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At the end of the summer, I was in Manhattan with my son, who was attending fencing camp in midtown. I tooled around town on a Citibike (exhilarating, sometimes terrifying), re-visited a lot of my old food haunts, and hung around in Chinatown quite a bit.
While bopping around Canal Street, I got to re-connect with an old friend, Pearl River Mart. If you lived in Manhattan in the 80′s and 90′s in a boho tax bracket, Pearl River was a life-saver. You could get one-of-a-kind Christmas and birthday gifts for practically nothing,not to mention staples like cotton T-shirts, bamboo everything, and china galore.
If you look carefully at the attached 15-year-old picture, you can see an assortment of paper lanterns from Pearl River – a steal for like $1 at the time.
Just over half a lifetime ago, I started my first real job at an academic publishers’ office in Manhattan. My boss, Liz, was a brilliant editor, and one thing we shared was a love of food. (I expressed mine by spending the non-rent half of my paycheck eating out by myself, as I had not yet learned to cook.) My first Christmas at the Press, Liz gave me a set of wine glasses, which got good use as I grappled with the perspective-wrenching conundrums of race, ethnicity, gender, and class which our authors presented to us daily in manuscript form. Liz, Irish-Italian, 10 years older than I, had wanted to be a Black Panther when she was young. I, American-born Chinese and educated mostly in piano, had wanted to be a cucumber. There was much talk of marginalization, but the fact is we were both pure New Yorkers – just of different sorts.
My second Christmas at the Press, I carefully wrapped a gift too. I gave Liz the new edition of the New York City Zagat dining guide – I knew she’d use it, even if only when taking authors out to lunch. Liz, for her part, handed me a heavy tome wrapped in thick gilt paper. I picked it apart (having been raised to save the paper) to find Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. Liz had enclosed a note. From “my” people, it read, to “yours”. Most of Liz’s utterances arrived with a broad wink at the folly of racial stereotyping, and I spent a good deal of my first years with her laughing at jokes I didn’t quite understand. But, in the end, the laughing was the point.
I took Liz’s gift very seriously. That winter, I started cooking my way through Essentials - and not systematically. It wasn’t like Julie & Julia. I started with the pastas, which were easy. Then I progressed to the fish and meats. I bought a yard-long dowel nearly the width of my wrist to roll my own pasta dough, though I never had much success. I bought the best olive oil I could find, though I couldn’t afford it.
Every evening I came home to my one-bedroom apartment and nibbled on some good olives and a baguette while deciding what recipe to attempt. Then I poured myself a little icy glass of vermouth (another habit picked up from Liz) and set to work. Often, as I wrinkled my forehead over Hazan’s pronouncements (“Do not be alarmed by the amount of garlic this recipe requires.” “No less than 3 hours is necessary, more is better.”), Manhattan’s elegant heure bleue slipped by unnoticed. I would sit down to eat at my shabby table for one after nightfall, drowning my senses in my plate of pasta. Only afterward would I pause to wonder what I had missed – the voices, the sunset, the stilettoed shadows, the music just outside the window.
Like so much in life, my adventures with Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking were a blend of earnestness and failure, yet the effort was suffused with joy. The bargain I made on those evenings – the city’s bustling life, traded like a sack of coins for a solitary education of the senses – may or may not have proven to be the right one in the end.
A decade later, I left publishing, married and moved to the country. Publishing itself contracted into strange new forms, without the high polish and glamor public intellectuals had formerly commanded. Liz? Dead these many years, struck down at the height of her powers by ovarian cancer. And now Marcella Hazan, too, has left these earthly premises.
No one can deny that a single life, by any measure, will always be too short. But how can one even measure the impact of a single act undertaken in that life? Liz, Marcella, and that book left indelible grooves in the record of my twenties. As time carves the sides of the riverbed, so this act – the gift of a book, with a wink and a smile – subtly shaped the course of the life that followed – and I am only one. It boggles the mind to think of the hundreds, the thousands whose stories were shaped in such a way, by such an act.
My point is that to say goodbye to Marcella Hazan is only to mark a waypoint in her life. Each time the ice clinks in the vermouth glass, each time the nutmeg makes a pass over the grater – just once – to lend its virtue to the bolognese, who can say the past is gone forever? For then, I know, my friends are with me once again, in possibly the only way that matters.
