Nobody's Perfect

Nobody's Perfect



Ready? Ready. O.K., here we go. "Fold the wings akimbo, tucking the wing ends under the shoulders as shown here." Lovely. "Then, on the same side of the chicken where you came out from the second knee..." Umm. "Poke the needle through the upper arm of the wing." Wings with arms, like a bat's. Cool. "Catch the neck skin, if there..." Hang on. If there? If not there, where? Whose neck is this, anyway? "...and pin it to backbone, and come out through the second wing." And go for a walk in the snow, and don't come back till next year.

This wing-stitching drill, as any cook will tell you, is from the celebrated "To Truss a Chicken" section of Julia Child's The Way to Cook. It's a pretty easy routine, really, as long as you take it slow, run through a batch of test poultry first, have a professional chef on hand to help you through the bad times, and feel no shame when you get arrested and charged with satanic drumstick abuse. Julia Child is a good woman, with no desire to faze or scald us; she genuinely wants us to bard that bird, to cook it, and to carve it. ("Fork-grab under the knee.... Soon you'll see the ball joint here the leg-thigh meets the small of the back.") Hell, she wouldn't mind if we went ahead and ate the damn thing.

I don't know what it is about cookbooks, but they really drain my giblets. I buy them, and use them, and study them with the micro-attentive care of papyrologist, and still they make me feel that I am missing out. I follow instructions, and cook dinner for friends, and the friends are usually friends again by the next morning, but what they consume at my table bears no more than a fleeting, tragically half-assed resemblance to the dish that I read about in the recipe. Although I am not a good cook, I am not a dreadful one, either; I once had a go at mouclade d'Aunis, once made a brave fist of cul de veau braisé Angevin, and once came very close to buying carp. Last summer, I did something difficult with monkfish tails; the dish took two days to prepare, a full nine minutes to eat, and three days to wash up after. But an hour in front of my cookbooks is enough to slash my ambitions to the bone—to convince me that in terms of culinary evolution I remain a scowling tree-dweller whose idea of haute cuisine is to grub for larvae under dead bark.

And we all know the name of the highly developed being standing at the other end of the scale. Super-skilled, free of fear, the last word in human efficiency, Martha Stewart is the woman who convinced a million Americans that they have the time, the means, the right, and—damn it—the duty to pipe a little squirt of soft cheese into the middle of a snow pea and to continue piping until there are "fifty to sixty" stuffed peas raring to go. Never mind the taste; one glance at this woman's quantities is enough to spirit you into a different and a cleaner world. "I discovered a fantastic thing when preparing 1,500 potatoes for the Folk Art Show," Martha writes in her latest book. The Martha Stewart Cookbook is a magisterial compendium of nine previous books, and offers her fans another chance to sample Martha's wacky punch lines ("Tie securely with a single chive") and her naughtiest promises ("This hearty soup is simple to assemble"). So coolly thrown off, that last line, and you read right through it without picking up the outrageous implication. Since when did you "assemble" a soup? Even the ingredients are a fright. "Three pounds fish frames from flounder or fluke," Martha says brightly, sounding like Henry Higgins. To the rest of humanity, soup is something that involves five pans, two dented strainers, scattered bones that would baffle a forensic pathologist, and the unpleasant sensation of hot stock rising from the pot, condensing on your forehead, and running down into the pot again as lightly flavored sweat.

Martha does not perspire. There is not a squeak of panic in the woman's soul. She knows exactly where the two layers of cheesecloth can be found when the time comes to strain the stock. She assembles her fish chowder as if it were a model airplane. Moreover, she does so without appearing to spend any time in the kitchen. "One of the most important moments on which to expend extra effort is the beginning of a party, often an awkward time, when guests feel tentative and insecure," she says. The guests are insecure? How about the frigging cook? Believe me, Martha, I'm not handing round the phyllo triangles with lobster filling during that awkward time. I'm out back, holding on to the sink, finishing off the Côtes du Rhône that was supposed to go into the stew. But Martha Stewart is an idealist who has cunningly disguised herself as a helping hand; readers look up to her as a conservative angel who keeps the dream house tidy, radiant, ready for pals, and filled with family. "If I had to choose one essential element for the success of an Easter brunch, it would be children," she writes, as if preparing to grill the kids over a high flame.

