Archive for April 2011

The Chick’s Blog

Chicks’ Blog #1
Laura Kalpakian

No Substitutes: The Classy and the Classique

      I am one of those who reads cookbooks the way other people read novels, cover to cover, willingly suspending belief and happily entering into the author’s life and kitchen. The cookbooks these readers—myself included—return to time and again, for sheer pleasure of reading are those with indelible Voice.  Like the narrators of novels, these narrative voices may not always be telling the swear-to-Buddha-truth, but so what?  There are no substitutes for a strong narrator, any more than as a cook, you would try to make hollandaise with powdered eggs, or mistake frozen fish sticks for filet of sole.

             Conventional contemporary publishing wisdom says you cannot write about cookery without photographs. This advice suggests that readers  require a quick pictorial fix.  However, pictures quickly go stale; fine prose remains fresh. 

            Have a look, for instance, at the shelves of your favorite used bookstore.  You will find any number of beloved novels, but cookbooks?  People who love to read cookbooks, keep them.  When they die their heirs might unload whole libraries without a second thought, though silently (perhaps) questioning the sanity of the Late Lamented.   But unless you happen on to such a windfall, most secondhand bookstores carry cookbooks laden with photographs.  These irrevocably render passé the book, the recipes, the author.  Within a couple of years glossy photos of  staged food look sad, dated, after a couple of decades,  campy—as true for the huge Gourmet 1974 stately volume ( lots  of candelabra) to any number of Betty Crocker offerings.

            I once wandered into a bookstore that had clearly just received such a windfall.  I have no idea who the Late Lamented was, but her heirs had dumped a library of fine French cookbooks.  I quickly gathered up from the shelves the great big fat Larousse Gastronomique, in English. I like leafing through this tome, but I don’t carry it upstairs and once used it for a doorstop.  However, the treasure I found that day was  a different sort of  Grande Dictionnaire de Cuisine, this one written by the 19th century novelist and bon vivant,  Alexander Dumas, pere.  Mercifully, Dumas on Food was an abridgement;  Dumas’s original work  ran to some thousand plus pages.  Alan and Jane Davidson edited and translated.  Their preface is invitational, and whatever they might have culled, there remains a lively read with plenty of Gallic inflection and joie de vivre that can be opened anywhere and savored.  Sadly, this book (1978) is out of print. 

            Never out of print since 1954 is the classic, The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook .  This “ mingling of recipe and reminiscence…” can also be opened to any chapter and captivate the reader.  Miss Toklas was a fine cook, and a first rate writer.  Her narrative voice is engaging and far more appealing than that of her beloved, Gertrude Stein, who tends to be stentorian and a little intimidating in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. (One has to marvel at the temerity and/or the confidence in the strength of their union that Miss Stein  would write her companion’s autobiography.)

             Gertrude Stein, so the story goes, wrote her Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas in the early 1930’s when literary acclaim—and indeed print itself—had eluded her for some thirty years. The book was an instant financial, literary and popular success.  It is accessible reading; much of her other work is not.  Her other writings are best absorbed as poetry.  This is actual prose.  

              The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook grew out of very different circumstances.  In the early 1950’s a lonely Miss Toklas took up the pen, impelled by “nostalgia for the old days, the old ways and remembered health….” She might have been ill and alone, but her book is full of vigor and strength.  It too can be opened anywhere.  (My copy falls open to Chapter 3 “Dishes for Artists,” or #4, “Murder in the Kitchen.”) Some of the recipes are incredible, that is, they defy belief, but some are truly fun to make.  My favorites include the trout she fixed for Picasso’s lunch one afternoon, and her recipe for marmalade.  This latter has the advantage of requiring almost no work: slice your oranges, throw them in a pot of water, wait, boil, wait, add a lot of sugar and boil for an hour. Lovely taste, lovely color, and impossible to screw up. 

             I taught my first memoir class ever to MFA students at the University of Washington.  Of the twelve books assigned in one quarter (a glutton for reading!) I taught in tandem Miss Toklas’s Cookbook, Miss Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, and  A Moveable Feast, the posthumous memoir of their sometime friend, Ernest Hemingway.   (Of which and whom more in an upcoming blog.) They complemented one another beautifully.  Of these three authors, two were raving egoists and the third, Miss Toklas, the sharp but loyal observer.  Had I had the choice, I would leave the geniuses with Miss Stein, and go into the kitchen with Miss Toklas. 

            Another fine writer spurred initially by nostalgia is Elizabeth David.  Long before there was a chatty, photogenic Nigella or a Jamie, there was a Mrs. David.  She did not set out to be a food writer.  By dint of circumstances, Elizabeth David spent most of World War II in France, Italy, Greece, and primarily Egypt, working for the dull-sounding Ministry of Information.  In 1945 she returned to a Britain grim beyond words:  bombed, pinched, chilled and still-rationed (until 1954).  In the brutally cold winter of 1947 she began to write of what she remembered of sunlight and warmth, and this became A Book of Mediterranean Food.  Published in 1950 the very vocabulary Elizabeth David used was foreign to her readers’ lips, much less their palates; outside of Soho one could only find olive oil marked “For External Use Only.”   Until her death in 1992 she wrote voluminously in prose that can be likened to the best apples: tart, crisp and juicy.  None with photographs, thank you, most with lively little line drawings. 

            However, in 2010 Ecco Press published the sumptuous (and very pricey) At Elizabeth David’s Table: Classic Recipes and Timeless Kitchen Wisdom… and not incidentally glossy, gorgeous photographs starting with the cover and on every other page.   Despite the long subtitle, the recipes have been, many of them, plucked from Elizabeth David’s prose, and the sense of savor and placement lost. To my mind, the photographs, though lovely, are ephemeral; they do not stay with you as does the taste of Elizabeth David’s prose. 

            Another of my favorite writers about food (sans photographs) was not a cook at all.  A. J. Leibling was a journalist, best known as a sports writer. (!)  His recently reprinted Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris is a wonderful book, essays, observations, anecdotes and a life lived fully, both at the table and away.   Liebling’s vintage was also Paris in the 20’s, though he traveled in very different (and less self-conscious) circles than Hemingway, Stein or Toklas.  He had a much better sense of humor than any of those writers.  Liebling himself was not an altogether happy man, writes James Salter in his preface to the collection, but Liebling’s prose has such zest that the reader feels to have spent a long afternoon in excellent company. 

           And clearly, the poster child for the classy and classique is Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Nary a photo in sight.  Line drawings only.  Though her book is not intended to be a chatty collection of her thoughts and opinions, her narrative voice is unmistakable.  I will be the first in line to buy the postage stamp with her picture.

      Gorgeous photos might tell the cook what the result is supposed to look like, but only the writer can tell you why the process is so pleasurable.