The idea for this blog came from a charming, white-haired woman named Joyce. At a meeting, she was asked to explain the difference between a “diary” and a “journal.” We were about to embark on a year of journal-writing, and the group’s leader felt it was important to clarify the difference between jotting down the mundane events of the day and writing more expansively about thoughts and feelings. As Joyce explained it, she had kept a mere “diary” for years, documenting what she had done during the day, whom she had seen, and so forth. She added, with a laugh, that she had not been so petty as to write down what she had made for dinner every night for thirty years.My immediate thought was that I would love to know what Joyce had made for dinner every night for thirty years. I imagined her at various ages, stirring pots, poring over The Joy of Cooking, and taking a pie out of the oven. With a pie bird, something I, personally, have always wanted to own. I considered the wealth of information to be garnered from thirty years of a Food Diary. Was Joyce a good cook? Did she enjoy cooking? Did she make the same things over and over, or did she experiment and read cookbooks and magazines? Did she plan meals in advance, or simply rummage in the cupboards and the refrigerator at 4:00 to see what could be thrown together? Did she follow the recipes precisely, or experiment with quantities and ingredients? Did she, like my friend Beth, love to cook but hate to bake, or was she like my friend Georgia who loves to bake and dislikes cooking actual meals? Did she, in the sixties, make fondue for dinner guests and prepare French cuisine a la Julia Child?
There is a reason that my sister-in-law calls me “Gladys Kravitz,” after the nosy neighbor on “Bewitched.” I like to know what everyone else is doing, and, if possible, I like to know why they’re doing it, and how they’re doing it. I also like to cook, and eat, and read about food, good or bad, haute or trash, and my nosiness naturally extends to the cooking and eating habits of others. Among my friends and family are excellent and inventive cooks, people who are capable of alchemically transforming raw ingredients into the flakiest pie crust, the tenderest chops, and the most clarified butter. They love to prepare food, and it shows. I also know cooks who are fearful but adequate; there is a sort of anemic blandness to some of their offerings, a vaguely academic quality of having done the thing right, but without much passion. I also know a number of resolute non-cooks who are terrified by the idea of having people to dinner, and who buy slice and bake chocolate chip cookies not because they are convenient in a pinch, but because they come out better than anything they could come up with from scratch. Some people view cooking as a creative act, and sometimes as a performance, while others take a militant position against cooking as one of many activities used to entrap and stereotype women.
I am intrigued by reports of vegetarian families, families in which every member eats a different diet, and families in which no one ever actually sits down to eat at the same time. One of my friends insists that her husband is so disinterested in food that he will eat anything he finds in the refrigerator, out of a measuring cup, standing up in the kitchen. It is, to him, neither art nor symbol of home and comfort – its just fuel.
In addition to analyzing the cooking lives of people I actually know, I read cookbooks like novels. My favorites are those chatty offerings in which the author gives us glimpses into his or her life, and how the preparation of food fits into that life. I love the cookbooks written by crunchy granola types who tell stories of curried lentils and cracked wheat bread served at the co-op, and I love cookbooks written by people living on farms or buying from local farmers, using only what is available and in season.
My favorite collection is currently in the possession of my mother, (the original and uber-cook in my life), who misappropriated the book from the East Lansing Public Library some time in the early sixties. It is called, I think, “The Blueberry Hill Cookbook,” and was written in 1959 by the female half of a couple that managed an Inn somewhere in Vermont. The recipes are mostly for old-fashioned things like Swiss Steak and ham croquettes, as are the suggestions for using ingredients like cake yeast and “icing sugar.” I love them all, and I love most the descriptions of how they were adored by the guests of the Inn, or the children of the Innkeepers, how she first acquired the recipe from a butcher or a friend who had been to France, or how she had first tried the recipe, whether it worked or not, and what changes she had decided to make based on her experience. I use her pea soup recipe, her chicken and dumpling recipe, and many others, despite their relative labor-intensiveness, because the results are so very good. Reading such a book is like having a dear, somewhat older friend who endorses my interests in home and hearth and feels no obligation to replace the sugar with Splenda or make the recipe “Quick and Easy.”
I have also devoured books by many food writers including Ruth Reichl, Elizabeth David, Laurie Colwin, and (of course) M.F.K. Fisher that are about what people did, what they cooked and ate, and how they learned about food and cooking. To some extent these books satisfy my Glady Kravitz jones to know the culinary business of other kitchen-dwellers, but they also provide a fantasy escape from my obligation to cook within the somewhat narrow parameters of a busy, picky, modern family.
I will not, in the foreseeable future, be cooking anything involving organ meat, artichokes, sprouted wheat flour, fish, veal, lamb, broccoli rabe, Indian spices, bok choy, bean sprouts, fish sauce or tofu. My husband does not like anything cooked with wine, or “meat with red fruit in it.” My stepdaughter doesn’t like most vegetables, or the taste of real (as opposed to processed) cheese. My son does not like any food that is unfamiliar, and/or involves components not readily identified and removed for scientific analysis. Neither child will eat anything with a nut in it, other than peanut butter, although even peanut butter cannot be used in any form outside of their orthodoxy, such as Thai peanut sauce.
There are meals which three of the four of us enjoy which are repulsive to the third: my husband, my stepdaughter and I like meatloaf, which is anathema to my son. My husband, my son and I love my homemade macaroni and cheese, which disgusts my stepdaughter. My stepdaughter, my son and I like down-market casseroles containing canned soup and boxed stuffing, which my husband finds disappointing. It is a narrow, narrow world I cook in, and it is a pleasure to read about those who can go to market in the morning, select the freshest vegetables, and whip up a splendid curry to serve over basmati rice with a host of exotic “boys.”
Assuming that there must be some other people in the world who shared my intense interest in the culinary lives of others, I decided that I would write about what I cook, and provide recipes. On the days when I am cooking something I already discussed, or something that I find too dull for elaboration, I will probably engage in a lengthy Food Rant. Why do women’s magazines include “family” recipes involving food no child will ever eat, like cod fillets with capers and green olives? Why is it so hard to find Greek Yogurt, which is vastly superior to American? Why are so many men socialized to think that anything healthy tastes bad?
Perhaps, forty years from now, my memory will fail just enough that I won’t remember what I wrote, and these pages will provide me some amusement when I am in The Home. When I’m not in the kitchen preparing meals to accommodate our dentures and special diets, that is.