January 2008

Melissa Lion

Culinaria Bookslut

Tangy Tart Hot and Untested

I’m actually a short person. I had no idea that I was a short person. My whole life I thought I was a tall person. Tall. I’d never even though of myself as average. But tall. Then I was seeing a band at a club with no stage and I could only see the necks of the people surrounding me. In that moment I realized that, at 5’7”, I was a short person. I then noticed that everyone I knew was actually taller than I was, rather than shorter, which was what I’d always thought. I’m sure an analyst would have something to say about this. But, truly, it’s not just my height that I get confused. Some days, I’m startled to find a white girl starting back at me, so certain I am that, away from the mirror, I’m an exotic beauty of Chinese, French, Indian, and Egyptian descent. I’m surprised when I look in the mirror and don’t find bone straight tresses, but the mess of curls that have taunted me since junior high. Rough times being thirteen and not knowing the miracle of Aveda’s Anti-humectant pomade, but being left to my own devices with Dep and blow dryer.

So as the deadline approached for my Culinaria Column, I was checking out the cookbook section to see what was new and review-worthy. (The cookbook girl gets no respect from the publishers, yet.) Martha Stewart has a new cookbook, as does Nigella. Either would have been swell. But then, as I was standing at the display, I was shocked to see me staring back from the cover of a cookbook. Tall, exotic beauty, straight hair and it looked like I was having a really great time. I got closer and had a bit of an out-of-body experience as I realized that every single one of my dreams (including being a cookbook author) had come true. The only bizarre thing was my name was way different, but I had spent most of my childhood asking my parents if they were sure I wasn’t adopted, so maybe.

I marched up to the checkout, so pleased that reality had finally caught up to my fantasy life, and bought Tangy Tart Hot and Sweet by Padma Lakshmi. Or, rather, Me. Inside my cookbook, I found some really quality food porn and sweet photos of the parents I never knew and the friends I’ve never had. It was so nice being reunited. I also had a killer kitchen.

As I studied the recipes, however, my fantasy began to crumble. Despite my exotic, worldly heritage, I am a practical woman and I’d never write a cookbook with ingredients that I couldn’t pronounce. I mean, who can run to their local market for amchoor or yuzu juice? I wouldn’t ever insist on a teaspoon of Sichuan peppercorns with an asterisk only to lead the reader to a footnote explaining that regular peppercorns are okay, but “Sichuan ones have a smoky flavor that gives a distinct aroma to dishes.” After the various revolutions my fantasy family has fought, I am an egalitarian!

Turns out the woman writing this cookbook is the host Top Chef. A show that I am sure I would spend many pleasurable hours stressfully watching as twelve hopeful chefs have their dreams smashed. I would watch it, but I don’t have a television precisely because I would watch it and soon my son would be riding the cat and my partner’s eyebrows would have grown into his eyeballs because I couldn’t tear myself away to tend to my family’s needs. I can’t help myself around television. It’s like crack. Or chocolate. There’s no way for me to get enough. So it’s been banished for my own good.

My first recipe was the Red Snapper with Green Apple and Mint Chutney. The chutney was excellent. A lovely, surprising way perk up white fish. The recipe was simple and fast. I was pleased. I felt like I had learned something.

Next night I went for the Passata of White Beans and Sage. A Passata, for those of you who did not, as I did, grow up on the Concord jetting to various peace-keeping missions with your parents, is a puree, or really, a thick soup. Lakshmi lets us off the hook with the beans, admitting that she uses canned beans. The recipe calls for two pounds of canned cannellini beans. Does this seem odd to anyone else? While I understand that cans are measured in ounces, and it wouldn’t be too terribly hard for an English major like myself to puzzle that through, it seems that calling for two pounds of something you could refer to in a quantity -- two cans -- seems a bit odd. The recipe really entered crazyville with the three cups of chopped shallots it called for. That’s more shallots than beans. I decided to follow the advice of my first grade teacher and use my best judgment. I chopped up three small shallots. I also pureed about half of the soup, leaving it a little chunky. The Passata, with the modification, was excellent.

On the third night of cooking with my doppelganger, I tried the Red Stripe Chicken. This is a whole bird simmered in beer. The picture looks just as sumptuous as Lakshmi promises the dish will be. And really, any way I can incorporate more beer into my diet is always welcome. First we’re to sauté the veggies in a deep pot and then, without removing the vegetables, we’re to brown the chicken in the same pot. Seriously, how’s that supposed to work? I tried it for a moment, clearing a space in the center of the veggies for the chicken, but there was too much moisture to brown the skin. I heated up a second pan with scant oil and browned that clucker right good. I’m sure the food photographer did the same thing. Either that or they have a little make-up kit to add some extra bronze to an otherwise flaccid bird because there is no way that chicken would have browned like the picture. Furthermore, I do believe that beer can work miracles, but boiling chicken in most any liquid is still boiling chicken. The meat is moist, but totally without flavor and the skin, well, the skin is scary. I used three bottles of beer for a recipe that, in a word, sucked. In college such flagrant misuse of beer would have been deemed alcohol abuse, to be sure.

While I did enjoy the photos of Ms. Lakshmi doing her best Melissa Lion impression as she sauntered down an urban street in her jaunty red scarf, size two jeans, designer boots, and staring pensively at the youth passing her by, if she really wanted to do me right, she would have had actual people testing her recipes. People who go to the market by their house, not the market on the other side of the globe. I have no idea what Ms. Lakshmi’s catch phrase is as she sends hopeful chefs to cooking purgatory, but I imagine it’s clever and has something to do with chopping their shallots off or boiling their buns. On my own reality show, Ms. Lakshmi will get to sit tight this round, but if she doesn’t shape up in the next episode, she and her book will get tossed in the deep freeze.

Melissa Lion is the author of two young adult novels -- Swollen and Upstream. Upstream has recently been optioned for a movie. She lives in Portland, Oregon and blogs about extremely personal things very publicly at her website -- www.melissalion.com.