Reviews | October 13, 2015
Cooking Books for More Than Cooks
The Taste of Country Cooking by Edna Lewis. Knopf, 2006, 304 pp., $24.95.
Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbons. Alan C. Hood & Co., 2005, 303 pp., $17.50 (paper).
Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain. Ecco, 2007, 312 pp., $15.99 (paper).
Blues by John Hersey. Vintage, 1988, 228 pp., $15 (paper).
In the age of the Internet, the cookbook—once and perhaps still the most likely genre to have a place in every home on a street—faces an uncertain future. With apps able to create a meal from a list of ingredients, hashtag-friendly recipe blogs like Thug Kitchen, and sites featuring every recipe from the last ten years of the Food Network, the threat of becoming mere conversation starters, status symbols, interior decoration or nostalgia incarnate hovers over every kitchen bookshelf. But cookbooks are still being printed. They might be more food photos than recipes or more celebrity chef than food, but whatever the angle, the need to offer something that makes cookbooks more than just anthologies of recipes is shaping the cookbook industry. Authors and publishers are finding some interesting ways to meet this challenge, and many are consciously leaning into the genre of creative nonfiction to do so. An excellent example is Eddie Huang’s 2013 memoir Fresh off the Boat—which has also now become a family sitcom that Huang is frequently publicly displeased with. The book is far more about Huang’s growing up Taiwanese-Chinese in America than about his cooking, but most readers who knew him prior to its publication knew him from his acclaimed restaurant Baohaus or his appearances as a guest judge on Top Chef. It is still a book with food at its heart, but in Fresh off the Boat, food is more cultural and historical symbol than subject.
Really, though, the challenge of offering something more than a home cook’s box of 3×5 recipe cards is nothing new. The difference is that now the recipes are as likely to be a binder of pages printed from the Internet for quick, splatter-friendly reference if there is no safe space for the laptop. Those recipe cards and printed pages are worthy of discussion as significant cultural symbols and literary works in their own right, but they are not the purview of this review, not really. I am interested in the cooking books—the special subset of cookbooks that supplement the cook’s recipe trove by being explicitly as much about the culture, the style, the methods, the ingredients as about the recipe or the finished meal. This is a class of books as likely to be read in bed or in the living room as in the kitchen, yet most will have a few pages stained by spitting fat or water-spotted from being held open by quickly rinsed hands. They constitute a literature of both cooking and eating. Some of the authors and books here might be familiar, and some are far more cookbook than creative nonfiction cooking book, but they are all interested in the connections between cooking and culture, cooking and memory, and cooking and identity.
In selecting cooking books for this essay, I avoided some of the most archetypal in the hope that one or more of the books discussed here might be welcomed as new additions to the kitchen shelves of readers and cooks. There will, for example, be no mention beyond this of The Joy of Cooking, though it is probably the most ominpresent of this subgenre in kitchens across America. This book is to cooking literature what the Iliad or the Odyssey is to Western literature—an epic poem in linked recipes. Nearly everyone is familiar with its contents, though far fewer have read it from cover to cover. And at eight editions and counting, The Joy of Cooking doesn’t need me to champion it.
Edna Lewis’s foundational text of Southern cooking—The Taste of Country Cooking is a good place to start, as it is the closest thing I will discuss to a standard cookbook. The balance is recipes, but in many ways they are overshadowed by the setting and narrative Lewis draws around these recipes. The setting is Freetown, Virginia—a farming community founded by freed slaves. Using the four seasons as a framework, the book aims not to provide a primer for any specific cuisine, despite being known for exactly that, but to track Lewis’s memories of the meals eaten, food grown, and cooking techniques employed, through the four seasons, by the people she grew up with.
With each transition between seasons, Lewis, prior to setting down any specific recipes, provides lyrical essays that highlight the remembered sounds, smells, tastes and activities of each season. In spring it was the taste of wild spring greens, the feel of a newly plowed furrow under bare feet, and the sound of a killdeer guarding its nest. So many of these sense memories are connected, unsurprisingly in this farming community, to the activities of growing and gathering food and the subsequent tastes, smells and sounds of preparing it.
