Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Cookbook Title FAIL

The problem with getting blog inspiration from self-deprecating personal disasters (see the tart story from 2 weeks ago) is that if you have a pretty good string of days, where total humiliation has eluded you, you might find yourself lacking in material. And when I say you, I mean me. Some people call it writer's block. You could call it Blogger's Block but that sounds dumb, so we won't. And when I say we, I mean you.

So it was within this context of feeling the brain freeze of writer's block, that this post was born. Ironically, while my brain chilled, it hit 103 degrees in Seattle, breaking all previous record highs here, ever. EVER. Seattle-ites hazily stumbled around in moist, cotton-sticking t-shirts mumbling about Otter pops and air-conditioning or the lack thereof. Mostly the lack thereof.

With no material, no inspiration and an elevated core body temperature, I let the compressed molten air shove me forward into a freezing cold wi-fi cafe where I set up my computer. I was heat-adled and fuzzy, hell-bent on finding something, anything to write about. It took an hour in the artificial chiller for me to trip over inspiration.

I kid you not. This one above is the real deal. Wow.

What if you could play a word game with some of your favorite writers? Wouldn't that be cool? Wouldn't that be grand? I posed (on Twitter) to a sea of food writers and food lovers a word game of sorts. The name of the game was: Failed Cookbook Titles

That was it. There were no rules.

Some played off of existing cookbook titles. Others just made up their own. Either way, I soon found myself laughing, at first quietly to myself, then a little snort would sneak out, later a guffaw and finally I had to use my hand as a self-muzzle to prevent embarrassing noise explosions.

Behold, below, the artistry and creativity of some of my Twitter friends. If you find that you must join this crazy community I've become a part of, please do (or run, screaming, now).

Here were mine*

*but, first, a word to my family (who reads my blog) you see, sometimes I can be a little, uh, dirty? Is that the right word? Yes, that probably is the right word. And, uh, sometimes I appreciate the dirty humor of some of my friends. So, feel free to go do something else if your image of me will be forever tarnished. Oh wait, it probably was long ago tarnished. So, in that case, shit, go ahead and read away and add your failed cookbook titles!

"The Anorexic's Pantry"
"The Ins and Outs of Aspic Cookery"
"The Art of Eating Out" by M.F.K. Fisher
"Vegan Cooking for a Few People"
"An ass-ton of butter, a shit-load of cream: Lite recipes from my kitchen to yours" by Ina Garten

And here are a sampling of some of my favorites. To see them all, do a search on Twitter for #failedcookbooktitles.

@RebekahDenn chimed in with the classic book "Tender at the Bone: Donner Party Dinner Recipies"

@Podchef with a title for rural youngsters "How to kill and cook your 4-H pet"

@Voraciousgirl mentioned the lesser known title from the famous restaurant "Dirty French Laundry"

@lferroni shows us that one person's umami is another person's "Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweat!"

@sensitivepantry with that down-home favorite "Nascar's Cookin' on Your Hemi!"

@edibleseattle and @berry_k noted the British interpretation of the original title "Fanny Farmer Cookbook" A fanny farmer indeed!

@katflynn delighted us with several offerings, including these sure bet IACP winners:
"A Great Rack: Top Italian recipes for lamb, beef and pork rib cuts" by Giada DeLaurentius
"No Way You'll Ever Cook This Stuff: Overly Complicated Recipes With Lots of Glossy Photos by (insert celebrity name)"
"The Man Who Ate Nothing"

@MarcSeattle wins in the x-rated failed cookbook title category with:
"Salt-Licked Beaver and Other Wild Game Recipes"
"The Frugal Gourmet: Touching is Free"
"The Bearded Clam : Sustainable Seafood for Today's Conscientious Cook"

@glutenfreegirl was the people's favorite, showing a smuttier side of her personality with:
"Anthony Bourdains Les Whores"
"Charlie Trotter's Meat"
"The Chef in My Pants"
"Sunday Orgies at Lucques"
"Chez Panisse Vegetable Sex Toys"

"Mastering the Art of French Kissing, Volume 2"
@wrightfood penned the racy tome "Cucumbers: Beyond Salads for the Single Home Cook"

@kittenwithawhip with the Ithaca, NY's famous "The Mooseturd Cookbook" and sure to go into paperback, "Staff meal at Wendy's"

@pnwcheese chimed in with a frightening tome "Seitan for the Holidays"

@mamster with the Donner-party esque "Feast on Nigella Lawson"

Here is where I leave it up to you to join in the game.

If you wish.
If you dare.

Until next game.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Life is just a bowl of (Montmorency) Cherries

Here's some unsolicited advice: Never. Ever. Pat yourself on the back.

Or, if you insist on patting yourself on the back continue the motion and swing your hand up and around and smack yourself firmly and briskly upside the head. Pride is a fickle, tricky fool. Not even a minute into your self-celebration, you can find yourself staring, dumbfounded, into the eyes of your own humiliation. It's as if the universe has a way of self-correcting for blustery displays of arrogance. As the head swells, the feet slide out from underneath; karmic balance thus restored.

There is a story here. I'm sure you've gathered.

It all started with a cherry tree - a very special cherry tree - a Montmorency, the queen of sour cherry trees. A friend of mine offered them up, lamenting that there are more cherries that find their way to the ground than into pies. I'm all for the circle of life, and believe strongly in composting, but I prefer to let the cherries take a tour past my taste buds before they reach their final resting place. So - in the middle of one sunny Saturday afternoon - I chatted with my friend and plucked fire-engine red sour cherries off the branches. The branches were swollen with fruit which made for quick picking.

Lazy woman's picking. My friend's husband had cut down the branches for some convenient pruning.

I brought the cherries home and, as I was headed to a July 4th BBQ, turned them into a rustic hand formed tart. I cooked the cherries down with sugar, port, some thyme and lavender and laid them over a base of equal parts sour cream and goat cheese, set up with an egg. April and I handed out samples at the party and basked in the glow of our food savvy friends adulation. My hand soon grew tired from (yes, you're right there with me) patting myself on the back.

Within hours after the party I learned of a tart competition being held in just a few days, the first of its kind in Seattle: a Francophile Fruit Tart competition, to be exact. Until this week I had never entered a cooking competition of any kind. Why not, I thought. Why not indeed?

The smell from this vantage point was fairly intoxicating.

I used to think that the world of pastry was inconceivably boring because each day must start out the same. "Ah," says the pastry chef of my imaginings, "A new day! I need to gather some FLOUR, BUTTER, SUGAR, SALT." Then, the very next day starts out the same. "Ah! A new day! I need to gather some FLOUR, BUTTER, SUGAR, SALT." Not for me, this life of 4 ingredients.

But the truth is that deep within me there is a pastry chef struggling to get out. I try to shove her down, but sometimes she proves too worthy a foe and bubbles up and over the surface. As any good pastry chef knows, you may start with very similar ingredients each day, but the true talent emerges when the same basic ingredients can produce a vast array of final products. So it was with some respect, a worrisome amount of over confidence and a share of flour, butter, sugar and salt that I, one and half hours before the competition, grabbed my buddy Jet and started baking. If you read this blog you know that Jet is my wingman, always at my side for the latest and craziest food adventure. I called her up at noon. The contest started at 4. "Wanna come help me enter a tart competition?" And just like that, we were off.

There was only one problem: What the fuck were we thinking? At 3:55 pm we were scrambling into the car, two tarts, one just slightly uglier than the other, balanced precariously on our laps, on beat up, ugly baking sheets. In the back, confectioners sugar in a sieve ready to go when we got there, 3 minutes late. We threw the tarts onto the back of my truck and garnished them with powdered sugar right there on the street. Speed walking while carefully negotiating the sidewalk pavers, we climbed the steps to Rovers, a well-known French restaurant in Seattle.

I was wearing jeans with a hole in the knee and a t-shirt, dusted with flour. Jet was wearing capris and a t-shirt and I think I saw some cherry juice splashed on it. We both had on flip-flops. I was carrying a hippie basket with sugar all over it. We heard them before we saw them, the sju sju sjus of French being spoken between several well-dressed women and men who greeted us as we entered. They were with the French-American Chamber of Commerce and oh yes, now I remember, this contest is part of Bastille Day celebrations, and oh right, perhaps I might have considered that a classic French tart consists of pastry cream, is made in a tart pan, has rows and rows of concentric fresh fruit, and sometimes glaze. Bien sûr! I looked down at my flat, hand formed, goat cheese, sour cream, cooked cherry and thyme "tart" and gulped.

Tingling sensations of dread - felt first just below the nape of my neck and running down my back, like thousands of tiny fire ants - came when we rounded the corner where the contestant chefs stood, lined up in their starched whites, names embossed on their lapels looking to all the world like a white pastry army facing down a most unprepared savory foe. They came from some of Seattle's best bakeries and restaurants. Funny, I never stopped to really think about who would be entering this competition. If my mind did linger for a moment on any picture of this day, it would have been on the image of a county fair, foodies and bloggers, chefs and pastry people all showing up with their tarts of every stripe. We'd sip iced tea and compare recipes. It would be held outside and there would be rows and rows of tarts.

Not six.

Each one was more beautiful than the next - high-sided, glossy, magazine cover tarts sprung forth from their covers onto the plate. Chefs were placing flowers, just so, on their creations. I held my hand over my mouth, resisting all temptations to let out a crazy, wild, high pitched laugh-yelp and glanced, for a moment, like a beaten dog, over at Jet who did not return the eye contact. We realized we had not brought any tools to transfer the ugly tart from the ugly pan to the white display plate. With what we felt were the beady eyes of gloating competitors staring at us, we sloppily picked up the tart with our hands and slid it over onto the plate. I felt a tiny fault line crack run up the middle of the tart just as it landed, most unceremoniously, on the plate. Photos were snapping and all the air was being sucked out of the room.

I told Jet I'll be right back and I made my way quickly to the front door and down the steps and out into the garden and I breathed in the clean air, gobbling it up and clearing my head. I wanted to be the kind of person who would walk right back in there, head held high, proud of my creation, all flattened and amateurish. Instead, I tried to play their game and my eye caught on a newly blooming lavender plant and after looking over my shoulder twice to make sure no one was watching, I ripped off a hank of flowers and ran back in. Jet saw me, smirked in a way that made me think she was feeling indigestion, and I started frantically showering our cow pie with lavender flowers, which made it look just like a cow pie showered with lavender flowers.

I stood back. I surveyed my handiwork. I drank a glass of a Rosé. Fast.

The judging took forever and we watched as they broke down the crusts with their forks, stuck their noses right up next to the pieces, murmured about pastry cream and difficulty points, artistic expression and the ripeness of fruit. Then, the extras were shared amongst the crowd and contestants, our stress sweat mixed with French perfume; adrenaline and Chanel and frangipane hung in the air. I drank another glass of Rosé. Faster.

We took a sample of each of the tarts into a quiet outside room, sat down and tasted them. Bite by bite, I incrementally started to feel better. Mine was flavorful. The rest, save for a few, not so much. I felt slightly redeemed in knowing that what I lost in looks I made up for in substance.

The judges convened, discussed, and decided. And then came the announcement. Shockingly, I did not win. A quick perusal of the points distribution has me scoring high in flavor, and losing badly in difficulty and presentation. Food writer Rebekah Denn, one of the judges, tells me privately, later, that my tart was "ugga-licious" for its tasty homeliness. I declared it "Fug-tasty."

We clap clap clapped for the winner (Boulangerie Nantaise and my personal favorite of the day Macrina) and got back in the truck. It was 5:33pm and all over, just 3 hours after we met in my kitchen and started pitting cherries and making dough. We started laughing, hysterically, and I thanked the stars that I love telling stories a hell of a lot more than I like making pastries.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

My heart belongs to M.F.K. Fisher

M.F.K Fisher striking a pose and displaying what
years of raw oyster slurping can do for your complexion.

It used to be that "food" writing was seen as a lesser form of writing; stories about food were relegated to the so-called "women's pages" - a euphemistic term that sounded okay but must have felt like a feminine ghetto. The notion of food writing getting real journalistic respect from the newspaper powers that be didn't happen often back in the day.

Today, this niche we call "food writing" has exploded. Food writers have emerged from their perceived literary backwaters and are taken more seriously, if not turned into outright celebrities. Elite few court fame and fortune, their gustatory turns of phrase capable of selling millions of books. Let's not forget, however, in this heyday of culinary prose, that each Anthony Bourdain and Ruch Reichl, every up and coming writer today follows in the popcorn trail of the A.J. Lieblings, M.F.K. Fishers, and Curnonskys. We all stand on the pens of those before us while they look up at us and our keyboards, tapping away and sending our words into the ether. What must they be thinking?

I enjoy nothing more than curling up with a good book. That's not true. I enjoy curling up with a good book on food, specifically, more than any other kind of book. I may eat my future proverbial Kindle someday but I hope I'm one of the last physical book hold outs, death grip on my Best Food Writing anthologies, the smell of actual paper in my nostrils, a shotgun laid, just so, across my lap.

I find tremendous inspiration in the words of my favorite writers and I dream at night for only an ounce of their abilities. Incredible food writing is, to me, a deadly good combination of acerbic wit, historical context, sharp commentary and lush sensory descriptions. When writers fire on all fronts the words leap off the page, dancing.

I posed a question on Twitter* the other day. Who is your favorite food writer and why? There were no rules, no restrictions and I even allowed people to email me back if 140 characters felt too limiting. The writer could be living, dead, famous or not. The range of responses I got was as diverse as the people who took the time to answer. Their answers fascinated me and I hope they inspire you to learn about a new food writer or reminisce about one of your well-worn favorites.

Elizabeth David, concentrating on what on earth that huge spoon could be for.

Matt Wright @WrightEats
Liz David, was a food writer who emerged after WW2. Known for her complete lack of tact, her cattiness, and her complete commitment to good food, proper technique, and taking the time and focus needed to create good food. She preferred rural rustic preparations over fanciful food served at the Michelin stared restaurants that it seemed like she would get dragged to whilst traveling through France.

Her writing is edgy, witty, constantly hilarious, scathing of shortcuts and workarounds. She has such a way with words that each recipe, each story is so vividly described a photograph would honestly do it an injustice.

Her books are more than just cookbooks, they are complete, vivid travel stories. Perfect books to both cook from, and relax on a beach with.
Grumpy Glutton @GrumpyGlutton
Bourdain is my favorite food writer because he is, at different turns, outrageously funny (body w/ fake wounds made from food in walk-in, Kitchen Confidential) and poignant (going to France in an emotion search for his late father, Cook's Tour). When the food is bad, his writing makes me nauseous (many examples in CT, incl. tete au veau and pretty much any Asian dish that makes a man "strong"). When the food is good, his writing makes me salivate, not to mention, hungry (again, many examples in CT, incl. the meals with his boss's family in Portugal, in Basque country, with his cooks' families in Mexico and, of course, French Laundry). And, he writes with an incredible sense of place. I first experienced wanting to be transported to a particular time and place when I read Graham Greene's The Quiet American, a book Bourdain references. Bourdain imparts the same sense about Saigon as did Greene, albeit for a different era. Bourdain does the same to me for Fez, for Portugal, for the Basque region, for the islands off Vietnam's coast.
Shauna James Ahern @glutenfreegirl
I love Edna Lewis for her plainspoken language. Her descriptions of food are connected to her memories, so each word is the right word. "And when we share again in gathering wild strawberries, canning, rendering lard, finding walnuts, picking persimmons, making fruitcake I realize how much the bond that held us had to do with food." [Edna Lewis, The Taste of Country Cooking] I love Anthony Bourdain's unabashed "fuck you" attitude toward everything in life. He's honest, so you can't be mad. He knows his food. I love how Laurie Colwin invites you into her messy kitchen and welcoming dining nook. Sit down and listen to stories. Comfort food.

Jake Kosseff @Jake Kosseff
Craig Claiborne because I learned to cook using one of his New York Times Cookbooks, and have a warm, sentimental feeling about his writing. He was witty, and urbane and treated food like a worthy pursuit, and was snobby in a very inclusive and fun way.

Ruth Reichl (hair not photographed to scale) Photo by: Brigitte Lacombe

Kairu Yao @Kairu
I was probably in third grade when my mother bought me a copy of Encyclopedia Brown Takes the Cake! I had read the earlier books and was totally hooked, but this one was different. All the mysteries had to do with food (starting with, if memory serves, a missing birthday cake and a loaf of garlic bread). To celebrate the successful conclusion of every mystery (for when did Encyclopedia ever fail to catch the culprit?), Encyclopedia and his friends would get together and throw a party, cooking up a feast to match the case. (...)

Encyclopedia Brown Takes the Cake! (taught me) practical things, common-sense things like using potholders, asking grownups for help, turning the handle of a pan away from the edge of the stove so you couldn't knock it over. It taught me words like dice, chop, mince. Above all, I learned to chop an onion, and every time I reach for one now (some twenty years later) I think about Encyclopedia Brown and his friends, and what I learned from them. (...)

A few years later I discovered Gourmet Magazine, and Laurie Colwin, who remains one of my greatest influences. Much later came the gently acerbic guidance of Elizabeth David, and then Jeffrey Steingarten, who made me laugh until I cried, and Anthony Bourdain, and countless others. But it all started with Encyclopedia Brown, and the proper way to chop an onion.

Solving crime, pointing at milk, and making girls swoon.

Jacquelyn Kiszewski @amantedellapa
Laurie Colwin had me at the word, ‘eggplant’. I’m referring to her essay from the book, HOME COOKING: "Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant". What woman, in her Barbie-Sized first apartment hasn’t attempted a small dinner party under less than optimal conditions? But mostly, it was the way she spoke to me about dining solo; an experience most single women have for the first time when they move to the big city. After reading Laurie, I didn’t feel quite so alone…
Gwen Ashley Walters @ChefGwen
I love Alan Richman's voice because he can be biting without being smug. I love his voice because he writes with authority and confidence as a professional eater. He honestly and openly proclaims that he doesn't cook. And he's quick to call chefs on the carpet for not eating the food they are cooking.
Porche Lovely @LC_Denver
I like Jason Sheehan from Denver's Westword.
Marilyn Naron @simmertilldone
Waverley Root. "The Food of France" (& Italy) sweeps what food is made of - land, history, language, people. MFK Fisher elevated everyday, Laurie Colwin deceptively humble everyday. Both speak to heart & mouth.
Ron Zimmerman @Herbguy
Richard Olney, A. J. Liebling, Roy Andries de Groot

A.J. Liebling's appetite was never fully satisfied. Here he is displaying
some non-nutritive pen sucking behavior, likely between meals.

Rebecca Staffel @rstaffel
AJ Liebling, Colette Rossant, Colman Andrews, Barry Estabrook, Ruth Reichl, M. Ruhlman, Bourdain, Colwin, MFK Fisher.
Don @foodiePrints
At the moment, my favourite is Anthony Bourdain...the man is a gifted writer
Marie McKinsey @mylefthip
Ruth Reichl gets my one of my votes for fav food writer
Sarah @jo_jo_ba
I really like Bourdain's stuff so far.
Lisa Kennelly @LisaKennelly
I love Laurie Colwin. She made me laugh, but it's bittersweet too because she passed away so young.

Bourdain squeezes himself reassuringly around the middle to simulate
that time he had a 10 foot tapeworm living in his gut from an ill-advised
snack of tepid skewered unidentifiables on a train to Saigon.

Naomi Bishop @gastrognome
Calvin Trillin and Bourdain- both see the absurdity in everything, yet still embrace finding basic but delish foods.
Michael Eriksson @swedishmike
If it's food writing and not 'recipe writing' it's gotta be Anthony Bourdain and Michael Ruhlman.
Leslie Seaton @FreshPickedSEA
J. Steingarten. C. Trillin is one of my faves, & this article on Shopsin's still stands out as one of my favorite pieces ever.
Larry Liang @DJPegLeg
This may be somewhat cliche but I really love Ruth Reichl and Michael Ruhlman's writing.
Jennifer Heigl @dailyblender
Moehringer's 'The Tender Bar' really spoke to me. But more drinking, less food.
Lorna Yee @lornayee
Steingarten. Find his pseudo self-deprecating writing most entertaining esp. when contrasted w/ know-it-all comments on Iron Chef.
Dana Cree @deensie
I hate to love Jeffery Steingarten. I know, he's pompous and outright sexist at times. But his writing is great.
Hungrygrrl @hungrygrrl

I love how anal Jeffrey Steingarten is, roasting chickens again and again. Definitely can be a snob. Somehow love that too. Love Colwin and Reichl for their warmth, Fisher for her poeticism. (Also) Jay McInerney on wine. Love the image of a mellow paul mcartney-like merlot balancing a tough john lennon cab.

Thank you to everyone who submitted. If you didn't get a chance to, please feel free to continue the conversation in the comments section. I think I speak for everyone when I say how inspiring it is to hear about what we love about great writing and great writers.

And finally...

*a note on the wonderful and wacky world of Twitter...
Say what you will about Twitter. Say that it will surely cause more and more people to shutter themselves indoors to interface with a lifeless computer screen or to bury their heads in their phones while on buses, at dining tables, or (horrors) when their lover isn't looking. Say that it is anti-social on one extreme, or pathetically and unnecessarily self-revealing at the other.

I'm not denying that there is truth within these accusations. Oh hell, there is more than a modicum of truth within these accusations. At the least, Twitter can be a monumental time suck of gigantic proportions. But anti-social? I beg to differ. In the last few months, I've made many new friends on Twitter from Australia, Canada, England, New York, San Francisco, and Portland. I've gone to the houses of two people I met through Twitter, planned a Scrabble game (just this morning), helped someone eat some donuts just out of the fryer (alerted on Twitter), and shared some cocktails with someone that I met through Twitter, someone who gave me excellent advice for when I have to kill those ducks in September.


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