Authors: Daniel Duane
Chez Panisse Vegetables
, on the other hand â¦ I turned it over in my lap and looked at the author photo. Alice, the woman Anthony Bourdain once described as “Pol Pot in a muumuu,” seemed deeply familiar, like an old family friend I hadn't seen in ages. The twinkle in the eyes, the sharp and smart smileâvery much like my mother's. If I squinted just right, I could tell myself this wasn't simply a random choice or the obvious bestseller. I was returning to my roots, cooking the classic food of my childhood
village. Flipping to the table of contents, I began to wonder why I'd always cooked so few recipes from any one of my cookbooks. I had some kind of filter, clearly, through which I scanned a cookbook's recipes, rejecting all but one or two until something grabbed my eye. But I'd never asked myself to justify the criteria for this filtering. All I knew is that it went something like this: Roasted Winter Vegetables, from
Chez Panisse Vegetables
? No way. I couldn't name a single winter vegetable; therefore they all had to be gross. Cabbage and Bean Soup with Duck Confit? Vaguely recall eating confit with Doug and Judy, but no clue what the word “confit” even means, and therefore no interest in learning. So why not eliminate the filter of me and accept, in its place, the filter of Alice? Why not, in other words, accept that if the great Alice Waters figured a recipe belonged in her cookbook, it was definitely worth making at least once? Ephron writes of a certain Holy Trinity of cookbooks in her life: Julia Child's
Mastering the Art of French Cooking
; Craig Claiborne's
The New York Times Cookbook
, and Michael Field's
. Alice has since told me that she took the same approach with books from Elizabeth David, Richard Olney, Madeleine Kamman, Lulu Peyraud, and Roy Andries de Groot. It always had to be French, with People Like Us: ancient Revolutionary sympathies, maybe, between our two countries; shared antipathy toward the English. Funny, though, when I thought about it: not a single major French population center in the United States; France the only European nation never to have sent us a big immigrant wave; and yet French language so widely (and mysteriously) taught in our schools. Just the right non-participant status, perhaps, in the great elbow-jostling of Ellis Island; just the right positioning as every American's cultural ancestors but nobody's personal ancestors. Eat dinner at some Brooklyn Italian restaurant a hundred years ago, or drink Guinness in some midcentury
Boston Irish pub, and you entered an immigrant's world. Spend big on French food, and not so much. Fancy, foreign, exotic, but not too exotic. Take the Beck family in Samuel Chamberlain's classic
Clementine in the Kitchen
, the 1943 novel of an American diplomatic family, after years in France, forced back to Boston by the war. Clementine, their beloved French chef, comes along, bringing “everything from a rare edition of Brillat-Savarin” to her “gleaming copper
batterie de cuisine
,” earthen casseroles, and knives. Stateside, Clementine laments the absent French ingredients but marvels at the New England seafood; soon, the Beck family throws a dinner party and Clementine's food so dazzles that it propels the Becks into the higher social orders of their town.
In any case, I began to wonder if
might play such a role in my own lifeânot social catapult so much as the job performed by Ephron's Holy Trinity and Alice's Jackson Five, that of the personal culinary scripture. Objectively speaking, there's something a little heartless about
. The recipes work beautifully, they embody a remarkably complete and timeless approach to plant foods, and yet they seem studiously to avoid any evidence of having emerged from a particular mind at a particular time. If you were in a cynical frame of mind, the natural conclusion might be that somebody simply canvassed recipes from all the Chez Panisse cooks and wrote up an introduction. If you weren't, you might deduce that this was an intentional way of positioning the book as a classic. And I was definitely not in a cynical frame of mind; I was in the same state of spiritual yearning that got Lindh flying to Pakistan and learning to fieldstrip an AK-47, in hopes of slaughtering the Infidel. The very impersonality of
, in other words, allowed me to read it as
-personal, as if it were not just a marquee title by America's most influential cook but rather my own hometown's time-tested manual for domestic
excellence. Viewed in that light, the book's AâZ qualityâinviting me to cook every recipe thereinâfelt like a gift, presenting a crystal-clear path to a body of knowledge that appeared just as complete and compelling as
has to other vulnerable souls, at other vulnerable moments.