Lewis’s organization by memory continues within the seasons, where the recipes are arranged in meals, some everyday, some for special occasions. There are “Prepared-Ahead Summer Dinners” for hot days when meals needed to be made with as little time spent in the kitchen as possible, a festive “Emancipation Day Dinner” featuring as centerpiece a “Guinea Fowl in Casserole” of West African origins, and warming “Fall Breakfasts” that were often centered on the bounty brought in by hunting-season visitors. Accompanying each of these menus is another short essay on the particular occasion, typical practices of the season, or Lewis’s own memories concerning a dish she deemed particularly important, difficult to make or symbolic. For example, in one of these preambles, she describes the all-important role of coffee in the adults’ breakfasts and the allure it held for the children:
The decision about coffee was clear and definite and a cook’s ability to
make good coffee was one of her highest accomplishments. Mother made
real good coffee but some mornings my father would saddle the horse and
ride more than a mile up the road to have his second cup with his cousin
Sally, who made the best coffee ever.
This is followed by an explanation of how coffee was made at the time, as well as adjustments for the more modern setting from which she is writing, allowing for innovation such as drip coffee but acknowledging their shortcomings. The obscurity of some of the ingredients she discusses as well as the labor-intensive nature of many of the preparations—which often include the planting, cultivation, harvest, and seed-saving along with the stovetop techniques—at times make this read a bit like Harry Mathews’s satiric send-up of food and travel writing “Country Cooking from Central France,” where fanciful equipment such as stone marinating troughs are necessary. But Lewis gives reasons that justify the effort and precision required, sometimes cultural, sometimes practical, sometimes culinary.
A Taste of Country Cooking takes culture and history—things already present in the tools, cookbooks, and recipes of the home kitchen—and illuminates them through this seasonal narrative. In this way Lewis is preserving the culture of Freetown in the same way that a particularly flavorful mother of vinegar might be passed on as a family heirloom to be stored in a crock in a pantry so some future pickle or kimchi or borscht might have the same sharp taste it still has in memory.
No cooking book has been more influential for me than Euell Gibbons’s Stalking the Wild Asparagus. Gibbons is probably mostly remembered for some silly 1970s Grape Nuts ads, but he is important as a foundational figure in the rise of the environmentalist movement that began with Stalking the Wild Asparagus. This book is many things. It is part field guide to edible wild foods, part memoir, part philosophical exploration of our relationship with food and part cookbook. These facets are neatly folded together so that when Gibbons reveals a formative experience that led him to his passion for wild food—the discovery of wild asparagus—it serves not only to explain his passion for foraging, but also to reflect on the cultural and even spiritual importance of finding this early spring staple and source of nutrients at a time when he’d eaten nothing with that bright green flavor for months. He also uses this as an opportunity to reflect on the value of close attention in this sort of foraging, describing with good humor how he sat down beside a bush of wild asparagus and stared at it for a long while to ensure he’d be able to find it again; this led to him having so much success that his family grew sick of wild asparagus and began to give most of it away.
One of my favorite things about this book is that it is in no way interested in being a survival guide. This despite the fact that a teen-aged Gibbons kept his starving family alive in central New Mexico during the Dust Bowl era by his foraging of wild foods, as John McPhee describes in his remembrance of the author that opens my edition. Despite his own use of wild edibles to survive, he includes only ingredients and recipes that he thinks are fairly easy to find and that taste good, prepared properly. In his opening “…Thoughts on Wild Foods” he explains the value of feeling “more than a mere mechanical part” in the industrialized food system and of incorporating the gathering of wild foods with the increasing American interest in camping, hiking and other outdoor activities. He acknowledges other benefits to foraging—a potentially smaller dose of chemicals, which contemporary organic eaters would appreciate, for example—but keeps coming back to the idea that foraging is enjoyable. He argues, “I know of no other outdoor sport which can furnish me with as much pleasure as foraging wild food which can be made into exquisite dishes to share with family and friends.” Because this enjoyment is his primary goal, the content follows suit, bringing humor and intimacy to his insights into botany, woodcraft and cooking.
