Thursday, January 7, 2010

Love and Imperfection

Christmas was a blessedly quiet event this year. Peter and I gave one another just a few gifts, one of which from Peter to me was Bill Buford's Heat, which he bought for me thinking it was by Bill Bryson (whom I love), and then felt sheepish about giving it to me, only to learn that I had been wanting to read the book. I spent, in fact, two dark and rainy days on the couch inhaling the book (with a few interruptions, like a visit from our youngest granddaughter, on Christmas morning).

Paloma, Christmas 2009 (with her Ebee gifts)

Not sure why I was so interested in the book. It's the tale of Buford (founding editor of Granta and former fiction editor of the New Yorker) going to work in professional kitchens, including Mario Batali's much beloved downtown eatery Babbo (where I sadly have never been; too expensive for us). Which means it's a tale of slave labor, humiliation, inhuman levels of stress, flesh burning, flesh slicing, kitchen rage, and basic insanity. Why anyone would choose to subject themselves to this environment is beyond me. Having experienced restaurant life from the front of the house, as a waitress in and right after college, was enough exposure for me. I will say that I am very impressed how restaurants manage to shield their patrons from the outsize macho culture that exists behind the swinging doors.

In the book, Buford asks Batali what he will learn interning at Babbo, and Batali says: the difference between being a home cook and a professional cook. When you work in a restaurant you have to make each dish exactly the same each night—patrons come back to experience the exact pork shank they had last time, and if they don't get it, they don't come back.

Luckily, we home cooks don't live under such tyranny. There's no such thing (at least in my kitchen) as making the same thing exactly the same way each time. Sometimes the difference makes a dish better. Sometimes not so better. Take my minestrone for example, made with my compost stock. I have to admit it was outstanding. I used the beans we grew in our garden and put up for the winter. They had amazing texture for home frozen vegetables. And the purple cabbage thrown in at the end made for such a beautiful palette.

I made a lot of the minestrone, so I froze the rest, which we just had this past week for dinner. Not so good. The broad beans got sort of mushy and tough at the same time (don't know how I managed that trick). Edible, but they'd never serve it at Babbo.

Then there's latkes—I only make them once a year, for Hanukkah, so I follow a recipe. It's from a guy named David Firestone, featured in Molly O'Neill's New York Cookbook, which has really terrific New York "neighborhood" recipes (I make, for instance Curtis Sliwa's Aunt Marie Stacey's chicken soup, the recipe for which is on page 47 of the book). This year I added some celery root to my latkes, inspired by a recent article in the Times. But mostly I just stuck to the recipe. And, as it turned out, they were pretty darn gorgeous and delicious.

But they could have just as easily been a mess. Latkes are scary things—not enough egg, too much matzoh, not enough oil, left in the pan too long... The list of things that could go wrong is terrifyingly long. Which is why I only do them once a year. (That and the oil they cook in stinks up the house for days.)

When things do go wrong in the kitchen, I have to admit that I get depressed. I'm not as hard on myself as a chef is on his line cooks, thank goodness, but Peter does get exasperated with me when I'm moping after a flopped meal. "So what?" he says. He's right, of course. On a rational level.

But maybe cooking isn't a rational act. Maybe because it's an act of love, and love is never rational. You always want to get it right. Like my Christmas paella for our other grandchildren. Now that was a downright righteous act of love!


  1. Wait, even YOU make flopped meals? You're a great cook! I've been trying my hand the past few years, and this Christmas slaved for more hours than I care to admit making (for the first time) crab cakes from the frozen King Crab legs I painstakingly cracked and picked. My first attempt at frying them was a disaster; everything came apart in the pan like scrambled eggs. Yet the second day, after some time in the fridge, the next batch turned out just fine. The night before, though, I was devastated. Brent tried to console me and convince me it happens to everyone, and it's so nice to hear again from you that yes, it really does! :-)

  2. Threse-y! I loved HEAT. Couldn't put it down. His recipe for making pasta is perfect. I gave Andrew a pasta dough roller-outer for Christmas. It's fantastic and so much easier than rolling out the dough by hand. Of course, the downside of the hand-cranked machine is we will never attain the shoulders of a linebacker...which is where we were headed with the rolling pin. Glad you enjoyed the book. I totally understand your upsets about so-called ruined dishes. I'm sure they were nothing that a little wine couldn't fix.

  3. Yes, Andrew shared that pasta recipe with me, which I made for New Year's Eve for a few (good) friends (since it could have gone very wrong). But it was a hit. Look for an upcoming blog post on the topic!