My Life in Cookbooks: A Visit to the Rhapsody Culinary Lab

 

“First, I am an amateur. If that strikes you as disappointing, consider how much in error you are, and how the error is entirely of your own devising.” –Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb.

Greetings, friends, and welcome to the Rhapsody test kitchen! I’ve moved today’s meeting to the breakfast bar for an up-close discussion of food, cookbooks and the histoire de la cuisine Rhapsodaise. This coy mangling of French is my way of saying that I’m not really going to talk about food so much as myself. Please don’t mistake this for an instructional post about serious cooking, unless you are wondering how to make Prune Whip. That we will cover.

And if you’re new to our salon, and feeling mildly alarmed, don’t fret. Just pop over to All About Me while I mix you our drink of the day: a Kir Royale (crème de cassis and Chablis). If, after a few minutes with us, you decide you really just wanted to look at recipes, they’re at Epicurious. You’re welcome.

Loyal readers will remember that we have lectured about food before at Rhapsody, from essential guidance on making vegan loaf entrees (in sum: don’t) to Pioneer Woman Ree Drummond’s 35 easy steps for buttering French toast. And who could forget swanning around the kitchen in our dressing gowns with Nigella Lawson?

Today, we delve into something more personal– selections from the Rhapsody Cookbook Collection, including:

  1. “Cooking in a Bedsitter” by Katherine Whitehorn, 1961
  2. “Wild in the Kitchen” by Will Jones (1961 again. I detect a theme.)
  3. “What To Cook” by Arthur Schwartz, 1992
  4. “Simple Cooking,” “Outlaw Cook,” “Serious Pig, “Pot on the Fire,” plus anything and everything else by John (and Matt) Thorne; and lastly
  5. A binder of newspaper clippings bought at an estate sale.

As a group, these items make no sense, but if I’ve learned one thing from Buzzfeed it’s that people will read anything if you present it as a numbered list, a weight-loss secret, or an arbitrary way to categorize oneself based on characters from The Breakfast Club. (Claire. And thank you for asking.)

And now that we’ve moved that important business out of the way, let’s tie on our aprons and get started!

* * * *

The Greek Grocery Experiment: A Preamble of Sorts

When I was in my early twenties, I liked to make drastic, oversimplifying life choices, the more inane the better. For example, wearing only red shoes. Walking five aimless miles every day for a month. Taking up feverish devotions to swing dancing or rowing or bisque-making or knitting or Bollywood-film-watching. It was something like having a real sense of direction in my life, only less expensive.

One of the better erratic decisions I made was to limit all my food shopping to the tiny Greek grocery store a short walk from my apartment. The logic was simple: if they don’t sell it, I don’t eat it. I told myself it was to save time and gasoline, although seeing as how I had limitless time after work and no car, these arguments were a bit flimsy. Really it was a self-calming strategy: the world is large and scary, but I can limit choices about eating to this thimble-sized store. Plus, they had baklava in large aluminum trays, and I had the metabolism of a hummingbird, so it was truly a plan without a downside.

They also sold the rest of what I needed to survive: a basic selection of produce and cheese, 90 varieties of olives, all the dried oregano and brined grape leaves I’d ever need, not to mention bread and rice and Greek yogurt. I was eating whole milk Greek yogurt by the tubful well before this was a thing, to which I credit my good health and appealingly tart personality.

What does this have to do with my cooking philosophy? It’s a roundabout way of explaining why I am still drawn, years after the Greek grocery experiment, to cookbooks that address scarcity, and to cooking under extreme, self-imposed limits. Although Rhapsody is well old enough to realize that playing at poverty is an obnoxious hobby of the rich, I still find a romantic simplicity in the idea—just the idea, mind you—of the frugal, simple life.

Somewhere, in a Parisian garret of my imagination, I live in artistic poverty, making faux cassoulet out of shoelaces and breadcrumbs.

Hang on. Let’s try to make that a position on cooking and food that is slightly less repugnant: Cooking is not what you do after an hour of strolling the aisles of Whole Foods, paging through the Epicurious app on your iPhone; it is what you do when you are hungry and need to deal with what you have. Cooking carefully, in a plain style, with gratitude, is a decent way to behave in this world of want.

In summary, if you’re lucky enough to have a meal in front of you, then your cup better damn well runneth over. And I try to make sure mine does.

* * * *

My Cookbook Collection, Or: Fine Things That Only I Know About.