The book is organized species by species, and Gibbons takes time to discuss each at length. This is how Gibbons recommends a cook of wild edibles dive into the field: one species at a time. An excellent example of how difficult this can be is the chapter “Beating the Pigs to the Pigweeds.” This term pigweed, he explains, is applied variously to dozens of wildly different species. To avoid confusion, he provides a simple drawing of the pigweed he refers to and emphasizes its Latin Name Chenopodium album. I knew this first as lamb’s-quarter from another guide to wild edibles, but thanks to the detailed description Gibbons’ provides, I’ve confidently gathered it, noted the water-resistant leaves with their white undersides and added it to pots of cooked greens without hesitation.
Something crucial that Gibbons addresses in this book, that I have rarely seen confronted in other cooking books, is the concept of food prejudice. Food prejudice, he explains in the chapter “How About the Meat Course” is not the same as distaste. He instead connects it to other “unreasonable and illogical prejudices” regarding race and class. The chapter contains preparations for muskrat, snapping turtle, opossum and other meats that many would reject out of hand, but he argues that this rejection is a cultural one, and in many cases has the negative impact of taking off the table what might be a sustainable, tasty food source. However, he acknowledges the difficulty in breaking such deep-seated prejudices, referencing an experience when he and a friend chose to eat a bobcat after a long drought of fresh meat in camp and he agreed with his friend’s assessment that while “the bob part of the meat sure is good . . . I’m having trouble swallowing the cat.”
The final two books discussed here are even further from the standard cookbook as we know it. The first is probably the better known of the two. When Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly was published in 2000, the American culinary landscape was very different from what it is today. The idea of a foodie was new, and the ranks of celebrity chefs were relatively small. And, importantly, author Anthony Bourdain was miles away from being the highly recognizable travel and cooking icon he is now. As a result, this memoir is about becoming and being a cook, not about becoming and being Anthony Bourdain, television personality. This is important because it means, for example, that when Bourdain, turns to the early food memories that are a feature of all these texts, he is attempting to understand why so many disaffected, unpleasant, even dangerous people are drawn to life in restaurant kitchens.
Primed by experiencing vichyssoise (“It was cold” explains Bourdain) on the cruise across the Atlantic for his family’s European vacation, and then made furious by being left in the car while his parents enjoyed a five-star French dinner, Bourdain had his true awakening when he ate a raw oyster immediately upon it being raked up and offered challengingly by a oysterman living near their French vacation home. The author exudes pride in his younger self who faced that “glistening, vaguely sexual-looking object, still dripping and nearly alive” and slurped it down. “I’d not only survived—I’d enjoyed,” he writes… “Food had power.” For Bourdain, this combination of enjoyment and power encapsulates the appeal of the cook’s life.
From this point, the book tracks Bourdain’s rises and falls in the culinary world, with important interludes that reflect on the culture of the kitchen. It is in these interludes that the book really sings. When it was published, the reviews focused on the warnings Bourdain gives, such as his advice to avoid Sunday brunch (a meal of leftovers cooked by the kitchen’s B-Squad) and fish on Sunday and Monday (leftovers after the weekend rush and before the Tuesday fish order). But these warnings—not ordering well-done steak is another—are a small and really inconsequential part of the book. What Kitchen Confidential does that other cooking books don’t is reveal something about a culture that is rarely understood by those outside the restaurant industry and even, I would argue, by many who have worked in it, but front-of-house.
A great example of this restaurant lore Bourdain engages in is the chapter “The Level of Discourse.” Vulgar, chauvinistic, violent: the cook’s dialect in this chapter is representative of something that I have only ever experienced working the line in a restaurant. There are nuances that differ from kitchen to kitchen. One where I worked as a lowly prep cook and runner was staffed equally by Jamaicans and Dominicans and so had its own creole, but there are commonalities. One is the use of a cursing shorthand where inflection is crucial to meaning. As Bourdain explains, “The rules can be confusing . . . The word ‘fuck’ is used principally as a comma. ‘Suck my dick’ means ‘hang on a second’ or ‘Could you please wait a moment?’”