Yet the conservative image won't quite fit. The Stewart paean to the joys of Thanksgiving ("To not cook and entertain on this day would seem tantamount to treason") is itself rather joyless in its zealotry; you keep hitting something sharp and steely in her writings—a demiglace intolerance of ordinary mortals. Her kitchen is bewitched, and she's Samantha. You won't see it on her TV shows, but I bet Martha Stewart can wiggle her nose and turn any chauvinist Darrin into crabmeat. If you're planning to fork-grab her under the knee, forget it. Was it the spirit of the season or a quiet celebration of dominant female power that led to the baked-ham recipe at the start of Martha Stewart's Menus for Entertaining? It looks succulent in the accompanying photograph, and I have long yearned to make it, but three factors have restrained me. First, it serves sixteen, and I don't know that many people who would be happy to munch ham at one another. Second, you need "one bunch chervil with flowers." (That's plain silly, if not quite as ridiculous as a recipe at I came across at the peak of nouvelle cuisine, in the 1980s—a recipe that demanded thirty-four chervil leaves.) Third, the ham must be baked for five and a half hours in a pan lined with fresh-cut grass. As in meadow. "Locate an area in advance with tender, young, organically grown grass that has not yet been cut," our guide advises. "It is best to cut it very early in the morning while the dew is still evident." I'm sorry, Martha, but it just won't do. I have inspected the grass in my backyard, and I am not prepared to serve Baked Ham with Cat Whiff and Chopped Worms.

There must be millions of other people who refuse to get up at dawn and mow the lawn for dinner. This fellow feeling should be a comfort to me, yet somehow it makes no difference. Cooking, for all the apple-checked, home-baked community spirit in which food writers try to enfold it, is essentially a solitary art—or, at least, a guarantee of lonely distress. When your hollandaise is starting to curdle and you've tried the miraculous ice-cube trick and you've tried beating a fresh egg yolk and folding in the curdled stuff and the result still looks like the climactic scene of a David Cronenberg picture, it doesn't really help to know that someone is having the very same problem in Pittsburgh. Your only friend, in fact, is that shelf of cookbooks just out of reach. Leaving the sauce to its own devices, you grab each volume in turn, frantic for advice, and make your fatal mistake: you start to read. Two yards away, the sauce is separating fast—the lemon is pursing its lips, the eggs are halfway back to the fridge—but you don't care, By now, determined to find out where you went wrong, and already dreaming of a perfect future sauce, you are deep into Georges Auguste Escoffier's recipe for hollandaise: "Remove the pan to the side of the stove or place it in a bain-marie." Well, which?

In that simple "or" reside both the delight and the frustration of classic cookbook. It should ideally tell you almost everything but not all that you need to know, leaving a tiny crack of uncertainty that can become your own personal abyss. If any text counts as a classic, it is Escoffier's Le Guide Culinaire, which was published in 1903. Escoffier was a colleague of César Ritz, and a man of such pantry-stocking initiative that when Paris was besieged in the Franco-Prussian War he fed the starving troop on zoo animals and stray pets. I eagerly scanned the Guide for pan-seared hartebeest or poodle mousse à la Fifi sauvage, but all I could find was unflinching recipe for clear turtle soup:

To kill the turtle, lay it on its back at the edge of the table with the head hanging over the side. Take a double meat hook and place one hook in the upper jaw and suspend a sufficiently heavy weight in the hook at the other end so as to make the animal extend its neck....
It goes without saying that the flippers should be blanched, and that "the green fat which is used for making the soup must be collected carefully." But where, exactly, does this green fat come from? The author doesn't tell us. Somewhere between the carapace and the plastron, presumably, but I'm not sure that I really want to know.

Whether cooks still use Escoffier—or Larousse, or Carême, or any of the other touchstones of French cuisine—is open to question. It is not just the encyclopedic spread of these Frenchmen's interests, their desire to chew on something that we would prefer to watch in a wildlife documentary, that feels out of date; it is also their unshakable conviction that we already know our worldly way around a kitchen, that they are merely grinding a little fresh information into our basic stock of knowledge. When Escoffier tells us to "stud the fattened pullet with pieces of truffle and poach it in the usual manner," he presumes that we habitually spend our weekends looking for pullets to fatten and that we can poach them in our sleep. Many readers are scared off by this assumption; I feel flattered and consoled by it, all the more so because I know it to be dead wrong. I am not a truffle stud, nor was meant to be. Yet I willingly dream myself into a time when you could "quickly fry 10 blackbirds in hot butter"—just because I relish the imaginative jump required to get there, not because I particularly want a blackbird-lettuce-and-tomato sandwich for my lunch.

