Sunday, March 11, 2007

My New Favorite Cookbook

So the other day amongst other errands, I had to go by the Borders Bookstore. Jes had a couple of gift cards to this establishment, that were, I suspected, so old that they would no longer be valid. Gift cards and certificates are a great profit generator for many businesses, if they are allowed to expire, well then the store has made pure profit. If they are used as intended, then the store has gotten some extra foot traffic, and often the customer will spend more than is on the card, generating more income.
Happily, these cards which might have been as much as four years old, were still valid. My mission: use them up. Jes had some requests, which I filled, and found a couple other titles I thought we might both enjoy. Knowing there was still some credit left, I decided to check out the cookbooks. I was hoping to find a copy of Alton Brown's first book, which my Grandma had given my Mom a couple of years back.
Now, unlike my mother, I don't have much use for cookbooks. For a long time, I have been satisfied with the Joy of Cooking and an internet connection. When I'm trying something new out in the kitchen, I usually Google it. After looking over three or four divergent versions of the same recipe, and comparing them against my experience, goals, and preconceptions, I usually have good concept of the basic patterns behind the dish. A good enough idea to experiment from. And if the first attempt is not a total success, rubbing it up against the general concepts of cooking I've gleaned from the past, and Jes's refined palette, gives me a good idea of how to improve it the next time.
Which is why I was looking for Alton's I'm just here for the food. I appreciate how he goes into the science of how certain techniques work, and how they apply to peculiarities of particular ingredients. To use a musical analogy: it is less like a collection of scores, than a jazz instruction guide, giving you some basic riffs to build on, to improvise with.
Now with all that being said, Borders didn't have Alton's first book, though they had his second and third, which would make great presents for my foodie mother, but which I really wouldn't be able to put to much use at this point in time. But there is another cook out there, who having been introduced to on Food Network, I am quite fond of.
By way of explaining my personal aesthic to other creative friends, I use to say that I wanted to be the love child of Captain Kangaroo and William S. Burroughs. I want to synthesize a certain sense of whimsy, with a darker, edgier side. In the culinary arts, Alton Brown represents the geeky, playful side of that equation. The edgier, more punk side is best represented by Anthony Bourdain. And fortunately for me, Borders had his Les Halles Cookbook in stock.
Now, I've never really had any aspirations to master French cuisine. I always viewed it as hoity-toity and pretentious. My predilictions have always been towards simple, basic peasant fare, with perhaps a little something extra added, but built on a solid working class foundation. Of course, the more I have managed the kitchen in our household, the more this working class frugality has led me to do things like save every bone that comes off a plate. I'm using more and more stock in my cooking, and it seems ridiculous to pay the exorbitant prices grocery stores ask for what tastes like sea water with a hint of meat flavor.
And the more I learn about basic French cuisine, the more it seems that not only is it the basis of much of Western cooking, but also that it too is firmly rooted in this peasant aesthetic of wringing every last bit of nutrition and flavor out of the things that find there way into the kitchen. And having seen and totally enjoyed a handful of episodes of A Cook's Tour, and read a couple of online interviews with Bourdain, I respected his opinion. Plus, just flipping through the book at random, I landed on the recipe for steak tartare, which Jes, who prefers just about everything raw, has expressed quite a bit of interest in.
So I added the book to the stack of historical fiction for Jes.
I can not express how happy I was to dig into this book, and soak in Bourdain's caustic no-bullshit wit. Nor how happy I was to read this paragraph in his long, ranting introduction:

The kind of French cooking we're talking about here, the most beloved, old-school, typical, and representative cooking, the wellspring of all that came after, did not originate from cooks with a lot of money to throw around. Most of these preparations and recipes evolved from shrewd, enterprising, hard-pressed, dirt-poor people who, like all great cooks, in all great national cuisines, were simply making the best of what they had. Which, in many cases, was sweet fuck-all.
We have always looked to France as the greatest of chef-driven (as opposed to ingredient driven) cuisines because France had no other choice but to cook well. For much of its history, French cooks had to be good. Or they'd starve, or go broke. For the most part, good cooks were hungry, they were downtrodden, they had - until the revolution- to continue to please cruel, oppressive, and capricious masters. Every scrap, every root, every snail,, every crust of bread was potential money or sustenance.

As you can tell from this excerpt, this book is not for the faint of heart. Anthony is crass and cultured, speaking with a voice both vulgar and educated. I have spent a little time as a dishwasher and prep-cook, and can tell you this is the dictatorial voice of a head chef, a tempermental artist who is also a general who will accept nothing but speedy obedience from his minions. And when he gets it, the results can be genius.
So this isn't a book for everyone. At the same time, I have to say, I haven't laughed as hard as I laughed reading the initial chapters of this book, in I don't know how long. In the chapter extolling the virutes of having and maintaining a quality knife, after recommending mastering proper knife sharpening technique, he offers this alternative:

For the timorous and feebleminded among you - and for any for any howler monkeys in the tertiary stages of syphilis who might be reading this - some manufacturers now sell a clever little device that clips to the back of the blade and rolls your knife at exactly the right angle on the sharpening stone - thus obviating the skill almost entirely.

A yep. Not a cookbook for everybody. I, however have been ROTFLMAO.
Also, not a book for vegetarians. This is old school French Bistro, or Brasserie cooking, which means MEAT. But since I have a metabolism which causes me to start to consume myself from the inside out if not constantly stoked with heavy protein rich fatty foods, and my beloved is allergic to beans, eggs, and soy, this is perfect for our household. And since these are basically recipes with roots going back at least a few centuries, with these final forms going back to the cafe/bistro culture of the era of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, it is also recomended reading for those happy few, who like myself, are interested in creating a Steampunk culinary culture.


Anonymous said...

Okay, now I'm hooked and I'm gonna have to buy this book. You are an evil dragon, to force your mother to feed both her foodie and book addictions.


Honky-Tonk Dragon said...

((( Cackles fiendishly )))

sky said...

bourdain kicks ass.