Despite a fair amount of experience to the contrary, I tend to believe that the more obscure and radically out of date a cookbook looks, the more likely it is to contain the recipe that will change my life. This has never been the case, yet when I go to a used bookstore, or a remainder section at a regular bookstore, I go straight for the ugly covers. You could offer me a first edition set of Mastering the Art of French Cooking for $5, but I’ll walk out with Favorite Desserts of the Mennonite Community of Greater Detroit.

Cookbooks are the only example in my life of this type of collector behavior– that Golem-like fervor commonly exhibited by young males who collect rare blues LPs or comic books and measure an item’s worth by its obscurity and unfriendly, illogical weirdness .

Nothing in the world wrong with that, now is there? I’ll let the books explain the rest.

1. “Cooking in a Bedsitter” by Katherine Whitehorn

Whitehorn cover

A must-have for anemic grad students and church mice everywhere, “Cooking in a Bedsitter” also makes the perfect send-off for your favorite college freshman, or subtle hint for the middle aged gentleman in your life who is still showing up at potluck suppers with Chinese take-out.

Ms. Whitehorn’s book has remained in print for almost half a century and she is considered something of a national treasure in her native land. She cheerfully assumes that her reader’s batterie de cuisine includes one small heating element, a large pan if you’re lucky, a dull knife, and a lot of courage when it comes to eating canned meats.

There is nothing here, in ingredients, tools or techniques, but the very most basic, and I have taken a great deal of comfort in that although, to be perfectly honest, I have never actually cooked from it. One suspects that Ms. Whitehorn, though an energetic and witty writer, may not have either. She admits in this 2008 interview to having hidden two rather damming facts from her publishers: she could not cook, and did not live in a bedsitter.

Neither of which hurts the book at all. Like all the best cookbooks, it’s not really so much about cooking as artful living. There was a time in my life when I would have happily tried “Balkan Spaghetti” (five ingredients, including oil and pepper) and I kind of miss those days. “Cooking in a Bedsitter” reflects back a certain flattering light in which I like to behold myself: the light of youth and ingenuity and adventurousness, and most importantly, of resourcefulness. It is a scene much better lit, I will say, by hindsight than it was by actual light of day, but that is the whole thing about nostalgia, isn’t it?

[Pointless expository detail: My treasured and tattered first-edition copy of “Cooking in a Bedsitter” came to me from a used bookstore—Wordplay—in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Fact checkers have been unable to confirm if Wordplay still exists, but if you do, we send you greetings.]

 

2. “Wild in the Kitchen,” by Will Jones

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Will and I found each other in a used bookstore on Cape Cod, by which time this first (only?) edition of “Wild in the Kitchen” had been kicking around for about 45 years, making the unlikely journey from Minneapolis, where Jones lived and worked, to Sandwich, Massachusetts. I like to think that the trip, as well as the condition of a jacketless undesirable, might have pleased Jones.

Jones was a newspaper man — back in the day when people were called “newspaper men” — who loved to eat, to cook and to collect all the strange and excellent recipes of his neighbors. Even if you like none of these things, the book is good company, and if you like them all, it’s a treasure. Jones works more in the style of an eccentric anthropologist than a cook, and his study subject is himself. Here’s the opening of the first chapter, “Breakfast”:

“Just so you know my heart is in this matter, I want to tell you what I had for breakfast before sitting down to write this chapter: Grapefruit, a hot dog, baked beans, spiced pears, green salad, potato chips, coconut cream pie, and tea.”

The book is chock full of recipes I would never try, but enjoy reading nevertheless such as “Toasted Peanut Butter Party Sandwiches Guillaume,” “Deviled Fried Egg Sandwich Guillaume” and “Sunday Hangover Milkshake Guillaume,” which includes 8 scoops of ice cream, some raw eggs and instant coffee (serves “two miserable adults”). Here, in full, is his chapter on “Gelatin Desserts”: “I want you to be happy. If you think this book isn’t a real cookbook without some recipes for gelatin desserts, please write one or two of your favorites here.”

The above author photo of Jones apparently using a meat cleaver to chop vegetables on a piece of scrap lumber, while an admiring child (his own?) rests her arms on said cutting board, is presented without comment, as is the recipe containing raw eggs. (I’m sure that Jones would say he is quite happy to have died before twittering fusspots like me took over the planet.) The photo is also presented without the permission of the author, the photographer or the publishing company (all three appearing to have ceased to exist some time ago) but in the hope that any Will Jones fans out there will consider it a respectful remembrance.

You’ll be hard pressed to find another copy of this book, but for a taste of his writing you can read Jones’s report of Elvis Presley’s first concert in Minneapolis, and the slacks that everyone wore that night, right here.

