September 2007

Melissa Lion

Culinaria Bookslut

Fine French Cuisine in a Trailer

My life is a little chaotic at the moment. I have a 23 month-old son who my partner and I decided to raise based on the principals in Dr. Sears’s and Dr. Karp’s books, otherwise known as attachment based parenting. Those books told us we would have a more engaged child if we held him all the time, a more active child if we didn’t sit him in front of the television. They promised a bright, happy boy. We did these things, getting rid of our TV when I was 30 weeks along and on bed rest, and we wore him until I was hunched over like the merchant with millions of caps for sale. We did these things, and sure enough we have a bright, engaged boy. We have a boy who’s so smart and so dexterous, he unscrews screws in the power outlets. He’s so active, he literally climbs the walls and I find him perched on the bathroom vanity, or more recently making his way up the refrigerator’s shelves. We rue attachment based parenting. We shake our fists at Sears and Karp. Next time, if there is a next time, if we ever have a night when we aren’t collapsed, crying in our bed, weeping that a little, little boy has beaten us so soundly again, we have promised that our child will be strapped to a stroller, parked in front of the television, eyes propped open with toothpicks.

To make matters worse, we live in a travel trailer on four acres in Malibu. Our trailer is approximately 300 square feet, but we’re moving this month to our own home in Portland, because like every other 30-something couple with a child, we’re escaping Southern California for the Pacific Northwest. Poor Portland; soon the California license plates will outnumber the Oregon ones. We’ll be pumping our own gas right in the face of the attendants, who by law, have to do it for us.

But at this very moment, I sit among boxes and boxes with a moving container out in the yard filled halfway and my partner is making me soup from a jar and sandwiches from bread revived in the oven. I love to cook, but because this is a travel trailer, there are no counters. The fridge has no defrost mechanism and so we have at it with a screwdriver once a month. I haven’t cooked a meal from scratch for a year. Our new house has a stove with four burners and a full-sized fridge. It has a washer and dryer and wood cupboards -- glorious wood! And why, in my self-imposed chaos, shouldn’t I propose a column for Bookslut in which I cook from the most expensive, complicated cookbooks on the shelf? I had dreams of grabbing Bouchon and showing Thomas Keller what’s what. I thought, Anthony Bourdain: bring it! I went for my cookbooks and they were packed away. I’m not even sure I have cookbooks by these men, believing as I do that food I am cooking cannot possibly be finished too fast. I actually cannot make rice because I can’t not lift the lid and stir it. I need to meddle with my food and these guys don’t seem like meddlers. They seem like slow food people, they seem like people with counters and more than three burners.

Finding no cookbooks in my own home to use, I went to the library where I grabbed the biggest cookbook I could find, and then ran after my son who was rolling away a full shelving cart. When I got home, I found I had checked out Culinaria France published by Culinaria Konemann. There’s a delightful rooster on the cover and it weighs about five pounds. Published in Europe? Rooster on the front? It’s sure to be complicated. After putting my son and partner to bed, I sat down with this book and began to read. What I found was a fascinating tour of French cooking, each chapter covering the specialties of a specific region. The expository writing about the regions is extraordinarily blunt to this American’s eyes. The pictures of geese being force-fed were surprising and I wondered what people would actually make from the ram’s testicles celebrated in a pictorial on red (organs) and white (stomach, ears, tongue) meats. The caption beneath a picture of chicken heads packed in a crate with their bodies wrapped and stickered captures the nonchalance we Americans lack for the preparation our food: “The birds are given VIP treatment on their way to the consumer. The precious poultry are packaged like chocolates.” After spending a few hours with this book, I had a renewed energy for food. I have a curiosity for exploring the methods of preparation beyond massive feedlots or organically grown produce. I can certainly eat the hand-dipped truffles of Lyon, but why should I stop there? Why not go for the rolled calf’s head?

I didn’t think Malibu would actually have rolled calf’s head, so I chose to cook the Fricassee de poulet de Bresse a la crème. In English: Chicken Fricassee. I made a few modifications to the recipe. I browned the chicken in vegetable oil instead of butter, due not to any concern of fat, but rather knowing from Cooks Illustrated that vegetable oil has a higher smoking point causing the chicken skin to crisp nicely and survive the braising. I also halved the amount of water from two cups because I just didn’t have a pan big enough to hold eight pieces of chicken and a generous cup of wine plus 500 ml of water. I used all the cream, though. It was delicious. The mushroom and shallots added texture and salty savoriness to the cream sauce. I served it with roasted carrots and potatoes for a perfect winter meal in the dead heat of a Southern California summer.

This cookbook is a great introduction to French cooking with recipes for weeknight meals as well as meals that will need hours and hours and many burners to complete like the Cassoulet de Castelnaudary, which begins with the subtitle: A Labor of Love. Culinaria France makes for an excellent gift, housewarming or otherwise, though be sure to give it after the person is well settled. As for my copy, it will return to the shelves of the Santa Monica Library where the next patron hungry for several recipes involving tripe will be well satisfied.

Melissa Lion is the author of Swollen and Upstream. Upstream has recently been optioned for a motion picture. She finds making rice daunting and has never successfully mashed potatoes.