Anybody who's ever loved a cookbookâ
loved a cookbook, every page a wonderlandâhas met one of those depressing Recipes Give Me a Headache people, like a particular friend of my father's. A Berkeley lawyer I'll call Lisa, she happened to count Alice among her sometimes clients. So I mentioned to Lisa this plan of mine, with
. I told her that Liz had been slipping ever deeper into sleepless confusion, and no longer cared much what I made for dinner, as long as I cooked a lot of it quickly and kept ample ice cream around. As a result, I'd begun to find my legs in the kitchen, savoring especially my newfound authority to make a mess while I ripped through such oddities as Brussels Sprouts Pasta, Chanterelle Pasta, or something called Chard, Spinach, and Escarole Pasta.
“And when you cook,” asked Lisa, “how closely do you follow Alice's recipes?”
“Spot-on religiously,” I replied.
Take Wild Mushroom Pasta Gratin, a kitchen-destroying combination of mushrooms, cream, and noodles, which I'd slammed out right after Whole-Wheat Pasta with Cauliflower, Walnuts, and Ricotta Salata, and right before the ultimately tragic Wild Mushroom and Greens Ravioli (more soiled pots and cluttered counters than you'd believe; amateurs shouldn't fuck around with
ravioli). I'd started by pushing aside some dirty lunch dishes to make room for a bowl filled with hot water and precisely one ounce of dried porcinis, which turned out to be three expensive bags' worth, because each bag hardly weighed anything. Liz was bathing little Hannah in a tiny plastic tub while I opened the fridge and rummaged around for butter. Then I portioned out precisely one tablespoon of butter and located our smallest saucepanâlikewise in the sinkâand scrubbed it clean. While the butter melted, I dug around in the sink yet again, fishing out measuring spoons still dirty from buttermilk pancakes. I found the flour where I'd left it during the very same project, and I measured one tablespoon of that flour into the butter. Liz was nursing Hannah while I measured out a shocking
of heavy creamâcardiovascular suicide, as far as I could tell. Then there was this unusual move of spooning in two to three tablespoons of that porcini rehydration waterâmushroomy flavor, I guessedâand clearing still more crap off the stove to free up yet another burner for simmering the cream, porcini water, flour, and butter, together with a little store-bought chicken stock. While it was all bubbling and spatteringâLiz done nursing, singing lullabies to HannahâI moved a particularly annoying pile of dirty baby bottles and beer cans from one counter to another. I rinsed my old dull knife so that I could chop eight ounces of chanterelle mushroomsâamazingly expensiveâand then sautÃ© them in butter and â¦
“No, no, no, no,” said Lisa, Alice's sometimes-lawyer. “I can't hear any more about this.”
“Ugh. It makes me sick just hearing about all those little amounts. I'm a very good cook, actually. I'm really
good. But I do my own thing. I mean, I look at cookbooks for ideas, but that's it.”
Jane Kramer, writing in the
, describes a similar friend getting a headache “just by looking at the teaspoon measurements for thyme and garlic in a coq au vin.” I believe that my mother fell into this same camp. Not that Mom ever let on: “What a fabulous idea!” Mom exclaimed, regarding my
project, but I caught a telltale blankness in her loving eyes, some part of Mom's mind recognizing the personality gulf between us. Cooking wasn't something she'd ever had to discover, or fret about, or explore. She simply cooked, with pleasure but without pretension. Meatloaf, cinnamon toast, spoon bread, lasagna and cheesecake for my every birthday: I recall all of this with a tingling warmth. And yet I do not recall a single cookbook ever present in our home, except an old copy of
Joy of Cooking
. Nor do I recall a single food magazine. When I think of Mom cooking even her Classy Dinner Party Beef Stew, I picture her peacefully puttering away in our puny kitchen, adding a dash of this and a drop of that, finding her way toward a great meal. None of these people, howeverâneither Mom, Kramer's friend, nor Alice's lawyerâhad ever looked toward cookbooks for immutable laws of action during a period of intense personal disorientation. None of them had ever needed cookbook recipes to dictate the very movement of their limbs through space, minute by minute, hour upon hour, during the tense passage of a young family's no-sex, no-restaurant evenings, the future ever more daunting.
