Saturday, January 6, 2007

Not a good cook

I dipped into John Thorne's book Outlaw Cook today, and I can see now I'm going to have to reread the whole thing. I'd forgotten he's one of my heroes. I went through a phase a few years ago of reading everything by him I could find. The only trouble with doing that, ripping through an author's oeuvre all in one fell swoop, is that not a whole lot sinks in. There's this, for example, from his essay "On Not Being a Good Cook," which I don't remember reading at all:

...I've learned to cook the way most people do -- or did before there were cooking schools -- by following my appetite and fulfilling my obligations, picking up what I needed to please myself and anyone else I was cooking for. My personal cuisine had obvious limits, but boundaries can challenge even as they restrict... and within the culinary range I had defined for myself, I found much to enthrall me.

[…]

Professional food folk, especially, are confused and sometimes upset by my lack of interest in the sorts of competencies that most interest them. Why do I write about food at all if I’m not an expert in the art of good cooking, not do I want my readers to be? Because I think you don’t have to be a good cook, or even aspire to be one, to be an interested cook.

And this:

[W]hat delights me about cooking is not getting things right but the simple pleasure of getting to know them in the first place. Today, on my daily visit to market, I came across a cabbage -- an ordinary plain green one -- but one so small and round and appetizingly demure that I had to immediately seize it up. Cradling its smooth, firm, compact form in my hand, I began to whisper in its ear the sweet nothings that would coax it into dinner.

My expectations were nothing complicated or demanding. I would simmer it in some rich broth with lots of sweet tender green peas, season it with flecks of freshly ground pepper and bits of tarragon, stir in a handful of rice to thicken it, maybe with a pat of butter to enrich it. A simple meal, but one to look forward to, even to mentally play with as the day wine on, adding something more, removing something else.

For me, this is enough. To pick up some fresh piece of produce or meat and have a dish naturally cohere around it -- to lure my appetite into unfolding itself into a satisfactory scheme -- all this is what my cooking tries to be about.

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