones reserved for Brillat-Savarin and Epicurus himself, throughout the civilized world and parts of Delaware*, some publishers remain stingy about fulfilling my requests for review copies of their books.

The fools! Don’t they know who I am?

Fortunately, my good friend and creative enabler Maura -- who not only helped me land this gig, but also introduced me to my wife, so I, like, owe her and stuff -- challenged me to find something, anything, worth cooking (and, I presume, eating) in her copy of Entertaining 1-2-3 by Rozanne Gold. She recently received the book as a gift, and now faces the looming threat of having to go home for the holidays bearing evidence of having put the book to good use.

Finally! A challenge worthy of my considerable talents and suitable for inclusion in this Very Special Installment of Cookslut, brought to you without commercial interruption by AFPAB, the American Frozen Pea Advisory Board (motto: “Peas are the champions, my friends.”).

A wiser writer would have quailed at the challenge. I’ve been on he receiving end of one recipe from the book, Wasabi-Stuffed Shrimp, and the result wasn’t pretty, or especially palatable. On the other hand, the book did win the prestigious James Beard award, so how bad can it be? More to the point, the book’s conceit (recipes consisting of only three ingredients) is especially relevant to this, my record-setting third Cookslut column.

While it’s true Entertaining 1-2-3 won the Beard award, it certainly wasn’t for the writing. The book opens with a dissertation on culinary history so flowery -- or perhaps given the genre, floury -- you can almost hear legions of English teachers reaching en masse for their red pens. Consider the following:

“The history of entertaining is embedded in the story of civilization. Eons ago, some unsuspecting cook dropped a handful of herbs on the family campfire and encountered a complexity of aromas and flavors never before imagined.

“Reacting in a way that, ever since, has been part of our social makeup, she invited the neighbors for dinner -- thereby becoming the world’s first party planner! Her guests, in turn, were the world’s first party animals.”

I suspect I’m not alone in hearing the dulcet tones of the late Troy McClure when I read these lines. While this may be sufficient for the fifth place finalist in the Betty Crocker Culinary Essay Contest from Hell, it’s not a recipe for enjoyable reading. Personally, I’m old fashioned. I believe the fact someone is writing a cookbook is no reason not to write well. On the other hand, I’m willing to forgive stylistic deficiencies if the recipes rise above the prose in which they are so tragically mired.

Gold’s recipes deliver on their promise, in that you could serve most of them to your guests without fear of hospitality mortification. On the other hand, Entertaining 1-2-3 could just as easily have been called 1001 Ways to Belabor the Point About Cream Cheese. Strawberry, Honey Walnut, Chocolate, Orange Rum, Maple Raisin, Wasabi; all right, I get it! Cream cheese is an incredibly versatile platform for the delivery of any number of different flavors and textures. Here’s the thing, though: it doesn’t take an award-winning author to reveal this culinary marvel to the world. Deli countermen (and women) and bagel bakers have been hip to this secret for generations.

Hell, anyone who’s ever come home to a virtually empty pantry and improvised a quick meal out of whatever they have lying around rather than running to the market knows that combining Reasonably Neutral Base Ingredient A (cream cheese, sour cream, yogurt, tofu, etc.) with Random Flavoring Agent B (fruit, salsa, herbs, spices, condiments, etc.) and applying the resulting mélange to an Ingestion Delivery System (bagel, cracker, tortilla chip, rice cake, spoon, finger -- C’mon; you know you’ve done it) knows this trick.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a big fan of this approach. I’ve just got a problem with the pretense that this type of thing is haute cuisine. For example, I’m somewhat suspicious of Gold’s recipe for “An Unusual Hummus,” which isn’t so much unusual as modified to fit the book’s 3-ingredient motif. This strikes me as being inspired more by a bare cupboard than intentional creative flair.

For my money, cooking and entertaining are at their best when they are fun. For me, that means being open to improvisation, and crediting when it occurs. I enjoy the alchemy of tossing random ingredients in a pot and coming back a few hours later to a simple stew. I suspect Rozanne Gold might even agree with me; it’s just that the book dresses up this idea in fancy clothes because, after all, company’s coming.

Granted, a cookbook that exhorted readers to “Look around your kitchen. Combine different ingredients, especially those with bold, complimentary flavors (how about coconut milk and wasabi?) to create easy and impressive new dishes” would fall far short of the author’s word count target and would almost certainly leave readers feeling like they didn’t get their money’s worth. Stripped down to its essence, though, that’s the message of Entertaining 1-2-3.

This can be a necessary message. Entertaining can be stressful? Don’t believe me? Just look at the specimens on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Not everyone -- and I’m not just talking about straight men so apparently hopeless as to make ample reality television fodder -- is comfortable with culinary improvisation. There’s a definite market for the lessons offered in Entertaining 1-2-3. For readers in the market for simplicity, convenience and reasonably foolproof techniques, Gold offers such treasures as Homemade Potato Chips and Sage Shrimp with Crispy Pancetta. Sure, she cheats with some recipes. Strictly speaking, Chicken-Stuffed Ravioli isn’t a single ingredient, but it’s a forgivable lapse. For people who do like to play with their food, the book invites improvisation. What would happen, for example, if you replaced the sage in a recipe with thyme?

As for my friend Maura, the book’s nominal owner? If I were in her shoes, I’d go for something in a dip or a spread. Perhaps the chicken-liver and sun dried tomato pate? Maybe combine the chicken livers with Gorgonzola? Of course, something with cream cheese is always nice.

* The Cookslut wishes to make it known he spent many pleasant summers on the Delaware shore in his youth, and he can’t say enough good things about the people, the clean and spacious beaches and the pizza at Nicola’s in Rehoboth Beach.