Food

 


I adore food. I like looking at it, and making it, and thinking about it, and reading about it. Sometimes I even like to eat it.

 

I’m not alone in this. Do a Google search for restaurants in your immediate vicinity. Go to your nearest bookstore (which is probably Amazon.com, I know, brick-and-mortar bookstores are a thing of the past) and check out the variety of cookbooks. My local newspaper has a food section on Wednesdays; does yours? I’ll bet it does.

We’re animals. We need to eat. We have romanticized this primal desire into something aesthetic, I suppose. If you starved me for a couple of days, I would gladly eat raw frogs and shoe leather and tell you that they were delicious. As it is, in our modern affluent world, I am choosy, and prefer fried scallops and whole-wheat pasta.

This bothers me sometimes. I was first brought up short against this by our pal, Nobel Prize-winner Doris Lessing, in her science-fiction novel “Re Colonized Planet 9: Shikasta.” In a footnote, she has her narrator – an enlightened alien from the Canopean Empire – say this: “Earth people are obsessed with food. They even write books about it.”

I’d never thought about this before. We don’t write books about how we breathe, or how much we enjoy sunlight. But we write books about food.

Food is a subtle pleasure. It can be sustenance, or it can be ecstasy. It can be a heavy blast of fat and carbs and flavors, like a Big Mac, or a blast of heat from a Mexican entrée, or a savory mix of flavors like paella. It can be sweet and bitter like chocolate. It can be hauntingly flavorful, like parmesan cheese or Portobello mushrooms (both of which belong to the umami flavor family).

We spend a good deal of our time eating. Some of us (including yours truly) spend a good deal of time cooking, or reading about cooking, or thinking about cooking.

A couple of questions: Are we doing the right thing? Are we spending our time wisely?

Another question: What’s for dinner?


Culinaria


I collect, among other things, cookbooks. They fall into several categories:

 

Useful. Only a few in this category. The Joy of Cooking. Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything. The King Arthur Flour Cookbook (I have the 200th-anniversary edition, for which there is no replacement). When in doubt, I turn to these three. My friend Stu, years ago, referred slightingly to “Joy” as “101 Ways to Cook String Beans.” Well, ha ha. But if you want the basics, they’re all there. And some damned good recipes, too.

 

Magisterial. Again, only a few. Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The Larousse Gastronomique. My grandma’s copy of the Encyclopedia of Cookery. I look through them sometimes for entertainment and inspiration, but I never ever ever ever use the recipes. I seldom need to know how to stuff a figpecker, or how to gut a wild boar.

 

Eccentric but useful. The Molly Goldberg Jewish Cookbook is a goldmine of mid-century “ethnic” cuisine. My friend Paula turned me on to Betty Crocker’s Dinner For Two, which has some excellent recipes in it, and which has a very satisfying 1960s look and feel. I bought The Best of Shaker Cooking in 2009 up in Hancock, Massachusetts, and it’s full of interesting ideas. Peg Bracken’s I Hate To Cook Book is no joke: it’s loaded with excellent (and easy, and quick) recipes. And I have a little local cookbook from the late 1940s, published by a Lutheran church in Nebraska, with red-white-and-blue binding, and it’s got some of the best cookie recipes I’ve ever seen, along with handwritten comments (“very good,” “try with almonds,” etc.) in the wavering old-lady handwriting of its first owner.

 

Church-group collections. Also PTA groups, Chamber of Commerce, 4-H Club, etc. The same recipes over and over again. Here’s the test: if it has a recipe for “Wacky Cake” in it, discard it immediately. (Or, if you’re like me, file it on the “cute but useless” shelf.)

 

Cookbooks to read for pleasure. Anything by Elizabeth David. Summer Cooking. A Book of Mediterranean Food. Elegant, precise, and beautiful. She measures things in wineglasses and teacups. If she says something is “very delicious,” I believe her.

 

And Alice Toklas! Try (if you dare) her recipe for Oeufs Francis Picabia:

 

Break eight eggs into a bowl and mix them well with a fork, add salt but no pepper. Pour them into a saucepan – yes, a saucepan, no, not a frying pan. Put the saucepan over a very, very low flame, keep turning them with a fork while very slowly adding in very small quantities 1/2 lb. butter – not a speck less, rather more if you can bring yourself to it. It should take 1/2 hour to prepare this dish. The eggs of course are not scrambled but with the butter, no substitute admitted, produce a suave consistency that perhaps only gourmets will appreciate.

 

I’ve never made it. I can only imagine the pan of glop it would produce if I did.

 

But I never tire of reading about it.

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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