I am in love with someone who doesn’t know I’m alive, and who probably wouldn’t like me if he met me. My husband introduced us, at Christmas. There is no anguish, and no yearning in this triangle: my new object of affection is oblivious, and my husband gets fed fabulous meals on a daily basis.
On Christmas morning, I received four books about food. Two of them I had requested (Ina Garten’s newest, and Dorie Greenspan’s Baking: From My Home to Yours. One, an autobiography of Chef Marco Pierre White, I had been interested in reading for quite a while. The fourth, a bright yellow hardback titled Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin looked to me, honestly, like something selected to bump the amazon shopping cart to the “free shipping” level. I didn’t know who Kenny Shopson was, I couldn’t tell whether it was a cookbook or a biography, and the only thing that prevented me from burying it immediately under the pile of books that people lend me so that I can pretend to read them was the fact that the foreward was written by Calvin Trillin.
In the days immediately following Christmas, I went through the Garten book and the Greenspan book with my pad of Post-Its, and my husband immediately snatched the White book and started to read it, so I was left with Kenny. The Trillin forward (actually a 2002 “New Yorker” piece) painted a picture of an opinionated, outrageous man who didn’t want publicity for his Greenwich Village restaurant, routinely ejected customers who didn’t suit him, and had a number of rules for dining in his establishment including prohibitions on parties larger than five and cellphone use, and the requirement that all diners order “at least one entree.” He also disdained customers who dithered over what to order from the 12-page, small-print menu (reprinted in the book). On the other hand, Trilling wrote about a man who loved his wife and children passionately, valued human interaction and creativity above fame and fortune, and was loyal to his friends and his values. That was honestly when I started to realize how I felt about Kenny. I was certain that I, a mommy from Flyover who went to his restaurant because I’d read his book, would be a an immediate and reflexive object of his scorn. On the other hand, a man who loved family and food and generally “thought outside the box” was quite possibly my soulmate. I kept hope alive.
Eat Me is both a cookbook and a biography. It is not a good choice for anyone who has issues with profanity, wishes to cook healthy foods, or sniffs at cuisine that is neither “haute” nor “authentic.” The recipes I have tried have been uniformly excellent, but the thing that makes me love it (and Kenny) is the insight it gives into the brain of a really original thinker. Kenny Shopsin invents ethnic dishes based on ingredients and flavor combinations that, in his opinion, reflect a given cuisine. He uses purchased pancake batter to make “Slutty Cakes,” “Ho cakes,” “Spinach Walnut” and “Pear Pignoli” pancakes. He rejects the canon law of making soup, and, instead “deconstructs” soup by cooking the non-broth ingredients and adding broth at the end. He has no menu item that takes longer than 5 minutes to prepare, because he has a freezer full of prepped ingredients. He is open to ideas, against orthodoxy, and is whatever is the opposite of a Food Snob.
Although he had me at the deconstructed soup, I wasn’t ready to pack all my black clothes and head to Manhattan until I read these passages:
Among the many things I hate about the media is that they have eliminated people’s ability to think and to judge for themselves. People rely on the media to tell them what is ‘the best’–the best vacation, the best ice cream, the best toilet paper — as opposed to deciding for themselves based on their own tastes or their own satisfaction.
One of the sites I visit regularly is Chowhound, where food-obsessed people like to talk about where they ate last night or where they are going to eat or where they can go for a specific food. It seems as if the majority of the entries read something like ‘I’m going to such-and-such restaurant. What’s the best thing on the menu?’ When I read that, I think: Why would you give a shit what the best thing on the menu is? Maybe you don’t like the best thing on the menu. Maybe the so-called best thing is deep-fried yak brains, and maybe, just maybe, deep fried yak brains don’t appeal to you. Why don’t you just order what sounds good to you? Well, I already know the answer. It is because people are afraid of being mediocre, of being ordinary.
This was, to me, a revelation. Always afraid of what other people (peers, readers, fellow food bloggers, fellow diners) think about my choices, I have pretended for years that I like everything touted by “Bon Appetit” and “Gourmet,” and discounted any of my impulses or preferences that contradicted the passing deification of offal, truffled everything, micro greens or sous vide. If I didn’t like it, couldn’t afford it, had no practical use for it, I kept my mouth shut, joined the chorus of adulation, and hoped that the next trend would be “cooking things kids eat,” or “recipes that require no $30.00 ingredients available only on line.” It’s okay to cook what you actually want to eat! It’s okay to make stuff up! It’s okay to order Katsu Curry in a sushi restaurant instead of sushi! I don’t have to drag my husband, kicking and screaming, to Alinea even though he will hate it! What a colossal relief.
If this book sound good to you, buy the book. I am cooking heavily from it’s pages lately, but (because of our relationship) I don’t feel right giving his recipes away in the interworld. I have already shared his corn chowder, but I have since cooked an amazing sandwich called an Edmonton (garlic bread, tuna, tomato, avocado, jalapenos, that’s all I’m saying), and tonight I’m making his “Patsy’s Cashew Chicken.” More important, I have been inspired to go out on a limb, do my own thing, and stop pretending that I have the means or the motivation to serve my family and friends food that they don’t like, but “should.”
Kenny says in the book that he “is addicted to the Internet,” and likes to see what people are saying about him. Kenny, if you read this, please understand that, like any 46-year-old teenager in love I am probably exactly the kind of fauning sycophant that you didn’t want in Shopsin’s, but I can change. I really can.