CHANCE SYNCHRONICITY & MIND-WRITING:
Write About About Food & Cooking
I wanted something with no salt, no fat, for you, so I started with a little olive oil and made it up. That’s the kind on your diet, the kind you like, the oil without cholesterol. I cut up an onion, listening to a program on obsessive compulsives: you know, these people who are never sure, they get no feedback, they have no biology of certainty, so they do something and have to do it again. They work up soothing rituals to substitute so they can take the obsessive thought and go on. So I chopped the onion, but I used the wrong kind, absolutely; it was a Bermuda; it perfumed the sauce; I’m sorry—I hope you still like it. I threw in chopped tomatoes—you have to peel them first, plunge them from boiling to cold; when they’re skinned, you can juice them. Then I threw them in with the onions. Once the stewing starts, the frying is over. I threw in some slices of ginger after the Indonesian dish we ate at that Protestant Inn. I seared the chicken breast in a little more oil—you know how that yellow, unpleasant blob of a breast turns firm and opaque in a moment— while the radio told the story of a nice Jewish boy with homicidal thoughts who played the violin, sure he’d committed a crime, so he’d stop himself—no literally—check his walk, his speech; and of the girl who’s afraid to touch anyone, who fears contamination and must always wash her hands. Then I worried it didn’t taste good so I put in some curry, tasted, put in some more, added the vegetables, a little Balsamic vinegar, a little wine; a soupcon of bouillon, the low-salt kind—actually I didn’t use that kind this time, though that’s the kind you want—and violà. Here we have it: a perfectly tasty, low fat, almost low-salt dish. Perfectly Pritikin. Eat. I feel good when you say it’s delicious.
. . .
To prepare food is to touch another's stomach with the essence of yourself. I have eaten of many. Slurped the stress of busy cooks. Gummed at the uncertainty of young cooks. Chewed on fresh vitality from earnest ones.
If I cook with too much soy sauce and a scent of anger, he will suffer an upset stomach. If I prepare the ingredients over many hours, the guests feel nourished. Look like well fed children when they leave.
And I like a proud mother, watching as they eat me in large forkfuls. Asking for the unfamiliar spice. More ethereal than sweet.
Lynn and Abby are picky eaters so I let them do the cooking. I’ll eat anything. Almost anything, except beets and creamed corn, and even recently I ate a creamed corn casserole that was very tasty. Abby is nine and knows how to cook a few things. On Sunday morning she makes us Mickey Mouse pancakes. One day, she invented a recipe that tasted like chocolate chip cookies with caramel inside. But, for the most part, Lynn does the cooking, which is fine.
It’s fine, most of the time, except that Lynn and Abby are picky eaters and they don’t like spicy foods, or ethnic foods, or vegetables, or things that run together on the plate. They like cheese, but only cheddar or jack, not Gruyere or Brie or Edam or feta. They like steak, but not roast. They like bacon, but not ham, a sentiment I share, though my aversion to ham has more to do with aesthetics than taste. I don’t like the color of ham, the way the slices can be described as slabs, thick and pink and looking more like flesh than any other kind of meat. I suppose ham is honest in that way. For that reason, I will sometimes eat it, if the lights are dim and the company engaging.
I’ve been here six months, with Lynn doing all the cooking for the three of us. But, lately, I feel I would like to fix my own dinner. I’d like to make chicken adobo, a spicy Filipino dish full of vinegar and soy sauce and onions simmered a long time so they melt like butter on your tongue. The sauce is laced with garlic, and peppercorns, both white and green, if you can find them at a reasonable price. The chicken falls off the bone before it even reaches the rice, basmati rice, aromatic and sweet against the tart sauce.
I’m craving paella or menestra or arroz con pollo. Or seafood, like salmon or mahi mahi or white sea bass sautéed in wine. I’d like to make scampi, but shrimp makes Abby barf. It came out her nose, she informed me, when she was five, in Florida, where I assume the shrimp are fresh and firm. Abby has a thing about barfing. Last night, she said, “don’t you hate it when cherry coke sprays out your nose?” I do.