I can’t remember exactly where I first saw the magnetic spice tins. It was probably some kind of kitchen or lifestyle website, the kind with the empty countertops, the spotless backsplashes, the shining faucets. All I can tell you is that when I saw them, I just sat there for a while looking at them, jaw slack, mind spinning.
Breaching the spice cabinet of a recipe tester is not for the faint of heart. Over the years mine had evolved into a beetling, pungent jungle of condiments that defied categorization, was housed in a motley assortment of boxes, tins, and jars, and fell out in bits and pieces every time I tried to find something. I had become so ignorant of what I had in there that when I finally made a stab at organizing it a couple years ago, I found I had three containers of asafoetida. I had 16 kinds of salt and 17 kinds of pepper. I had bishops’ weed and fenugreek leaves, cubeb and kalonji. I did my best, going at it with a labelmaker and a box of old glass stopper jars, making separate neighborhoods for seeds, leaves, mixes, and so on. But the whole thing remained, more or less, impenetrable.
But when I first saw magnetic tins, the elegance of the solution left me poleaxed with awe: to be able to see everything, all at once! free of the pedantic requirements of gravity! Nothing hidden behind anything else! This was not home organization – this was Art. I priced it out as a DIY project and determined I’d be better off signing up for discount emails from Pfaltzgraff, the housewares site, and buying them ready-made, on sale. So that’s what I did.
I filled my tins and slapped them on the fridge and then just looked at them for a while – the colors and textures an analog for the brilliant world of smell and taste safely closed within – in a kind of fugue state of bliss. I sort of wanted to leave them unlabeled, but I’m not quite that arrogant. There was, after all, a sporting chance I might swap out ajwain for caraway, or mace for dried lime powder, which would be a recipe-testing misdemeanor at the very least. So I decided to label them on the floor-facing curve of the lid, alphabetically . . . and in Latin.
Now, it would not be entirely untrue to say I have a sort of reflexive aversion to doing things the normal way. But labeling in Latin wasn’t just an attempt to be different, and it wasn’t a matter of pretense either. It’s a simple fact that spice and herb nomenclature is a taxonomist’s nightmare. Some spice cultures named things after the leaves, some after the seed, some after what the thing does to you when you eat it. Every language has at least one name for the same spice, and to privilege one language over any other in a rigorously post-tribal kitchen seemed rife with ethnocentric assumptions.
It seemed simpler to just go straight to the closest thing we have to a lingua franca in all of this – the botanical name of the plant from which the condiment derives. If that means I have to have two Myristica fragrans – one for the nutmeg, one for the mace – fine. I can see the difference, after all. And what’s more, Latin is equally inconvenient for everybody. It’s democratic!
So that’s how my spices look now – arranged on the side of the fridge, 6 feet away from the countertop and stove, alphabetically from Apium graveolens to Zingiber officinale. My birthday’s still a month away (I don’t suppose it’s obvious I’m a Virgo or anything), but I have to say this is about the best present-to-self I’ve ever pulled off.
As to the other problem – won’t my spices have a shorter lifespan from being kept in daylight, exposed to indirect solar radiation? I can only answer: Probably. But after all, even a cookbook reviewer has to make some sacrifices for Art.
Mostly, my work for NPR can be found in the mouthwatering weekly Kitchen Window series. But yesterday, after collaborating with the terrific NPR books team, I released a story for another NPR series I love, ” Three Books”. It’s not my first; I did one some years ago on “stone soup” books – books on cooking with bare-bones ingredients during lean times.
This one is kind of the opposite. They’re “let them eat cake” books that are so frivolous that I’ve always felt actually making something out of them is strictly optional – cakes like Colette Peters’ magnificent trompe l’oeil stack of cushions, pictured at right.
It’s not that lean times have deserted us – far from it. But even in lean times, you still have to feed your imagination, too, don’t you?
Click here to read Feast for the Eyes: 3 Cookbooks Just for Looking, from NPR’s 3 Books series.