3. “What to Cook (When You Think There’s Nothing in the House To Eat),” by Arthur Schwartz

What to Cook

Sometimes we are inspired by a delectable meal to go home and attempt a recreation of that dish, and sometimes we are propelled to the kitchen by a meal so  inexcusably bad that we simply have to see if we can’t do better ourselves. Such was the case with me, spaghetti all carbonara and Arthur Schwartz’s excellent book.

Self-indulgent backstory: In college, I had an American Brat’s year abroad in the Netherlands where I lived in a dormitory full of exchange students and– not to trade in stereotypes– the Italian and French women who lived in that building were magic cooks. The news that one of them had returned from a night of dancing and recreational drug-taking to prepare dinner for the floor would bring everyone out, fork in hand, trying to sponge off her generosity and unbelievable cooking skills.

It was in that dorm, at about 3:30 in the morning, that I first had spaghetti alla carbonara– a complete revelation, and mind you this was in the Netherlands where many revelatory experiences are not only affordable but quite legal. Ever since that time I have harbored notion that I, too, could become a cook like that. A cook who could wander into a kitchen, half-asleep, and without even trying turn a humble mess of three or four ingredients into a meal to make a gourmand weep.

Fifiteen years later, and still waiting for this ability to catch up with me, I had spaghetti alla carbonara in a local Italian restaurant and this carbonara was as mind-turningly bad as the first was ethereal. My plate arrived heaped with pasta, on top of which quivered something resembling clumps of fiberglass insulation. As I would soon learn, this is the most common mishap of carbonara-making: the hot pasta scrambles the egg and instead of a silky coating of bacony perfection you have gummy chunks of disgusting, cooked egg.

It was the only time I have ever considered sending a plate back to the kitchen but I did not, for two reasons: 1) I was with friends and who wants to be that woman? and 2) I’d heard a semi-reliable rumor that the restaurant was run by a local branch of the Mafia and I did not particularly want to meet the management under tense circumstances.

The shock of that plate led me to Arthur Schwartz’s excellent book, “What To Cook,” which I bought used at Culpepper Books in Tacoma, Washington. In it he provides a basic, reliable recipe for spaghetti alla carbonara to rival (or at least not offend the memory of) the stuff I ate in those midnight kitchens of my youth, plus dozens of other simple, smart, economical recipes.

If carbonara isn’t enough for you (and Lord knows, it should be) you should own this book for the chocolate pudding recipe. Good cooks will tell you that explaining how to make chocolate pudding is like explaining how to boil water, but we don’t make those kinds of assumptions here. More than once we have set a pot of water to boil, forgotten about it, gone to bed and nearly burned the house down, so you will find no cavalier attitudes here about the ease of boiling water. My children, Brioche and Tannery, love this pudding. They love it. They will even sometimes behave themselves moderately well if I say I am going to make chocolate pudding for dessert, and that makes Mr. Schwartz’s book the most useful volume on parenting in this house, Period The End.

 

4. The nearly—oh, nevermind caution!—the plainly perfect prose of John and Matt Thorne

Thorne

John Thorne, unlike the other authors on this list, is not obscure, he’s just very, very good. You can– and should, frankly– go to a struggling local bookstore and get all his books even if you never plan to cook in your whole life, because, as the book reviewer says, good writing is itself a virtue and this man can write. Or, I should say, this man and his wife and co-writer, Matt, whom he graciously and fairly credits on every single title page and dedication. (It is credit that all good editors ought to receive and which few ever do.)

What I love about Thorne is that he devotes himself to tasks like artisanal break baking, berry picking and rice cooking with a zeal and a budget of free time I can only dream if, but he is never squealing at me that I must copy all his movements. He just loves what he loves, and he writes about his work with the calm of someone who doesn’t have to storm into my kitchen to change my life. He’s attending to his own batch of sourdough and thoughtfully taking notes so that I can try, if I want to. Or not. He’s no Life Coach. There’s none of the paint-by-number madness of Jamie Oliver and Rachel Ray, this circus of dinner-in-15 minutes. Even more winningly, Thorne never, ever assures me that my children will eat a particular thing, and I really appreciate the company of someone who has nothing to say on that subject.

He writes captivatingly of the food he loves: “The flavor of the fruit is only hinted at until you bite into an actual chunk then there it is, rising out of the choir of flavors—the small, sweet voice of pear.” (Ginger Pear Cake, in “Outlaw Cook”) I’ll take this prose any day over the silly “food porn” that Nigella twirls around the end of her fork.

And he’s just as good—maybe better—when he’s mad: “I would hardly bother concerning myself with a vegetable with the nutritional value, flavor and texture of rained on newspaper, if it hadn’t insinuated itself into one of my favorite summer dishes, rendering it totally unappetizing.” (On zucchini and Ratatouille in “Simple Cooking.”)