In other words, the great cookbooks are more like novels than home-improvement manuals. What these culinary bibles tell you to do is far less beguiling than the thought of a world in which such things might be done. A single line, for instance, from Benjamin Renaudet's Secrets de la Bonne Table, published at the beginning of this century, effortlessly summons up the century that has just ended: "When the first partridges are shot in the early morning, send them down to the house." If that grabs you, take a look at Culinary Jottings for Madras, a collection of recipes by Deputy Assistant Quartermaster-General Arthur Robert Kenney-Herbert. First published in 1878, the book tells you more about the nature of imperial rule in India than any number of political histories. If you can feed a party of eight on snipe soup, fish fillets à la Peg Woffington, mutton cutlets à la Moscovite, oyster Kramouskys, braised capon, and a brace of wild ducks with bigarade sauce, if you can finish off with prune jelly, iced molded pudding with strawberries, and cheese, and if you can serve and eat all that when it's ninety-five degrees in the shade, then you can conquer any country you like. Nothing can stand up to Peg Woffington.

There is a pinch of snob nostalgia in reading this stuff, of course, but I don't think it ruins the flavor. What is attractive about cookbooks, after all—what prickles the glands like vinegar—is not luxury but otherness. I have a particular weakness for the chunky, old-style blockbusters that sit in every kitchen, offering reams of advice that is seldom taken, or even required. Endlessly updated with new editions, these masterworks are doomed never to be up to date. Craig Claiborne's New York Times Cook Book, which has slowly acquired the gravitas of Holy Writ, was first published in 1961. I found an early edition, and smiled at the hors-d'oeuvres suggestions that are arrayed for our delectation in the first section of the book: how to serve oysters on the half shell, how to serve caviar, how to serve foie gras. It was a time capsule of America in the late fifties and early sixties; it made me want to watch Pillow Talk all over again. With a sigh of regret, I turned to the latest edition. How would it start in the nineties? Char-grilled calamari with arugula and flat-leaf parsley? Stuffed snow peas à la Martha? Shiitake tarts? But no, there it was again: how to serve oysters on the half shell, etc. What was once an accurate index of national taste has now become a museum piece. It's the same story with Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker's The Joy of Cooking which began life in 1931 and reads as if it had never got past 1945. Social historians should head straight for the "Pies and Pastries" section and check out the crusty jokes: "No wonder pictures of leggy starlets are called cheesecake!" Ba-boom.

Down below caviar, even farther down than cheesecake, there is a place where the joy of cooking gives way to the joy of not bothering to cook at all. Yet even here, on the ocean floor of cuisine en bas, among such primitive life forms as the Fried Peanut Butter and Banana Sandwich, there is food for thought. To discover this sandwich in Brenda Arlene Butler's Are You Hungry Tonight? Elvis' Favorite Recipes is to be transported, without warning, to an age of innocence. The book's final chapter offers readers the chance to re-create the giant six-tier wedding cake that Elvis and Priscilla cut together on that happy day in 1967: the words "Eleven pounds hydrogenated vegetable shortening (such as Sweetex or Crisco)" speak to me as directly, and as movingly, as the partridges that Renaudet called for in the early morning.

There are times when this need to look elsewhere—to reach into ovens of another age, or another culture, and pull out whatever you can—grows from a well-fed fancy into a moral necessity. Hence the invaluable contribution of Elizabeth David, whose name remains as revered England as that of M.F.K. Fisher in America. (Why do women make great cookery writers? Partly, I suspect, because they realize that it is enough to be a great cook, whereas men, larded with pride in their accomplishment, invariably go one step too far and try to be great chefs—a grander calling, though somehow less respectable, and certainly less responsive to human need.) Both David and Fisher were spurred to action by the Second World War: Fisher's How to Cook a Wolf was published in 1942, when food shortages were beginning to bite, and David's A Book of Mediterranean Food appeared in 1950, when England was still rationed, undernourished, and keen on suet.

