December 2003

Tom Bernard

cookslut

Compassionate Con-serve-itism

At the risk of being branded a cynical killjoy -- and not for the first time, to be sure -- I have to confess to a certain reservation about using a cookbook, especially one featuring recipes by chefs from restaurants where the price of dinner for two could feed a family of four for at least a week, to help alleviate world hunger. I fault no one involved for their dedication or their sincerity, and certainly not for the way they have chosen to make a living. It’s just hard to reconcile the idea that a recipe for Blueberry Vinegar-marinated Squab on Creamy Polenta or Gigot de Sept Heures (Seven-hour Braised Leg of Lamb) is helping keep a family in need supplied with peanut butter, mac and cheese or pork and beans.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not suggesting that these chefs should throw up their hands, decide they can’t be both successful and socially responsible and join me in wearing sackcloth (which, frankly, isn’t a terribly slimming look) and ashes (which make me break out), none of which benefits anyone but those participants who might happen to harbor a deep-seated martyr complex. I recognize that their position gives them the opportunity -- one they’ve obviously exercised, or there’s be no book for me to write about -- to support this cause, one that benefits by their involvement. Share Our Strength, the organization sponsoring the book, notes they have raised $68 million since 1984, so clearly they’re doing well by doing good. It’s just that at first glance it’s one of those seemingly oxymoronic ideas, like believing that the number of weeks a book spends on the bestseller lists reflects the quality of the writing. Ultimately, Share Our Strength does good work, and will continue to do so despite any qualms on my part.

More to the point, my kneejerk cynicism didn’t stop me from bringing Charles Dale’s Pineapple Upside-Down Cake with Coconut Crème Anglaise* to Thanksgiving dinner, and it’s certainly not going to stop me from comparing the home-cookin’ version of Andy Husbands’s Pulled-Pork Sandwiches to those offered at my favorite barbecue joint, nor from visiting Husbands’s restaurants to sample his cooking firsthand.

Appealing as these various recipes are, they represent only half of what Cooking from the Heart is about. In addition to offering dishes that allow readers to sample (or attempt their own interpretations of) the cooking of Alice Waters, Thomas Keller or Jody Adams without visiting Chez Panisse, The French Laundry or Rialto, each chef offers a remembrance, a vignette or an explanation of their featured recipe. Not surprisingly, many of these stories hearken back to the chef’s childhood, to parents, grandparents and relatives, or to formative experiences on their culinary journey.

I’m a sucker for this type of story, especially the ones that remind me of my own earliest memories of spending time in my grandmother’s kitchen, watching, and later helping, her cook. There’s something universal about these experiences, and about the central role food -- preparation, cooking, and the shared experience of coming together around a table -- plays in so many of our lives. It’s even possible that thirty years from now my daughter will tell my grandchildren about helping me whip up a Pineapple Upside-Down Cake with Coconut Crème Anglaise with the same warmth and fondness with which I recall helping Gram make her cherry squares. These morsels of nostalgia, as self-indulgent and saccharine sweet as they can seem at times, are a kind of comfort food.

I suspect many of the chefs represented in Cooking from the Heart would identify these moments and events as the catalysts that set them on the path to their current positions. Thus, Ming Tsai’s memories of family trips that included detours to major metropolitan Chinatowns and Asian enclaves in search of the equipment and ingredients they couldn’t find in the Dayton, Ohio of his youth can be seen as influencing everything from his opening of Blue Ginger to his decision to lend his name to a line of cookware and accessories sold through Target, thereby bringing a mass-produced simulacrum of his experience to the same Middle America that was so devoid of these products when he was a child.

What the chefs represented in Cooking from the Heart seem to have in common is a combination of reverence and innovation. While they respect the traditions that gave rise to a certain recipe, they also possess the insight to see the possibilities presented by new ingredients and fusion techniques. It is this flair for improvisation that allows Marty Blitz to reinvent his bubbe’s knish in a decidedly non-Kosher form that encompasses yucca and chorizo, with a garnish of cilantro crema. I have to imagine Blitz’s bubbe would raise an eyebrow at that one, but it’s hard to believe anyone, even a cynical killjoy, could find too much fault with the idea of people doing something ambitious or philanthropic with the gifts they’ve been given.

* The cake itself was quite good. Light, most, and chock full of sugary, pineapple-y goodness. I have some doubts about the accuracy of the recipe as written, as the batter resembled something more akin to half-dried out Play-Doh than cake batter. An improvisational addition of an extra half-cup or so of pineapple juice soon set things to right, and no doubt contributed to the overall flavor of the end product. As for the Coconut Crème Anglaise, while it was good, the recipe as written produced a sauce that was neither sweet enough nor coconutty enough to stand up to the flavor of the cake. Cooking From the Heart by Michael J. Rosen
Broadway Books
ISBN: 076791371X
320 Pages