It’s 11 days till Mother’s Day, which means you still have time to order and ship a cookbook to give someone special. Need some recommendations? Sure you do! You’ll find them on CookShelf, my new cookbook-rating app. Download it here!
When you’ve got it, click on the upper left corner menu and scroll down to “Mother’s Day gifts!” Voilà! a whole list of charming, whimsical, great-value books that will endear you even more to the person who already loves you best. (for more about Mother’s Day, check out my post on Eat Your Books.)
Somehow, in all the excitement of the “Surprise! Apple’s approved your app!” launch of CookShelf last Friday, I never quite round to doing a formal announcement here on the website.
So… CookShelf, my cookbook-rating app (and the project which took over my life for the last 2.5 months), is now available for iPhone and iPad for a mere piffling $2.99. And Android users? Never fear! CookShelf will be coming to you next week.
Actually, I completely forgot about it, which is my usual Pi Day tradition. I didn’t even have any frozen pie dough left over from previous forays into pie.
Sooo, instead, here is a nice picture of the best rhubarb lattice pie I ever made or ate.
It was my consolation pie, after that time I dropped the incredibly complicated rhubarb-strawberry pie I was recipe-testing on the floor. And God, it was good! It made me almost glad I dropped that other horrid thing, so I could treat myself to one so much better.
Although pixels last forever, there is sadly no way, even virtually, to eat again a pie you have once eaten. I guess I’ll just have to wait till May, when the rhubarb will be here again – tart, memorable, and full of solace.
It’s a slightly different format this year: a one-book report on a selection from the list. I had a terrific time recording this piece at our local NPR affiliate (New England Public Radio) on the campus of U. Mass., and I got to put the phrase “bone-suckingly good” on the radio for possibly the first time ever.
You can hear the commentary and read the original story here.
You can also read my extended post with the complete 2012 cookbook shortlist here.
I’ve been a passionate advocate for paper cookbooks for some years. I love them equally for their beauty and practicality.
At the same time, I’ve been watching as the Internet’s portfolio of recipes has blossomed, and the search functions that allow you to hunt them down have gradually improved. More and more cooks have brought their devices into the kitchen–yet I and many others wondered: how do you cope with the small, single screen? How do you protect a basically fragile, complex machine in a humid, physically stressful environment? And what about all the extra features of a cookbook: the author’s headnotes, the company of other well-curated recipes, the sidebars, the paper pages you can scribble on with your thoughts and additions?
I don’t have a smartphone–our town is surely one of the last redoubts in the country where no cell service is available–so I have only toured iCookbook and other excellent cooking apps on my laptop. But when Key Ingredient, a crowd-sourced recipe database site, contacted me about its Recipe Reader device, which it markets as a “Kindle for the Kitchen,” I thought it was time for me to step up and see if my paper biases were unfounded. I do love a gadget. I use and love a Kindle, too. Let’s give it a try, I thought.
Like the Kindle, the Recipe Reader essentially syncs with just one place on the Internet–the database of recipes hosted by Key Ingredient. So I signed up for the database, uploaded a few of my recipes, downloaded a few others, and set to work.
I was taken, at the start, with the Recipe Reader’s appealing physical properties. It can be canted at a low or high, practical incline for countertop use. It’s durable, and the seamless surface wipes off cleanly when (inevitably) you spill or splash.
At first, it was just plain fun to see my own recipes pop up on the screen, with my own photos and words. I like the way the quantities were automatically bolded and the font sizeable. It was fun playing with the timers and the metric conversion tool and the substitutions glossary.
But as I worked with it, I grew more frustrated. First of all, it was annoying not to see more of the recipe at once. Good cooks look ahead to budget their time, anticipate problems, and see where they can save steps. They look behind to check and make sure they didn’t omit something, and to repeatedly scan the ingredients list. I could scroll up and down, but that’s something not usually necessary with a full-format paper cookbook.
And as much as I liked the timer, conversion, and substitution tools, I didn’t want to have to switch screens to see them. I wanted to be able to convert on the fly, by touching “1/2 cup butter” and seeing it magically change to “8 tablespoons butter” to “1/4 pound” to “113 3/8 gr.” as I wished. I wanted to be able to touch “Great Northern beans” and see “cannellini,” “navy beans,” “gigantes,” and “pinto beans” come up as substitutes, with mutatis mutandis instructions. I wanted to be able to selectively scale up recipes by having some kind of multiplying function right there on the screen.