Equally true to my experience is his revelation that referring to someone as “pal” (or “buddy” or “cap” in our kitchen) is the worst sort of insult and “means “asshole” in the worst and most sincere sense of that word.” But what does this insider glimpse of a certain kind of restaurant kitchen matter more broadly? In the afterword to newer editions, Bourdain talks about how many cooks—from those working the fryer to those who run James Beard Award restaurants—have spoken to him about sharing his experiences of the restaurant kitchen. That’s an accomplishment, but I don’t keep this book in my kitchen to remind me of my time working a line. In fact, for me it serves an opposite and dual purpose.
This is best exemplified by the chapter “A Day in the Life,” in which Bourdain tracks in exhaustive detail the daily life of a head chef at a working restaurant. The pace is frenetic throughout, with isolated moments of false calm; he disabuses the reader of the notion that there’s ever any true relaxation. He works from the second he arrives in that quiet space inhabited only by the night porter, through prep, lunch and dinner service, and ends in a bar where he goes to avoid lying in bed “grinding [his] teeth and smoking” while all the troubles of his vocation run through his head. Though I haven’t lived this particular experience, this chapter reminds me of things in my home kitchen like the economy of movement necessary in a correctly working kitchen or the value of thorough prep and planning. But really it reminds me to value the fact that I have time to work slowly, to make substitutions for the hell of it, to choose my own music. This book, an ode to the working restaurant kitchen, reminds me how glad I am to be cooking outside that space.
Blues by John Hersey is another book by an author who is remembered more for writing about subjects other than food—most famously his book-length essay Hiroshima about the effect on six people who were living in Hiroshima at the time the atomic bomb was dropped. Originally published as nearly the entirety of an issue of the New Yorker in 1946, the essay was an early work of the New Journalism that borrowed techniques of fiction to produce nonfiction narratives. I’d find it difficult to recommend any other of Hersey’s works over Hiroshima, but Blues is a valuable book as well, in particular in the context of the kitchen.
Very difficult to classify, Blues is in essence a novel composed of Platonic conversations between a fisherman and a stranger as they fish for bluefish over one long summer season off Martha’s Vineyard. In many ways it is a memoir of Hersey’s own intimacy with this place and this variety of fish. It takes many of the broader concepts emphasized in Gibbons’s and Lewis’s books and grounds them in a single ingredient—bluefish. This fish, so often maligned by cooks for its oilness and cursed by fishermen who have difficulty getting lures past a school of blues and to waiting striped bass or some other game fish, is an interesting and intentional choice by Hersey. It is a fish that is little understood and certainly highly varied. In a family all their own—Pomatomidae—bluefish are targeted by fishermen at sizes ranging from around seven-inch snappers to fish weighing as much as forty pounds. They have, in various locales been overfished, protected or ignored. For a time their oily, apex-predator flesh was laden with mercury, though that now seems to be turning around. They are violent and cannibalistic and beautifully evolved to fit their environment, with large, alert eyes and teeth I have been on the wrong end of more than once. Hersey grants their every trait his full attention in this work.
Blues is a narrative detailing the education of the stranger on all things bluefish: their life-cycle, their personality, their connections to the ocean around them, not to mention the best ways to cook them. Implied is the idea that a lifetime can be spent with this fish before a fisherman truly knows it and can treat it properly. The understanding that comes from this intense level of engagement fits with the environmentalist thinking behind much of the locavore trend in American food culture. As the Fisherman states near the novel’s end, after reflecting on how he is drawn to the fish by the process of fishing, cooking, and eating it, “I can joke about a fisherman getting fishy, but I don’t like it. I am in awe of the bluefish, but I don’t want to become an animated chopping machine . . . There are wonders and horrors out here, and sometimes it’s hard to say which is which; food chains are serenely fitting and gruesomely cruel. . . .” The Stranger connects this idea to his initial horror upon viewing the predatory, searching eye of a bluefish (the aforementioned alert eye). This is the eye that lets bluefish, as many fisherman attest, direct its thrashes and bites at any unwary fisherman, despite being already landed. The novel is open about the complexities of cooking and eating living, breathing animals and entering that food chain. And through the articulation of the complexities that Blues dwells upon, Hersey provides an argument for this level of deep intimacy in our cooking and eating.