Alice herself commanded, in the
introduction, that I should “never cook slavishly, rigidly following a recipe and thoughtlessly adhering to the measurements it givesâ¦ . Trust your intuition and your own taste.” But if Alice had been standing before me, wagging a finger, I would have protested to my teacher that, for a man lacking both intuition
taste, recipes qualify as oxygen: they make life possible,
if and only if one lives
and breathes by them
. Only in following every instruction to the letter, see, could I hope to learn what the hell food was supposed to taste like in the first place. Improv is just fine if you've made tens of thousands of meals and long since learned that, say, lemon juice in a salad dressing plays the part of the acid, balancing the oil. If you've never made a salad dressing in your life, you might think that the lemon juice was all about a vaguely citrus-like flavor, and that orange juice might work, too. What would you learn then, except that you're a shitty cook who ought to follow recipes?
Clearly, I had more in common with certain other friends described by Kramer, like the Los Angeles couple who “read cookbooks aloud to each other in bed, as part of what could be called their amatory ritual” or the couple in Berlin who “nearly divorced over an argument about which cookbooks to pack for a year in Cambridge.” Okay, I'm overstating it: Liz would never have seen anything amatory about reading a cookbook together, unless it happened to be Bayless, and I was diving in just to please her. But I had yet to consider a move like that. My point is just that I was closer to Kramer herself, seeing cookbooks as “like the lipsticks I used to buy as a tenth grader in a Quaker school where not even hair ribbons or colored shoelaces were permitted. They promise to transform me.” And sure, while the young Kramer hungered for a ticket into the more illicit aspects of adulthood, I needed a recipe for middle age, a way to maintain a sense of self. The spirit was the same, though, and I've been consistently surprised by how few people share it.
Take my only cooking-obsessed friend, Ignazio, a midforties Italian always laughing happily at the out-of-control absurdity of his own messy but wonderful life. I didn't actually know Ignazio back when I started cooking. We met more recently, through
mutual friends. But my wife likes his wife, Heather, a pretty American redhead, and their kids are close in age to our daughters. I love stepping out of the elevator in Ignazio's building into his sun-flooded third-floor apartment in North Beach, a few blocks off Fisherman's Wharf in the old Italian neighborhood. My daughters run immediately to Giovanni's room, the wives retire to the couch with a cocktail, and Ignazio and I make like modern men, heading into the room we both like most, the kitchen. Opening Ignazio's oven, I typically inhale the deep aromas of a big roast, a leg of lamb maybe, fragrant with hot thyme and rosemary, and that's when it begins, the conversation we always have.
“God, you're such a good cook,” I say. “That smells
“Oh, no, no. It's stupid, the way I cook!” Ignazio replies, in his thick Italian accent. “It's really stupid. I wish I could learn to use cookbooks the way you do, but I just don't. I don't know why I don't, but I don't. But I find it so incredibly interesting that you can use cookbooks, Dan. You're so disciplined, and you have so much patience. I don't have that patience. And your food is always so good! It's so interesting!”
To some degree, we're just acting out the new male Kabuki, dinner-party version: “Oh my God, bro, I cannot believe you've gone to
so much fucking trouble
! You are
an awesome cook! And you make it look so easy! My wife is just absolutely going to
fucking leave me
and move in with you!”
“No, no, no. Dude. I'm not a good cook at all. I'm a fucking shitty cook! But
the best fucking cook in the world. I've told absolutely everybody at the gym about those double-thick porter houses you grilled last time!”
And yet, there's something real at work, some genuine gulf between Ignazio and myself. Cookbook obsession, Kramer has
argued, is a distinctly British and American phenomenon. Italians, by contrast, have long viewed the very owning of a cookbookâor at least any cookbook beyond a couple of culturally approved Italian culinary encyclopedias, such as
The Silver Spoon
âmight carry the implication that Mama, and therefore Italy herself, had failed to pass along the heart of Italian culture. Fiorenzo Andreoli, an Italian chef quoted by Kramer, voices precisely this anti-recipe chauvinism when he says, derisively, of his time in San Francisco restaurants, that everybody he met out there “cooked with his nose in a cookbook.”