Elizabeth David's mission was to find the modern equivalent of Renaudet's partridges, to resuscitate flagging and amnesiac palates with the prospect of unthinkable dishes. Such food had no need to be rich; it simply had to taste of something, to bear recognizable links to natural produce, and, most important, to be non-gray. Whether it ever saw light of day, or the candlelight of evening, was beside the point; the mere promise of it, David herself confessed, was a form of nourishment. "Even if people could not very often make the dishes here described," she pointed out, "it was stimulating to think about them." And so on the first page of A Book of Mediterranean Food she kicked off with soupe au pistou and its accompanying dollop of aïllade. The garlicky stink of Nice hit England full in the face, and the nation—or, at any rate, the middle classes—came back to life.

Nowadays, the situation is reversed. We know too much about food. Your principal obligation when you sit down at a restaurant in New York is to play it cool. Black spaghettini with cuttlefish and fennel tops? Been there. Soupe au pistou? Wake me up when it's over. In the past year, I have eaten both reindeer (a fun Christmas dish) and ostrich (better baked in sand, I guess), but they hardly count as exotic anymore. Cookbooks have followed the lead of restaurants and delicatessens: specialist works abound, the narrower the better. I gave up reading Sara Slavin and Karl Petzke's Champagne: The Spirit of Celebration, a book devoted to cooking with and for champagne, at the point where it instructed me to "roll each cheese-coated grape in the garlic-almond mixture." Isn't there some kind of Grape Protection Society that should be fighting this stuff? As for 365 Ways to Cook Hamburger and Other Ground Meats, by Rick Rodgers, what can I say? Welcome to the most disgusting book on earth. It's not the dishes themselves that I object to—not even Ed Debevic's Burnt Meatloaf, or the Transylvanian Pork and Sauerkraut Bake—but the gruelling way in which one recipe after another resounds with the same mournful litany: "One pound ground round." Remember the wise words of M.F.K. Fisher: "The first thing to know about ground round steak is that it should not be that at all."

Far more cheering and plausible is Nick Malgieri's How to Bake, which runs for 276 pages before it even gets to "Plain Cakes." Should you find the book a little too broad in scope, you could always play the sacred card and go for The Secrets of Jesuit Breadmaking, by Brother Rick Curry, S.J. This alternates clear spiritual homilies with yeasty advice about cooling racks. Sometimes, with a brilliant flourish, Brother Curry kneads his twin passions into one phrase: "As we begin the most austere week in Christianity, tasty rich biscuits remind us that Jesus is coming." I suspect that such highly sophisticated reasoning may have been the downfall of Gerard Manley Hopkins, poet and Jesuit, who suffered what was reputed to be one of the worst cases of constipation in the nineteenth century.

If you really intend to be the star of your own cookbook, you need to watch out. (The finest cooks, such as Escoffier, are godlike, everywhere in the text yet nowhere to be seen.) Brother Curry, schooled in humility, gets it about right: when he says that his Loyola Academy Buttermilk Bread "goes great with peanut butter," we instinctively believe that he's plugging a good idea rather than himself. The trouble starts with celebrity cookbooks and tie-ins; try as I might, I cannot conceive of a time when I will want to concoct a meal from the pages of The Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. Cookbook or its literate successor, Forrest Gump: My Favorite Chocolate Recipes. Entertaining with Regis and Kathie Lee is remarkable less for the quality of the cuisine than for the photographs of Kathie Lee, who seems to spend half her time with her mouth wide open, as if to catch any mouthfuls flying by. Then, there's Rosie Daley, whose food looks perfectly nice, but whose In the Kitchen with Rosie might not have reached the bestseller lists were she not employed as a cook by Oprah Winfrey. It's kind of hard to concentrate on the ingredients, what with Oprah's cheerleading ringing out at regular intervals. "I have thrived on pasta. I can eat it every day and practically do." You'd never guess.

