April 2008

Melissa Lion

Culinaria Bookslut

Twee: A Culinary Exploration

Let’s all have a moment, shall we? Let’s sit and breathe in deep and let our thoughts pass us by. Quiet, everyone. Good. Now, let’s all take a trip to the happy place. The happy place smells like tea rose and there’s some hip jazzy French music playing and a college-aged girl greets you at the door. Inside, you find wide-leg pants with anchors and cashmere sweaters with lace Peter Pan collars. You find robin’s egg blue measuring cups by Nigella Lawson and piles and piles of Joe’s jeans. Smell the vanilla candles and touch the silky negligee thingie that might be a slip dress or extraordinarily pricey nightgown. Oh, and the bedding. Can you see yourself waking in that Indian print comforter that was very expensive, especially for something sewn together by a small Thai child who gets paid a dollar a millennium and whose fingers have worn away from night and day hand-sewing leaving bloody stumps that she has to hide in a dirty paper bag so her boss won’t beat her later.

Oh, that’s right. Now you know where we are. You know the happy place: Anthropologie. That bastion of twee. That place that I go to when I need answers to life’s questions. Do tiny polka dots make everything better? Are actual stuffed birds a fashion accessory? Is it ever appropriate for an adult woman to dress like “On the Good Ship Lollipop” Shirley Temple? Hell yes!

You know when I was at the bookstore and I found a cookbook with a pink spine and a cover with worn red vintage Mary Janes, I gasped at the beauty of living in a world where I can not only spend a small fortune on things that make me look like a post-World War II French country woman, but where I could cook like one too! Oh, and if they could subtly make me feel bad for not living each element of my life like that French woman, then this might be the cookbook of my dreams.

Apples for Jam by Tessa Kiros doesn’t disappoint on the twee and vague self-loathing I seek at Anthro. It’s a “colorful cookbook,” just like the subtitle says. The chapters are arranged by color. Red, orange, pink… and stripes, multicolor and, for the rest of us, monochrome. My natural reaction to anything twee is always, “Ohhhh, I wish I had thought of that!” Flipping through Apples for Jam, I thought, organizing a cookbook by color, now that is cute. And clever. Then I looked in my pantry and thought, “Oh, what pink foods do I have to cook with for dinner?” I realized that organizing a cookbook based on color is, quite possibly, the most useless way to organize a cookbook. Kiros would have been hard pressed to find a method more frustrating and wholly random for leading readers through the recipes.

This forced organization is so arbitrary, it leads to odd groupings. Cranberry syrup, which in a normal cookbook would sit next to whatever the author is pairing it with, is followed by Vermicelli Soup. No cranberry syrup necessary. Granola is followed by Leek and Potato Soup. Green Bean Soufflé Loaf is next to Peppermint Crisp Pie. Christopher Kimball of Cook’s Illustrated would be having kitty cats now.

Kiros begins with her intro “Recipes for Life.” “This is about whispering advice to a sister, swapping recipes over fences, sharing crumbs on a train with a stranger.” A cookbook about things that I’ve never done? And that last one about strangers on the train makes me a little nauseated just thinking about it. She continues, “Feeding a family is about stitching all the bits together on a steady thread… and still leaving some space for spontaneity and the will of nature. And all this should still have the grace and honesty of a daisy chain.” A daisy chain? Maybe because I was in high school in an urban environment in the early nineties, daisy chains, for me, have no relation to actual flowers gathered and tied together to be worn in an ethereal blonde girl’s hair, but rather a sex act one of the skaters at my high school boasted he’d participated in. I had to giggle a little when I read that. And then I had to stop reading the introduction because I would have returned the book right then and there.

I am a cookbook tester and it’s my job to cook from the recipes. So I flipped through the red chapter and found the Penne with Shrimp, Cream and Tomato recipe. I substituted scallops for the shrimp and I cooked the tomatoes with hot pepper flakes and garlic and still the recipe was bland.

I would like to say that I cooked something else from this book, but frankly, I just couldn’t abide the organization and the preposterous memories littered throughout the text. “I wanted to toast marshmallows on fires but didn’t really enjoy children’s camping where the oatmeal looked like homesickness in the smallest portion I had requested.” Say what? Do I have time to read each recipe in the index for a suitable meal for my family? Uh, no. I’m too busy relaxing in my Irish linen sheets with the scalloped edges and little butterflies embroidered on the edges. I’m too busy admiring my wool crepe jacket with the appliqué roses climbing the back. I’m too busy thanking the gods up in heaven that Anthropologie doesn’t serve food because while the twee charm of a store that looks like someone’s grandmother (not my own) barfed up her attic, the food version is not quite so appealing. Apple for Jam is Anthropologie at its worst: incoherent and bland, substituting twee for substance and practicality.