Though these four texts offer an alternative to the 3×5 notecard, in most of the books, recipes—fit to be copied into those cards—are as important to what the authors are seeking to say about food as the narrative portions that have been my focus thus far. These recipes, the staple of the kitchen-texts, convey through specific language and order all the intimacy, attention, and passion inherent in the authors’ musings. Euell Gibbons provides this brief recipe for one of the many preparations of Poke (or Poke Weed or Poke Salad):
Poke is best when very young, so grab the tender sprouts while they are
still small. Wash and trim, leaving the unrolled clustered leaves at the top.
Boil for 10 minutes in plenty of water, then throw this first water away.
Return the drained sprouts to the kettle, add a very little water, some salt,
and quite a lot of butter, margarine, or bacon drippings. Simmer slowly for
half an hour so the seasoning can permeate the vegetable through and
There is so much to this little prose-poem. Even without the broader context of Gibbons’s chapter on this plant, a reader can glean information about poke as food from this recipe. The discarded first water suggests either bitterness or some other property that would render poke unpalatable raw. Similarly, the half-hour plus simmering with seasonings suggests the importance of adding to the flavors of the poke itself. The term “kettle” and even the reference to seemingly at-hand bacon drippings suggests a specific point in culinary history. Even the lack of measurements conveys a sense of ‘cook whatever you can find’ that fits with Gibbons’s foraging.
In some of Edna Lewis’s recipes, the author herself seems to realize how historical and inaccessible certain dishes are likely to be to modern readers, but she insists upon their value all the same. One example is a recipe that comes late in The Taste of Country Cooking. Lewis has been sprinkling a sort of trail of breadcrumbs to this recipe throughout the text; it’s for crackling bread. The reader understands from this trail that to make her crackling bread is the final payoff of much greater effort. The cracklings cooked into the bread are the byproduct of rendering pork fat—a useful ingredient in so many of the previous recipes. In Freetown, it is provided by the butchering of their hogs—an event that inspires one of the menus laid out earlier in the book. So while the directions are simple—“Sift together meal, salt, soda, and baking powder into a mixing bowl. Sprinkle the cracklings over the meal mixture and stir well. . . .”—they come with the understanding that unless a hog is being killed and processed correctly, finding the crucial ingredient is liable to require special requests of supermarket butchers.
In Kitchen Confidential, recipes are never reproduced in full. Bourdain explains how some dishes are assembled and imagined, but in lieu of recipes, we mainly get that insider information about the restaurant trade mentioned earlier. One of the best examples is the list of tools and tricks that come in the chapter “How to Cook Like the Pros.” Many of these are useful suggestions for producing good food such as Bourdain’s recommendation against knife sets and for a few solid workhorse knives—a single “decent chef’s knife” is really the only requirement. The short list of tools and prepped ingredients (shallots, roasted garlic, chiffonade of parsley . . . ) emphasizes the things that must be resupplied in the calm between the twin storms of lunch and dinner service, the mise-en-place that Bourdain makes very clear is an extension of the cooks. “Do not fuck with a line cook’s ‘meez’” he warns, quite seriously, in an earlier chapter. In place of recipes—really not the purview of a restaurant cook anyway—Bourdain gives these suggestions about tools of the trade that reflect a cook’s mind and spirit and serve as an objective correlative to this trade Bourdain is exploring in his book.
In Blues, the recipes are folded into the closing of each conversation between fisherman and stranger, with fish and fishing poems following as a sort of end-note. The result is a suggestion that all the understanding and appreciation arising from the conversations slips easily into the preparation of the bluefish. The fisherman narrates his cooking, often explaining why he has selected a particular preparation for a particular size fish or time of the season. In one recipe, the closest to my own favored treatment of summer Bluefish, he describes making mayonnaise in the blender, while admitting he’d be using store-bought if he didn’t have company; he adds chives sautéed in butter, coats the filets with the mixture and broils them for around 10 minutes. Of all the ways to cook blues, he notes, this is his wife’s favorite. This simple explanation for his choice of recipe speaks to me.
There are many reasons to read these books besides the recipes, but what makes them such welcome additions to my kitchen shelf is that they offer advice that can be turned to serving good food, prepared with skill and a new level of intimate knowledge, for the enjoyment of others.
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