Abby likes chicken. But not rattlesnake or alligator or rhinoceros beetles, or other things that taste like chicken. To that she makes a face and says, “you’re weird.” It’s not the first time I’ve seen that face. When I was 22 years old, I spent a few months living with my sister and her two children, Wendy and Dave. I was a vegetarian and barbecued zucchini strips on the grill alongside their hot dogs. I cajoled them into eating millet burgers. Eventually I moved away, to Ecuador, where I learned to enjoy babaco and guanabana and the chill white flesh of chirimoya. I ate the lower half of a guinea pig, because it was polite. I snacked on mangoes and papayas, and twenty-six varieties of banana. I learned to make patacones by slicing green plantains, smashing them flat with the back of a spoon, and frying them in oil until they were dark and crispy. I gave up being a vegetarian and ate whatever was around.
Sometimes I congratulate myself for being so flexible. The world is full of choices, I tell myself, there are so many textures to enjoy. But then, I wonder if my willingness to explore is more an inability to choose. A lack of discrimination. I’ve always admired the people who know what they like and what they don’t, who can say “I’m not a fondue-person” with conviction. But that’s not me. I’m easy to please and voracious. Big-boned. Insatiable. Wide.
- Lisa Thompson
I love to cook. Not everything. Not dessert. It takes too much time and isn’t that interesting. I like the long involved recipes. Stuffings or layers or vegetables or roasting that creates deep browned sauces that melt over the dish. I cook a lot of meat, mostly because my husband loves it. He's one of those thin men who seem to feel and need meat for complete satisfaction. I'm afraid he’s helping turn my daughter into one - a hard core carnivore, I mean. My daughter Maya is almost eight; about fifty pounds and slight. She now smacks and salivates when the subject of meat comes up. Maya decided she wanted her own T-bone steak. I told her if she saved her money, she could have one. For days she raised the money: massaged my husband, walked the dog and made her sister's breakfast for me. She did get the steak; a huge one pound T-bone and she ate most of it. Gnawing the bone is her favorite part of the steak. She claims she is half wolf.
For Valentines Maya wanted to give me a piece of steak in the shape of a heart. I was lucky to get a ring instead. I am hoping her love of animals will eventually work in favor of beef. And frankly beef in its basic form isn’t that interesting to make. Certainly with a little Bernaise or a coating of coarse ground pepper, you can get a little energy going. But it is no chicken marsala with plump prunes and salty olives in a garlicky white wine bath.
- Joanne Brothers
I lived nineteen years before ever tasting it. When I did, it was in a burrito, somewhere south of Market Street. It tasted like soap. It tasted, as someone once wrote, like a bedbug. I objected, but went on with the burrito. Like scotch, cilantro is an acquired taste. Cilantro's ways have spread across the globe. I'd like to think is originated in the New World - maybe Peru - but cilantro was grown in Egypt. The Romans enjoyed it in excess. Now cilantro floats on coconut milk, its leaves thin as a butterfly's wing. It should never be mistaken for Italian parsley which has a similar look but coarse leaves - like the hand of a potato farmer compared to a courtesan. Floating there, Cilantro is stained by the curry, it swirls in riptides the spoon makes, it threatens to sink but doesn't. It retains its raucous wild grit. I do not want a genetic engineer tampering with cilantro. Manipulating it for profit. I want cilantro to invade new dishes, new ways of life. It will remain outside the law.
Remembering M.F.K. Fisher & Elizabeth David
It seems a poignant irony that the two towering presences among this century's English-speaking food writers should die so close together -- Elizabeth David on May 22nd and M.F.K. Fisher on June 22nd -- achieving a kind of ultimate proximity after having spent their lives keeping their distance from one another. One guesses they were at once too much alike and too different to get on.
Both women were intensely private people who controlled their contact with the outside world through a sure and exacting sense of style. Elizabeth David wrote in the very British tradition of the aesthete: honing meticulous distinctions that, even as they put her into familiar connection with the things she loved, also served -- as do fine manners -- to both signal and explain her apartness from the rest of us. You simply can't admire her writing without noticing how firmly she sequestered herself on the other side of it; so much so that, according to the obituary in The London Times, she spent the last years of her life a virtual recluse, "a solitary figure...living alone with her books, and memories of a warmer, more enchanting past."
Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher handled these things differently. She possessed an equally fine sensibility but sported it in an offhand, very American way. Hers was the pose of the maverick. "I'm not a writer," she would insist the moment she felt you were about to treat her like one. She was just as impatient with culinary pretension. "I know red from white and I think I know good from bad and I know the phonies from the real, and that's about it," she once told food writer Ruth Reichl. To get through to her, you had to be fearlessly honest. If she felt you waver, she would quickly bat you to one side.