In short, I wanted magic.
I know there are apps out there that address many of these concerns. And I know that all of this is achievable in a single device. In a way, just using the Recipe Reader (despite its flaws) made me realize that. I’m now open to the idea that an electronic device can have a home, and a happy one, in the kitchen.
The bottom line is this: What’s a recipe, for you? Is it just information–a formula? Or is it a complete learning experience?
The things I love about paper cookbooks remain unchanged and hard to duplicate–the sense of customized, sustained attention, the physical heft and portability, the permanence, the voice. It’s a tangible artifact for a tangible act – the act of cooking. To compete with the accessibility of online recipes, cookbooks have had to step up in quality, usefulness, and longevity. And they have. The best of today’s cookbooks have a thoroughness and perceptiveness not yet achieved by many apps.
What I think I’ll love about digital and online recipes, someday, is the speed and readiness of the information. But there will have to be a lot of information, and it will have to be high-quality, deeply steeped in reference material, and as instantaneous as thought, before I’ll readily set aside the slower pleasures and practicality of paper.
Not really a food post this time, just something that’s been kind of haunting my mind.
Today I found myself thinking of my friend Kevin, who passed away this spring. Kevin was a fellow NPR Kitchen Window contributor, and one of those friends one makes so easily and casually these days thanks to social networking.
Over the course of maybe 3 years’ acquaintance, we had just a handful of exchanges– a few phone and email conversations and a bunch of Facebook interactions. We posted food haikus on each other’s Walls. Mine were mostly absurdist; his, more heartfelt.
I found Kevin interesting, a little funny, always game for some chitchat about a pretty wide range of subjects ranging from food to politics to technology. I thought his haiku was OK, if a little callow. On occasion, I caught a glimpse of a more sensitive nature. If I happened to disclose some waves breaking in my emotional life, I was always surprised that Kevin was so quick to respond and try to shore up my outlook.
Over the phone he seemed strangely grave, and in his written messages to me I sometimes felt he was trying to prove something about his life experience, or maybe his smarts (not that his smarts needed proving). He mentioned his health problems in passing, the way people do, and I thought that the way he mentioned and then minimized them was also just, you know, what people do.
I didn’t hear that he had died until a couple of months after it happened. It was only then I discovered that he had been desperately ill through much of our acquaintance, and though his death was always before his eyes, he never spoke of it to me. I found out what had been stalking him–acute liver disease–only by digging deep into search and finding some posts he had filed on a non-food website.
When I learned he was gone, it was as though I suddenly had to re-interpret everything I knew about him. Things he’d said that maybe seemed overblown in a casual acquaintance suddenly made every kind of sense in an acquaintance whose every day was tinged with the formality of death.
That he had a really profound sense of humor, was essentially modest, was private enough not to share his burden of trouble, and yet was empathetic enough to help others share theirs, were things I only later understood. But now I saw why he seemed to take things so seriously. Why shouldn’t a man facing the end at any moment feel the need to prove the things he’s done right in his life? Why shouldn’t he write earnest haiku? Why shouldn’t he seem grave on the phone? Why wouldn’t he reach out and find the humanity in other people he scarcely knew?
It was like one of those movies where a sudden shift in perspective makes you realize you have to review the whole thing from a new reality baseline.
Alas, a friendship can only be reviewed in memory once death has put an end to it. And Kevin, merely a somewhat like-minded acquaintance when I knew him, has transformed in my memory into someone who might have been a dear friend if I’d gotten to know him better. Yet that would have taken getting-to-know-you time, a kind of time that social media makes you feel you don’t need. On the other hand, I wouldn’t have ever gotten to know him even a little if it weren’t for that very mode of communication.
The only thing I can conclude is that you never really can be sure you know a person, and you might as well give them the benefit of the doubt. Chances are they contain multitudes, and among those multitudes there just might be someone very dear.
Click here to read today’s review of Wild About Greens in the Boston Globe.