The incredible Julia Child
The most read books during the summer are cookbooks. I suspect the majority of these readers are reading for a purpose, that is, for instructions on "how to" grill a turkey, make a cream pie, or that odd thing, the green tomato pie.
But there are a few folks, myself included, who read cookbooks just because they are fun to read and often contain more than a soupcon of common sense philosophy. For example, in Menus for Entertaining, the late James Beard wrote, "To cook successfully, one must create with the imagination of a playwright, plan with the skill of a director, and perform with the instincts of an actor. And as any showman will tell you, there is no greater reward than pleasing your audience."
Wow! How's that for shining a new light on dinner?
I came late in life to good food. My mother hated to cook, and she was grumpy about it too. "Pearls before swine" was her muttered assessment of preparations for Sunday dinner. The truth of the matter is that I was in the Army before I got a square meal, or experienced the sheer magnificence of second helpings. "More please," Oliver Twist's simple request in Dickens' famous novel, is for me one of the most piquant of all lines written in English.
I love imagining myself as a much-applauded Kitchen Impresario, whipping up a seafood dinner for six in a single bound. Sadly, however, the reality of my cooking is more or less a chemistry experiment where organic matter is transformed into large volumes of gas. I have plenty of imagination and vigorous instincts, but no amount of performance art will inflate a cheese soufflé. That takes savvy and an amalgamation of culinary mysticism and logic entirely missing from my makeup.
The incomparable Julia Child, author of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, wrote, "The usual proportion of vinegar to oil is one to three, but you should establish your own relationship." And here is a Eureka! moment: her use of the word "relationship" is a precise summary of the savvy, mysticism, and logic required of and acquired by good cooks. Cooking isn't about one to three of anything. It is about how the one cook, and the maybe one and the maybe three of anything relate dramatically or subtly or robustly to what eventually arrives at table.
It is the rare cookbook that combines exhilarating writing and great advice (recipes). Child is certainly the gold standard, succeeding both as a writer and as a cook, while a cook like Betty Crocker gives okay advice but writes like the team of food scientists she really is. Conversely, really good writing does not a good cookbook make. For instance, more than a few people have told me that James Beard was a lousy cook.
"Beard wrote about food the way Don Juan talked about women," they say. "Beard obviously loved food, but there was no depth or soul to his recipes. His dishes all turn out rather flat and disappointing." Per Gertrude Stein, there is apparently no "there" there.
Some authors must set themselves up for failure, no matter how gifted or skilled their writing. I am thinking specifically of cookbooks that have as their subject an obvious oxymoron, to wit, "Scottish food." One such example is The Highlander's Cookbook: Recipes from Scotland by Sheila MacNiven Cameron.
I mean no offense to people of Scottish ancestry, but come on, I've been to Scotland and you really do want to pack in your own eats. A case in point is the recipe for this National favorite, Kedgeree:
1 cup cooked rice
1/1/2 cups cooked flaked fish,
2 chopped hardboiled eggs,
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons minced parsley
½ cup cream
1 tablespoon butter
Combine all the ingredients in top of a double broiler and heat over hot water. A teaspoon of curry may be added if desired. Serves 4.
Yummy, huh. And that dash of curry is truly inspired! Hats off to Ms. Cameron.
So here's to good eating, and to good reading, and may all your books and meals be happy ones.