Tuesday, December 20, 2005

A Passion for Cookbooks

I was tired. I was hungry. I was cranky. The traffic seemed to have gotten a doze of steroids thanks to the holiday shopping. NPR was on, but I couldn't get myself to pay attention. I just wanted to be home warming up my mushroom soup, when suddenly I heard something about cookbooks. I was wondering for a moment whether I was hallucinating. Boston traffic can be as tough on one's nerves as a desert. I shook myself out of my mushroom reverie and tried to wake up. No, no, I wasn't dreaming; Christopher Lydon from the Open Source was announcing the topic for today's show: "A Passion for Cookbooks."

I always thought of food bloggers' obsession with food as our secret little fetish. Hearing about it on the radio was strange, cool, and exciting at the same time. The show started just as I walked in the door. I warmed up my mushroom soup, swirled in a healthy dollop of sour cream, curled up on the couch next to the radio and listened. Julie Powell was one of the guests. It was strange to hear her talk -- kind of like watching Harry Potter movie after reading the books. You have that character in your mind that you want to preserve, the character that can only be communicated through the written word. I also got to hear Barbara Wheaton on the radio. I met Barbara in person at the Culinary Historians of Boston, so hearing her boisterous, Julia-like voice on the radio felt warm and familiar.

The most insightful observation from the show for me was that cookbooks can let us experience a life we couldn’t otherwise have. “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” by dear Julia was my first cookbook. I learned to cook by osmosis from my Mom. Without having ever followed a recipe, I had a dozen wonderful dishes in my repertoire with infinite variations. Without ever opening a cookbook, I fed half of my dorm at Carnegie Mellon and threw excellent parties. But when I was finishing my semester abroad in Aix-en-Provence, France, I was suddenly nostalgic for French food before I even left. I spent the last two weeks frantically writing down the recipes from my French family’s cookbooks. I was panicking that I won’t find the right ingredients and won’t be able to convert measurements. I thought I’ll never have a buttery tart, creamy pate, or comforting Boeuf Bourguignon. There was so much to learn and so little time. I knew that my affair with art history and France was over. It was time to get back to the real world – the world of software engineering and office jobs.

Leaving this fantasy world was actually easier than you’d think. To tell you the truth I was counting the days. I had a fiancĂ© waiting for me back home, and I was (and still am) so in love with him. When I got back to US, he gave me “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” as a welcome back present. I still remember the first dish I made in our little college apartment – it was a roast chicken. I made it because of Julia’s comment that you can always judge a cook by her roast chicken. Unlike most US cooks, I didn’t grow up watching Julia Child on TV. To tell you the truth, I had no idea who she was. But her recipes were so helpful and detailed that I felt as if she was right there in my kitchen, and I really wanted to please her. I don’t think Jason realized it then, but in that book he gave me the delicious world of France that I thought I lost forever.

1 comment:

Jim said...

Helen wrote "I knew that my affair with art history and France was over."
Sadly, all love affairs end in disappointment. The love of art, history and France is an integral part of life and fidelity to ones own soul.