By allowing himself his peccadillos and his quirks, he allows us our own. Whether he’s telling Paula Wolfert where to get off, or lamenting the “vexatious infatuation” of some wayward cooks with drowning their macaroni and cheese in the “noxious paste” of a flour-based cheese sauce, Thorne is straightforwardly curious and earnest and honest. He makes the Jamie Olivers and Martha Stewarts and will-you-stop-licking-your-lips-please Nigella Lawsons of this world look like hucksters and fakes.

No recipe in any of his books is as good – and the recipes are good– as his words:

“This is the secret desire that the real cook clutches close to heart and what makes cooking mean more than any mastery: to tease the tongue and calm the fearful heart, to bring our appetite to where the eggs are eaten loose, the meat served rare and juicy, the cheese not parted from the mold—to lay our tongue against the palpitation of the world’s own body and not faint dead away.” (“Simple Cooking”)

 Oh, stop this, John! We’re both happily married!

All this admiration aside, I don’t like the thought of him reading any of this. I suspect he would feel about my adulation the same way Julia Child did about the Julie/Julia project, that is, acutely annoyed. He’d have no patience at all (I like to think) with the dilettantes who read Saveur magazine but he might have a bit more more tolerance for someone like me—a bad cook who tries and gets it slightly wrong most of the time, but cooks anyway, out of sheer love for the world.

5. And finally, the notebook of newspaper clippings from an estate sale in rural Maine

IMG_1244

Several years ago during a vacation in Maine, Mr. Roboto happened upon an estate sale and bought me, not a prized set of original Fiesta Ware, but a collection of newspaper clippings: page after page of recipes clipped from a newspaper (The Boston Globe?) and pasted edge to edge on 8×11 lined composition paper, with beautiful, school-teachery script atop each section.

“I knew you’d like it because its old and strange!” he said.

I do love it as an oddity, for the thrift and meticulousness of it, but most of all for collector’s obvious belief that each saved recipe might be something special. “Oh, she served us the most magical prune whip that night! It was like nothing I’d ever tasted before. Prunes gone to heaven.”

Probably not the spirit of a mid-century housewife in rural Maine, I know. But maybe she dreamt, who knows? Maybe this was her secret recipe book. Maybe she wanted to get the hell out of Maine and go to culinary school. Maybe it was a lonely teenage boy who collected them all. At any rate, I have been hanging on to these time-yellowed recipes for a long time thinking that I’d make one—just one—to honor the person who saved them, and today is that day.

I chose Prune Whip, submitted by Mrs. W. G. Steele of Lowell, Massachusetts, because it has that unlovable, mildly cranky quality that speaks to me. It sounds like the sort of recipe whose proper home is a spiral-bound church-fundraiser cookbook. You know, the ones with entries that seem to be stages of a silent war between long-acquainted frenemies? “Marva, I told you, I won’t share my Denture-Cracker Candy Log. It’s a family secret. I’ll give you the Prune Whip.”

We do our research here at Rhapsody but it’s always nice when someone at The Dallas Observer has done it for you, as we found with this clever piece on the venerable history the Prune Whips, a popular 19th century dessert. How I wish you could have seen Brioche and Tannery’s little faces when I told them I was making dessert tonight, and then showed them a pan full of prunes, soaking in brownish prune water. “That already looks delicious, Mom!” is what I’m sure they meant to say as they bolted from the house, shrieking as happy children do.

And here she is, fresh from the oven. Mrs. Steele’s Prune Whip!

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Don’t be shy, there’s enough for everyone. I know it looks like something the cat left under the bed, but as cooks and eaters we must be willing to try new things and be bold! We must have, as Julia Child told her viewers as she taught us to flip omelets, “the courage of our convictions.”

I could go on for hours about other books I love, like Miriam Ungerer’s “Good Cheap Food,” which you ought to go buy, or borrow from the library. I got my copy from my sister, Andromeda, and have opened it so many times to the Potato and Leek Soup that the spine has snapped right at that spot. You would think that after making it a half dozen times I could improvise– and you would be wrong. I’ll never be the kind of cook who can work without a net. I need these books as companions, and as spotters.

So here’s to favorite recipes. To recipes lost, then found.  To Mrs. Steele, and the collector of these recipes, wherever s/he may be. And the recipes that hide, just out of reach, in the book we haven’t yet opened.

Look, there’s an awful lot of this Prune Whip here. Don’t make me eat it all by myself.

XO,

Rhapsody

 

 

 

 

 

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