The point, however, is that you could get through, and her writing actually encouraged you to try. The clever asides, the dismissive gestures, the sly ironic glances -- a pose is struck and a quick look is thrown your way to see if you've been taken in by it -- all these make up a style that is intimately conversational. It insists that you lean across the table and listen close. The effect is that of a letter from a difficult but compulsively fascinating friend.
Consequently, when Jeannette Ferrary gave me her address back in the early eighties, suggesting I send her a copy of Simple Cooking, I did so at once. Mary Frances subscribed and, with her check, sent me the first issue of The Journal of Gastronomy, which contained her essay "Loving Cooks, Beware." I read it and was immediately moved to write "Loving To Cook." She is one of very few food writers -- Patience Gray is another -- whose writing fills me with the anguish of unrequited talk. The mind buzzes with response.
And so, once we had established a link, I -- like many others -- sent Mary Frances letters, birthday cards, jars of jam, vials of French lavender. More importantly, I used her to give aspect to that ideal reader to whom this publication is directed. Simple Cooking has always been, after all, more than anything, a letter -- and this one was at its best when addressed to Mary Frances. Our last note from her, via her nurse/companion, Margie Foster, came last September, to tell us she was still listening. And now, much too suddenly, this talk is done.
When Mary Frances said -- again and again -- that she wasn't a food writer, she wasn't being coy or necessarily intending to demean the genre. Food writing has its masters: Richard Olney, Diana Kennedy, Alan Davidson, Julia Child, Madeleine Kamman, Patience Gray, and, especially, Elizabeth David. Like M.F.K. Fisher, she, too, was a consummate stylist, but she put that magical prose at the service of her palate, her research, her infallible sense of connection between cuisine and place. When she wasn't writing about food she was running a kitchen shop, not composing novels.
Her major accomplishment, many obituarists have written, was her revelatory influence on postwar British cooks, pointing them beyond powdered eggs to fresh vegetables, olive oil, and simple good food. I'm sure that that is true, but it doesn't explain why contemporary American cooks continue to reach for her books -- even the ones that have subsequently been surpassed. Paula Wolfert and Claudia Roden are more authoritative on Mediterranean cooking: why then do we treasure Mediterranean Food as much as Mediterranean Cooking or Mediterranean Cookery?
Elizabeth David disliked giving exact measurements in her recipes. This -- although contemporary food writers (or at least their editors) consider it an inexplicable, even reader-hostile, failing -- expresses a direct truth. The responsibility for a dish must finally lie not with the writer but with the cook. Too much instruction muddles the reality of this responsibility. Cookbooks cannot hold hands; their task is to make the reader think. In Elizabeth David's books, reader and writer face this fact across the page. She treats us as adults, and her writing, even if making no overture of friendship, offers an intimate encounter with an intense, vulnerable, intelligent, admirably honest mind.
Elizabeth David was the writer who showed that a fine sensibility could find as much to experience in cooking -- and thinking about cooking -- as in, say, playing the piano. The particular nature of her sensibility, an intellectual aestheticism -- really, an asceticism edged with sensuality -- is what affects us when we read her, more than any of her recipes, more even than her many fine passages of writing. It is what inspirits, even guides, our own search for a comparable self. It puts her books on a very special shelf.
It's in this matter of emphasis that our appreciation of these two women coheres to make a volatile but fascinatingly complementary whole. American food writers have embraced Mary Frances as one of their own. But, while she was amused by their adulation, she has remained ultimately unaffected by it -- as can be seen by the subjects of her last books, which touch only glancingly on food. Yes, she did produce recipes like theirs, but you can go through her work and strike out every one of them (and her every mention of cooking) and not affect what makes her truly great.
Although much of her writing is ostensibly about gastronomy, her true subject has always been surviving...or, more accurately -- and this is where the food comes in -- surviving well. And that she managed quite nicely. Photographs of her taken these past few years radiate less a perfect serenity than a kind of gleeful naughtiness, something you also catch in the last pictures of Picasso. "See," this expression seems to say, "I had my cake and yet here I am, still eating it." Except, of course, with Mary Frances it wasn't cake she was enjoying with such relish. It was oysters.
Copyright © 1994 John Thorne