Archive for June 2011

Cook and the Writer: Revel and Preserve by Laura Kalpakian

Imagine this: a summer afternoon’s picnic by the river: sunlight sharding through leafy trees, a wine bottle kept chilled in watery shoals, bread cut in thick slices beside cheese, salami and perfect roasted peppers, peaches lolling over the picnic blanket and deviled eggs gone slightly runny in the heat. To revel in a summer’s day is to experience its immediate extemporaneous delight. Can such a moment be preserved? Can that moment be evoked, not relived, but evoked while the snow falls? This essential tension between preserve-or-revel is as old as humanity.
            Remember Aesop’s fable of the grasshopper and the ant? To revel suggests spontaneity, but at the cost of squandering, the grasshopper. To preserve suggests fixity, but at the cost of exuberance, the ant. To revel in a summer day, you might lie on your back, let the peach juice run down your chin. To preserve that same golden moment, you’d take that peach and make of it jam. To preserve is a process—archival and self conscious—very much at odds with revelry. Preserve-or-revel is clearly the cook’s quandary, but it is the writer’s too. To wrestle with the tension implied between the two creates anxiety, and also ignites creativity. 
            However, I used to think cooking and writing were wholly separate endeavors.  It’s no mere coincidence that I began to cook seriously at the same time that I began to write seriously. That long ago summer living in a beach town on the California coast, I bought my first electric typewriter and my first real cookbook, Julia Child’s Volume I, and I asked my mother and grandmother to write down their recipes. 
            For my writing, this was a difficult summer. (And indeed, the coming attractions for several difficult summers, writing full time.) The rewards of writing are episodic and hard won. Even if your day’s work goes splendidly and in the evening you bask in that ambrosial moment of having got something really wonderful on paper, by morning the elation has worn off.  Doubt sets in. Dismay to follow. Writers learn to delay gratification, to survive, sometimes for years, on that unstable cocktail of hope and conviction. 
            But in cooking! Cooking is an art form with immediate, albeit ephemeral, results.  You might spend all day in the kitchen, but in a matter of hours you can see from the faces of your friends the pleasure you have given them. Their pleasure enhances your own. If you have failed, well, you know that right away too, don’t you? And at that, the failure can be easily ameliorated: a dozen eggs and some cheese, a few fresh herbs and omelettes can be served and shared with good cheer.  No one has to go away hungry, even if the cooking itself was a failure. 
              In those summers, learning to write and learning to cook, I thought these two art forms balanced one another out. The immediate responses and ephemeral rewards I got from cooking balanced out the long dry spells without any rewards from my writing.  But now that I have had many years’ experience with both, I have come to believe that, in truth, the writer’s art and the cook’s art are very much allied. They are both full of the tension of revel and preserve.

            With writing as with cooking, you take the ingredients around you,  sometimes fresh- picked, sometimes long stored, you harvest what the soil and sunshine of your life have provided, and you fashion from these elements something entirely else. You process. You convert. You transform. As a writer, you take the materials at hand and make of them a novel, a story, a poem. As a cook you do the same: materials at hand become pasta sauce, jam that reeks of summer, peach ice cream that slides indelibly down throat and into memory forever. In each case—in the cooking and the writing—you will have subjected elements of your life to new processes.
            For thousands of years most mortals found just staying alive so arduous and uncertain that most people lived like the ant of the fable. They reveled little. They prayed for good crops and they preserved the yield of sunshine and soil. Once harvested, and whenever they could, they preserved: root crops in the ground or under straw, vegetables in oil. They put down fish in salt. They put up eggs and herbs and vegetables in acidic vinegars. They preserved apples and chestnuts and beans by drying, preserved meat and game by smoking. Cabbages and cucumbers fermented in great crocks. They made cordials of fruits.  As sugar became less a luxury and more of a staple, they preserved summer fruits in jam and jellies, thick and sweet. These various processes required skills, demanded techniques which cooks communicated from generation to generation, mostly learn-by-listening, learn-by-doing. But sometimes, fortunately for us, they wrote them down.
            When you consider the knowledge accumulated by our forebears, and consider at the same time, the paltry number of old cookbooks still extant, it’s staggering to think of what’s been lost. Old cookbooks—especially the anonymous, inky, hand-sewn compilations, from the Middle Ages, from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries—these reverberate with the conflict implicit in preserve-or-revel. 
            I come to these old cookbooks, not so much as a cook, but as a reader, seeking a admission to vivid, fragmented lives via the kitchen door. To read an old recipe in its original narrative voice, readers can stand by the smoky fire, watch the knives gleam and see the feathers fall. We hear the soothing thunk of dough rolled out for pastry coffins. We see the cook, her shrewd eye watching the pot, waiting for her sugar to reach casting height, stirring it with her stick at last, she can (literally) cast it, as one confectionary recipe has it, till the sugar will flie from your stick in great flakes, like flakes of snow, or like fethers flying in the Ayre.  The pot is taken hastily from the fire, and she tells us to move, we’re in the way.  Then she vanishes into her own time.
            These narrators of these cookbooks from the 16th and 17th and 18th and 19th centuries write with invitational familiarity, confident that their tools and working methods—measurements, timing, the temperature of a very hot fire— are self-evident to all. But in these old books, the difference between fine and very fine is all in the cook’s eye and her knowing hand. These authors assume an intimate narrative voice. The reader is always addressed as you and most nouns are possessive. You are admonished to fling and strew and pound, and cast and coddle your ingredients. A whole bouquet of verbs, a range of techniques we no longer use. The prose in these old cookbooks reads like the poetry of the particulars:

            To make an Humble Pie: Take ye humbles of a deere or calves heart or pluck, or a sheep’s heart; perboyle it and when it is colde, shread it small with beefe suet and season it with cloves, mace, nutmeg & ginger beaten small; & mingle with it currans, verges & salt;  put all into ye pie and set iti n the oven an houre; then take it out and cut it up and put in some clarret wine, melted butter and sugar beat together , then cover it a little and serve it.

            Although men’s names often appear as the authors of the very early printed cookbooks, clearly, these receipts are the work of women, anonymous women who were probably not literate. They learned their skills and processes from generation to generation, following instructions they carried in their hands and minds and hearts.  Should that woman be gifted with literacy, she can reach across the centuries.
             They might have been mistresses of country estates or large farms. They might have been mistresses of city establishments. In any event, they would have overseen the work of a small army of cooks and ladle-wielding scullions. As a reader, I am curious about these kitchen minions, and their methods, and I can imagine their lives thanks to the mistress, who at the end of a long day, lights her taper from the kitchen embers and takes her candle to the table. Here, she dips her quill in nutgall ink. She writes swiftly across hand-bound, cream-colored pages, noting (after a particularly trying day). “How to make an Orange Omelette for Harlots and Ruffians.”
            For us as readers, her directions are difficult to imagine, (much less follow) but the prose of these (mostly anonymous) cookbook writers is elegant, invitational, and to my eye, poetic. Take this recipe from a cookbook published c. l736, though  the recipes are older than that, this one  probably mid l7th century. The metrics of this reading are my own, but the narrative voice is clear, and read aloud, the poetry, even the music are audible,

Papered Plums
Take your pear plums when they are yellow, before they are too ripe,
give them a slit in the seam and prick them behind.
Make your water scalding hot and put a little sugar in it to sweeten
and put in your plums and cover them close.
Set them on the fire to coddle and take them off sometimes a little
 And set them on again. Take care they do not break. 
Have in readiness as much double refined sugar boiled to a height
as will cover them
And when they are coddled pretty tender take them out of that liquor
and put them into your preserving pan,
to your syrup ,
which must be but blood-warm when your plums go in.
Let them boil till they are clear, scum them and take them off.
Let them stand two hours; then set them on again,
 Boil them and when they are thoroughly preserved,
 take them up and lay them in glasses.
Boil your syrup till tis thick and when tis cold, put in your plums,
 And a month after, if your syrup grows thin,
you must boil it again or make fine jelly of pippins.
This way you may do you  primordian plum or any plum.
And when they are cold,
paper them up.

            The narrator here cheerfully assumes we all know what it means to “paper them up,” though for myself I can imagine no further than the rustling sound of some sort of tissue.  But just from the way this cook writes, I can picture the way these plums coddle and boil and steep, as they lay in blood-warm syrup. Certainly, I can imagine how precious these papered plums might have been on a January night, unwrapped by firelight. Having preserved, this cook and her people could revel.
            Like these long ago cooks, writers take their stories, their moments and emotions and preserve them in narrative mediums. They “paper them up,” which is to say, they put them on paper.  As  readers, you can often sense those stories still sharp with the salt of tears, stories tangy with the  brine of laughter,  stories long since dried—and in need of heat and moisture, stories still fermenting, and those tales that have languished too long in lightless root cellars. There are stories made rosy with alcohol, and remorseful stories rendered sugary. 
             When someone opens a jar of jam that you, the cook, have created, you want that person to taste not just the fruit, but the field, to savor the very dew of the moment this fruit was picked, pulled from the vine, the sunshine that it sat in. When, in winter, my youngest son says of the pesto I have put up, It’s not like a sauce, it’s like an emotion. I am gratified as a cook; he has paid me highest compliment I can think of. When someone opens a book or story you, the author, have created, you want that reader to have a similar, vivid, visceral reaction.  At its best, writing, in transforming the writer’s experience (whether revels or tears) into prose, renders it preserved, yes, but still pungent.

Recipes cited from The Medieval Kitchen: Recipes from France and Italy, and  Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery.