Childhood is one astounding new fact after another; a hurricane of surprises, delights, and alarms. A great deal of adulthood is trying to recapture that incessant novelty and the richness of experience it imparts.
Among the many surprises of human existence, one that most impressed itself on me came when I was four or five: the realization that you could talk about people you had never met in person! Humanity was not restricted to your immediate circle. You could be casual and matter-of-fact about these unknown personages, referring to them only by their last names. Heck, they could even be dead!
This revelation came to me as I studied the back cover of my very first cookbook, Many Hands Cooking: An International Cookbook for Girls and Boys, published by UNICEF. The authors, smiling young women in their back cover photograph, were Terry Touff Cooper and Marilyn Ratner. The illustrator was Tony Chen. I read their brief bios many times over and thought to myself, “All right, well, if Terry Touff Cooper and Marilyn Ratner come in conversation, I’ll be ready!”
To date, neither Terry Touff Cooper nor Marilyn Ratner has ever come up in conversation. But by golly, if you’re game, I’m still ready!
However, the wonder of speaking knowledgeably about strangers was only half the charm. Many Hands Cooking was my first introduction to the wide world. It features recipes from every continent (yes, yes, barring Antarctica) and from countries whose names did not generally come up in conversation any more often than the authors—Paraguay, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), Uganda, Finland, Sri Lanka, Indonesia—as well as the more familiar such as Puerto Rico, England, France, Russia, India, and Japan. Each recipe filled one page in the horizontal, spiral-bound volume, lavishly illustrated with beautiful people in traditional costume, licking fingers or gathering ingredients. The little German boy in Lederhosen’s face was covered with the batter from Chocolate Torte, and the Swedish kid in horned Viking hat was feeding a Meatball to the figurehead on the prow of his ship. A Turkish soldier shows off the origin of shish-kebab with at stack of meat and vegetables on his sword, while the Cameroonian fisherman examines prawns in his net. The world, evidently, was going to be a colorful and delicious place.
Childhood’s wonder is matched by its limitations, so I didn’t manage to test out many of the recipes. My parents noted, with due displeasure, the assignment of “Liptoi Cheese” to Hungary, since it really ought to be Liptovský syr, a Slovak dish named for the mountainous Liptov region. (In all fairness, since what we now call Slovakia belonged to the Kingdom of Hungary for most of its history, this isn’t as much as an outrage against decency as we thought.) I tried Haiti’s plat national of red beans and rice, and was totally wowed by Zaire’s chicken stew with tomatoes. France’s croque monsieur became a favorite upgrade of pedestrian grilled cheese.
However, the great thing about adulthood and especially parenthood is that you get to inflict on your kid all the things you wish you’d gotten to do yourself. In an early campaign to get my son kitchen-savvy, I had us cook together every single recipe in the book—easing the burden of parental expectation a bit by allowing him to choose what order we’d do them in. The most exotic was certainly Canada’s Maple Snow, which we actually prepared in Switzerland while visiting friends high enough up that their snow was safely pristine for consumption. Banana Pudding from Barbados, Breakfast Cocoa from Venezuela, and Guava Toast from Brazil were all big hits with the youngster, for the very simple reason that they were sweet, but we also devoured Baked Atlantic Fish from Iceland, Padstools from Belgium (a fun one involving halved tomatoes upended over hard-boiled eggs to resemble the adorable but deadly amanita muscaria mushroom), and Egg Flower Soup from China. All in all, cooking our way through the book was a happy fulfillment of childhood wonder, and I’d gladly make most of them again.
Fast-forward from the carefree age of five to the angsty confrontation with imminent adulthood at the age of twenty. Sick to death of appalling cafeteria food, I was more than ready to move off campus and tackle the challenge of cooking for myself, but relatively unpracticed in that art. I was home from college visiting my family in Slovakia, and Mom and I went in to Vienna for the day, where we stumbled across an English-language bookstore; and let me tell you, in those dark days before Amazon, this was no small matter. Yet of all the classics and thrillers, nothing captivated me so much as The Surreal Gourmet: Real Food for Pretend Chefs by Bob Blumer. The price being so high that it suggested that the publisher had sent a courier by foot all the way from San Francisco to Vienna to deliver the goods, I had to leave it behind; but not long after, back in the States, I spotted it in a bookstore and snatched it up for a much more reasonable sum.
It is an extremely eccentric cookbook; not the normal induction into culinary skills as you’d get from the new standard, Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything. But if the first step in learning to cook is being simply enchanted with the prospect of making your own food, then The Surreal Gourmet is your ideal gateway drug. The book has all of thirty recipes—five of them for cocktails, plus an entry entitled “10 Ways to Avoid Making Dessert” (#10 is “Have sex instead”)—but each is exuberantly illustrated with an, indeed, surreal painting of Blumer’s own, detailed instructions, and helpful commentary such as “Le Secret” which tells you what really makes the recipe sing (why don’t all recipes have this??), “Adventure Club” for taking it to the next level, and suggested garnishes, wine, and music to cook by. The last section of the book advises on such matters as presentation, sautéing, stocking your pantry, and getting over your hatred of washing the dishes. It is throughout chatty and hilarious, and while I haven’t made every single recipe in it, every single one I’ve made has been great. Plus, this is the book that introduced me to sun-dried tomatoes. (It was the 90s, so cut me some slack.)
However, of all early formative cookbooks, the one I continue to regard with the greatest reverence is Jane and Michael Stern’s Square Meals. The Sterns are better known for their adventuresome eating across the U.S. on behalf of the rest of us, with the winners catalogued on their Roadfood site. (Which I have used many times and always been thrilled with the results thereof.) Though they have turned out a handful of cookbooks, these tend more to be historical catalogues of how Americans used to eat rather than something you’d really want to cook out of yourself.
What made me love Square Meals, starting somewhere around the age of eight when I discovered the chapter on “Nursery Food,” was not the food itself but the way they wrote about it. The six chapters follow a loose chronological path from the early through to the middle of the twentieth century. We begin with “Ladies’ Lunch,” a bygone meal of tea sandwiches, popovers, and delicate, creamy concoctions for feminine appetites. As the Sterns explain:
“Before the sexes insisted on barging into each other’s business, there was a ritual called ladies’ lunch, an interlude in Madame’s busy day that allowed her to fortify body and spirit with a meal as proper as she…
“Like a visit to the beauty parlor, lunch in one of these feminine restaurants conveyed a sense of immunity. The dark things of the world would dare intrude into an edifice constructed on a sugary foundation of Lady Baltimore cakes. After a meal of chicken à la king or creamed crab on toast points, the jagged edges of life were nicely softened.
“To get a full sense of lady food’s charms, it is necessary to appreciate what it meant to be a lady. Understand that there were once three sexes: men, women, and ladies. Unlike women—who had sex, gave birth, cried, sweated, and often got angry—ladies were creatures of a higher calling.”
From these ethereal beings of the aughts and teens we transition into the hardier stuff of Lunch Counter Cooking—meatloaf, tomato soup, liver and onions, Boston cream pie, but most importantly (as far as I’m concerned) the revelatory Cincinnati Five-Way Chili and the egg cream (which contains neither eggs nor cream)—and then on to even more rib-sticking cuisine of the hardscrabble 30s with all the classics of Sunday dinner.
The aforementioned chapter on “Nursery Food” is what initially enthralled me, not least of all the discovery that as a child I had a culinary birthright to call upon. For the Sterns this means noodles, toast, cereal (the hot stuff, not the box stuff), bananas, prunes, and pudding. Heavenly! But even before I was anywhere near the stresses of adulthood, I was riveted by the Sterns’ depiction of the stark contrasts awaiting me:
“How nice it is, in a world filled with mean, scary people like landlords, motor vehicle personnel, and headwaiters, to set aside time for milk and cookies.
“Everybody has some special food that makes them feel taken care of, a culinary escape from danger: noodles and pot cheese, Mom’s chicken soup, rice pudding with raisins, or a tall glass of chocolate milk with vanilla wafers on the side.
“Nursery food is the supreme comfort. No wonder, because however abysmal it really was, childhood looks so appealing the farther away it gets. You remember warm farina served in a bowl decorated with dancing bunnies, or the ritual cup of cocoa after school. Compared to grown-up worries like earning a living, developing a double chin, or thermonuclear war, the childhood horror of spilling grape juice doesn’t seem all that awful.”
Having read that, I begged my mother to make me “Rinkum Tiddy on Toast Snippets,” and one of the greatest delights of adult independence was finally getting to make Chocolate Bread with Vanilla Butter, though I must admit I’ve never worked up the courage to try Banana Rice with Savory Cheese Sauce or Prune Nog.
After nursery food we are treated to the classics of deprivation in 40s-era “Victory Dinner” (deprivation = no beef) and then at last, a bit ironically, the flourishing of the “Cuisine of Suburbia,” in which everything is made of something else, like dip from onion soup mix, snack food from cereal, and marinade from soda. When a guest left behind a can of Pepsi I could not resist from trying Pepsi-Cola Cake with Broiled Peanut Butter Frosting (once in a lifetime was enough). Fittingly, the final section of the final chapter is devoted to Jell-O, that emblem of the industrial destruction of home cooking and yet put to so many creative (if frequently horrifying) uses in the American kitchen. And indeed, the final recipe is the Sterns’ own invention, Undescended Twinkies. They explain:
“[W]hen we came across the Walnut ladies’ recipe for Twinkie Dessert (lay the Twinks flat in the pan and cover with Jell-O), we were shaken with a vision. Why bury the Twinkies? Why not partially chill the Jell-O and lay them across the top, exploding the planar arrangement into three dimensions? Thus Art is made, and a new Jell-O dessert is born.”
Later, in the directions, they further elaborate:
“If the gelatin is properly chilled, it will resist the Twinkies. You will push them in; they will slowly rise. It is a tense moment, like the scene in Psycho when Tony Perkins tries to sink Janet Leigh’s car. But remember—you don’t want them buried. Just semidescended in the lush, peach-colored ooze.”
It was then that I knew I didn’t just want to cook food, but to write about it, too.