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Saturday, March 12, 2011

A Little Night Reading, A published essay written by Helen Schulman

A Little Night Reading, A published essay  written by Helen Schulman

On a sleepless night at three o’clock in the morning, life can be hard and complicated, the good will of friends and family easily exhausted, novels too long, poetry too dense, television too loud and vulgar. When my demons take hold, what I need most is to escape myself.  And the lease self-destructive way I know is to read cookbooks, alone, at the kitchen table, with an open jar of peanut butter and a spoon. While I’ve always loved eating – who doesn’t? – I’m not much of a cook.  I like to read about food, not make it. Thackeray said, “Next to eating good dinners, a healthy man with a benevolent turn of mind, must like, I think, to read about them.” I’m with him. Cookbooks, I believe, are one of the least sung, most satisfying forms of belles letters.

Like novels, cookbooks can take us places we’ve never been- say, the sultry rice paddies of Southeast Asia, as in The Rice Book by Sri Oven St. Martin’s Press). With this kind of foray, we can explore difference ways of life, just as we might expand ourselves through reading someone else's adventures in a story.
As a child, I would lose myself in my mother’s The New York Times Cook Book (now published by HarperCollins) the way other girls might lose themselves in pulpy romances. I would conjure up images of cocktail parties in opulent apartments, with a lovely array of hors d’oeuvres. Beignets au fromage, pâte beau séjour  – I’d roll the sumptuous words over and over in my head even though I knew no French. I had never tasted these hors d’oeuvres (whenever my parents had friends over for drinks, my mother served chopped liver and eggplant relish on mini- matzos) but I could imagine them, full of cheese and cream and spread prettily out on a tray. I read every page of the Times cookbook while sitting on the humming washing machine in our kitchen, and I wasn’t squeamish about any of it.  Craig Claiborne’s recipe for headcheese – “Have the butcher clean the head removing the snout and reserving the tongue and brains” – only served to arouse my curiosity: What happened to the eyes? I decided back then that as soon as I had my own kitchen, my own money, my own life, I would have a dessert party and serve œufs a la neige, or floating island, a name that conjured up images of sweet clouds of white foam – although to this day it is a dish I have never tasted.
In Joy of Cooking (Scribner) Irma S., Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker present an easy guide to graciousness. But the language has a quirky, stilted elegance.  It is proper by oddly bawdy, the voice of you mythic maiden aunt once she’s gotten into the cooking sherry. In “About Plugged Fruit” Rombauer writes, “We had no luck when, much younger, we plugged a water melon and cautiously tried to impregnate it with rum.” When I read this my mind turns to the picnic at which the watermelon was served - - the beach, the flirting teenagers, the bonfire afterward where those same kids, now slightly drunk, spit black seeds at one another. I don’t know where I get these images – my own teenage beach was in the Bronx where the only impregnation happened in the backseats of Corvettes in the parking lot – but the recipe conjures up a wonderful nostalgia for an experience I’ve never had.

The pleasures of cookbooks are richer than mere vicarious thrills.  By nature, these collections are instructive, and there always comes a time in life when it’s nice to have someone else tell you what to do.  Cookbook authors want you to eat well and happily, they want you to succeed. And they are not afraid to take you by the hand.  This is not to say that they frown on exploration, but if you’re in the mood to seek firm parental guidance, you can easily find it.  Maida Heatter, in her Book of Great Desserts (Random House) , writes, “(I)n order for these recipes to work for you as they do for me, it is of the utmost importance that you follow every direction exactly.  --- In some recipes, such as Benne Seed Wafers, you would encounter disaster without the foil. With it, if you are like me, you will squeal with joy at the ease, fun and satisfying excitement of peeling the foil from the smooth, shiny backs of the cookies.” What’s especially appealing about this paragraph is the infectious certainty of her prescriptions for success.  The person who follows her lead will surely find happiness through an act as simple as baking up a batch.
There is something about the soulful prose of chefs in the trenches that adds meaning to the ordinary. Marcella Hazan, in an argument against the microwave in her Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking (Knopf), writes, “I believe with my whole heart in the act of cooking, in its smells, in its sounds, in its observable progress on the fire.  The microwave cut(s) off the emotional and physical pleasure deeply rooted in the act, and not even with its swiftest and neatest performance can the push-button wizardry of the device compensate for such a loss.” It’s almost as if Hazan is advising us on how to live, highlighting what we sacrifice when we embrace ease over quality.
 There is an integrity with which cookbook authors approach both he table and the page that is admirable. They thrive on the execution of small details and do not shirk from long and tiring work. I may never make puff pastry, but I will always delight in the step-by-step laid out in Julia Child and Simone Beck’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume Two (Knopf). The process, as outlined in this magnificent book, takes six or seven hours.  The authors write, “(W)hen you have mastered puff pastry you will find it such a satisfying and splendid accomplishment you will bless yourself for every moment you spent learning its techniques.” What a celebration to the work ethic
The same could be said for the ‘strattu (tomato extract) recipe in Mary Taylor Simeti’s Pomp and Sustenance (originally published by Knopf, now out of print), a book of traditional Sicilian recipes.  “Spread the puree on a wooden tabletop in the sun,” writes Simeti.  “Don a large straw hat, equip yourself with a good book in one hand and a sturdy spatula in the other, and start stirring … continuously for two days, so that the sun can evaporate the water content.” What a wonderful image – the hat, the hours to while away under a hot sun, the refuge of a book – and still the satisfaction of a good deed done.  Perhaps we should all hightail it to Sicily to make ‘strattu.  But even with Italian soil underfoot, it’s hard to imagine summoning the dedication. Two days? There’s no reason why ‘strattu can’t be made on a New York City fire escape. Why haven’t I tried it?

Diving into most cookbooks means retreating from cynicism and irony, escaping from the uncertainty that permeates much of modern life. And where else in this day and age can one find such passionate and sincere prose? At three o’clock In the morning, I don’t have the wit, fortitude or sheer brainpower to attack a dense novel like Infinite Jest.  Instead, on a sleepless, lonely night, I’ll salve my soul by vicariously constructing a croquembouche.

Helen Schulman is a novelist living in Manhattan.

Published in Food & Wine magazine, December, 1996