Whether such works can be relied upon in the kitchen is of little consequence. Cookbooks, it should be stressed, do not belong in the kitchen at all. We keep them there for the sake of appearances; occasionally, we smear their pages together with vibrant green glazes or crimson compotes, in order to delude ourselves, and any passing browsers, that we are practicing cooks; but, in all honesty, a cookbook is something that you read in the living room, or in the bathroom, or in bed. The purpose is not to nurture nightmares of suckling pig, or to lull ourselves into a fantasy of trimly bearded oysters, but simply to baste our rested brains with common sense, and with the prospect of common pleasures to come. Take this romantic interlude from 'Tis the Season: A Vegetarian Christmas Cookbook, by Nanette Blanchard: "Turn down the lights, light all the candles you can find, throw a log on the fire, turn up the music, and toast each other with a Sparkling Grape Goblet." Oh, oh, Nanette. On the other hand, what could be sweeter than to retire with Smoke & Spice, by Cheryl Alters Jamison and Bill Jamison, whose High Plains Jerky would be an ornament to any barbecue? Those in search of distant horizons could always caress their senses with The Art of Polish Cooking, in which Alina Zerańska offers her triumphant recipe for "Nothing" Soup (Zupa "Nic"), adding darkly, "This is an all-time children's favorite."

If I could share a Sparkling Grape Goblet with anyone—not just any cook but any person in recorded history—it might well be with Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. Magistrate, mayor, violinist, judge, and ravenous slayer of wild turkeys during his visit to America, Brillat-Savarin is now remembered for The Physiology of Taste, which was first published in 1825. There is a good paperback version, translated by Anne Drayton, but devotees may wish to seek out the translation by M.F.K. Fisher herself; it has now been reissued in a luxurious new edition, with illustrations by Wayne Thiebaud. To say that The Physiology of Taste is a cookbook is like saying that Turgenev's Sportsman's Sketches is a guide to hunting. ''When I came to consider the pleasures of the table in all their aspects, I soon perceived that something better than a mere cookery book might be made of such a subject," Brillat-Savarin writes. It is a perception that few have shared; the closest modern equivalent, perhaps, is in the work of A.J. Liebling, a man whose delicately gluttonous writings on food keep wandering off (when he can tear himself away) into such equally pressing areas as Paris, boxing, and sex. Brillat-Savarin, like Liebling, gives few recipes, though he muses on innumerable dishes, on the scientific reasons for their effect on the metabolism, and on the glow of sociable well-being that is their ideal result. He sprinkles anecdotes like salt, and he defines and defends gourmandisme ("It shows implicit obedience to the commands of the Creator"), following it through the various stages of delight and surfeit to its logical conclusion. There is a chapter on "The Theory of Frying" and a wonderful disquisition on death, embellished with gloomy good cheer: "I would recall the words of the dying Fontenelle, who on being asked what he could feel, replied: 'Nothing but a certain difficulty in living."'

The lasting achievement of Brillat-Savarin is that he endowed living with a certain ease. Intricately versed in the difficulties of existence, he came to the unorthodox conclusion that a cookbook—a bastard form, but a wealthy, happy bastard—could offer the widest and most tender range of remedies. I'm not sure whether he knew how to fold the wings of a chicken akimbo, and if you'd handed him a snow pea and told him to stuff it he would have responded in kind; but it takes someone like Brillat-Savarin to remind us that cooking need not to be the fraught, perfectionist, slightly paranoid struggle that it has latterly become. His love of food is bound up with a taste for human error and indulgence, and that is why The Physiology of Taste is still the most civilized cookbook ever written. I suspect that Brillat-Savarin might have been bemused by Martha Stewart, but that he would have got on just fine with Ed Debevic and his Burnt Meatloaf.

I sure wish that he had been on hand for my terrine of sardines and potatoes. There I was—apron on, gin in hand, closely following the recipe of the French chef Raymond Blanc. All went well until I got to the harmless words "a piece of cardboard." Apparently, I needed cardboard to lay on the terrine mold; the cardboard then had to be covered with "evenly distributed weights" for twelve hours. Weights? Cardboard? Twelve hours? They weren't listed with the ingredients. I had my sardines; I had my twenty capers and my freshly grated nutmeg; but I had no cardboard. Frankly, it would have been easier to kill a turtle.

That's the trouble with cookbooks. Like sex education and nuclear physics, they are founded on an illusion. They bespeak order, but they end in tears.

December 18, 1995

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Excerpted from Nobody's Perfect by Anthony Lane. Copyright © 2002 by Anthony Lane. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.