Every food lover has a favorite food book or two, and I’m no exception. While many wax poetic over Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, or the works of MFK Fisher, mine are a little off the trodden path. And in my years of posting blogs to Chopstick Cinema, I have mentioned them all at one time or another. Here are my weblog posts, arranged in chronological order of their appearance my life, from early childhood to just a couple of summers ago.
The Duchess Bakes a Cake (November, 2004)
Writing this weblog every day has given me cause to think back over the role that food and cooking have played throughout my life. I used to think that my love of both stemmed from my Mom being such a good cook, and all those years I spent working in the restaurant business. But upon reflection, as more and more ancient memories are stirred by my daily musings, I’ve come to believe it runs much deeper than that. It’s in my blood and my bones, and maybe even in my DNA somehow. In recent days, I’ve recalled memories of making mud pies in the back yard after a summer rain; of hosting tea parties for my best friend Jane and cousin Janet, replete with a beautiful porcelain tea set, on the back porch of the house where I grew up in Mobile; and of my very favorite children’s book, The Duchess Bakes a Cake.
In limerick-style rhyme, The Duchess Bakes a Cake tells the story of a bored duchess, who one day whimsically decides to bake “a lovely light luscious delectable cake.” But things go awry when the duchess discovers that she has put in too much yeast and the cake overflows the pan… and the oven… and the kitchen, with the duchess frantically bouncing atop the rising dough, trying to squash it back down. Despite her best efforts, the cake rises all the way up to the clouds, and when all attempts fail by the king and his men to bring it down with catapults and arrows, it appears the duchess is stranded, until her little daughter Gunhilde cries out that she’s hungry. All’s well that ends well, as the cake is devoured by everyone in the kingdom, and the duchess is brought back fat and happy to terra firma.
Written and Illustrated by Virginia Kahl, this now-classic children’s book was published the year before I was born, so it was still quite new by the time I became captivated by it. Over the years, I must have checked that book out of the library a hundred times, and by the time I’d outgrown it, I knew every word of it by heart. Oddly enough however, I’d never owned a copy of it until last year, when I discovered that it was still in print and available on Amazon.com. And even after all these years, just the thought of it brings a smile to my face, and an abiding sense of sweet nostalgia to my heart.
Where It All Began (December, 2005)
Yesterday morning, I went to the Friends of the Library Sale at the Napa Public Library. Several times a year, the Friends of the Library fills the huge multi-purpose room with thousands of donated books, which they sell for bargain basement prices, and the proceeds go to library funding. Friday was half-price day, and on the weekends, you can fill a grocery bag with books for only $3.
For a gal with more than a thousand books in her personal library, the Friends of the Library Sale is always a dilemma…Do I really NEED any more books? Or OMG, look at all these fantastic books that I positively CAN’T live without! The answer is always the same…MORE BOOKS!
The Cookbook and Travel sections are always my first stop, where I scoop armloads without regard to how much space I have left on my bookshelves at home. Not to worry, I can always make room for MORE BOOKS!
Yesterday’s finds some real beauties. Two guides to ethnic ingredients, a big fat collection of recipes called The Complete Chinese and Asian Cookbook, and best of all, a hard-bound copy of The Creative Cooking Course by Charlotte Turgeon in mint condition with the dust jacket intact.
I couldn’t believe my eyes. Out of the hundreds of cookbooks on display, it practically leapt off the shelf at me. You see, The Creative Cooking Course is an old familiar favorite from many years ago, and from its 1200 recipes and 2500 photographs I prepared my first gourmet dishes. I can still taste the Cauliflower with Mornay Sauce and the Quiche Lorraine…
Much to my misfortune, more than 20 years ago, I lost a custody battle over that cookbook with an ex who shared my esteem for it and took it with him when we parted ways. I suppose I could have replaced it at some point over the years, but the Internet didn’t exist for many of them, and tracking down books wasn’t nearly as easy as it is on Amazon.com. And eventually, I guess I just forgot all about The Creative Cooking Course…until yesterday when I found an old friend at the Friends of the Library Sale.
Kitchen, by Banana Yoshimoto (August, 2006)
“The place I like best in this world is the kitchen. No matter where it is, no matter what kind, if it’s a kitchen, if it’s a place where they make food, it’s fine with me.”
So begins Kitchen, award-winning author Banana Yoshimoto’s culinary love story. The chef du cuisine et amour is Mikage Sakurai, a fetching young Japanese woman, barely more than a girl really, who suddenly finds herself all alone in the world after the death of her grandmother, the last of her remaining relatives. Mikage is soon befriended by Yuichi Tanabe, a college classmate who knew her grandmother as a customer at the flower shop where he works part time after school. Concerned that Mikage may be depressed and in need of a surrogate family, Yuichi and Eriko, his transsexual father-turned-mother, take her in until she can find a place of her own.
Still bereaved by her grandmother’s death, Mikage is emotionally and academically adrift, finding what little comfort and distraction she can in the kitchen. While preparing meals for Yuichi and Eriko as a means of justifying her existence and reciprocating for their generosity, she soon discovers that, not only is cooking a therapeutic and nourishing pastime, but that it has truly become her raison d’etre. Mikage nevertheless continues to grapple with repressed grief and existential angst, until an unexpected turn of events sets her heart on the path to love.
Though brief, at only a little over a hundred pages, Kitchen, is a literary truffle composed of many subtle and delicate ingredients. Its light outer layer is a casual, straight-forward narrative, dusted with a sprinkle of self-deprecating humor. Yet at its core lies a delectable morsel of heartfelt pathos and insight into the depths of the human soul.
In Kitchen’s finest passage, in a quiet moment of reflection, Mikage muses to herself:
“Lying there on my back, I looked up at the roof of the inn and, staring at the glowing moon and clouds, I thought, really, we’re all in the same position (It occurred to me that I had often thought that in similar situations. I would like to be known as an action philosopher.)
We all believe we can choose our own path from among the many alternatives. But perhaps it’s more accurate to say that we make the choice unconsciously. I think I did–but now I knew it, because now I was able to put it into words. But I don’t mean this in the fatalistic sense; we’re constantly making choices. With the breaths we take every day, with the expression in our eyes, with the daily actions we do over and over, we decide as though by instinct. And so some of us will inevitably find ourselves rolling around in a puddle on some roof in a strange place with a takeout katsudon in the middle of winter, looking up at the night sky as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
Ah, but the moon was lovely.”
Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury (In Grandmother’s Kitchen) (January, 2005)
One of my favorite works of literature is Ray Bradbury’s magical coming-of-age story, Dandelion Wine. First published in 1957, the story focuses on the life of a boy named Douglas Spaulding in the summer of 1928 in Green Town, Illinois. His world is filled with a cast of lively characters, including his younger brother Tom, his parents and grandparents, a pair of spinster sisters named Miss Fern and Miss Roberta who have a misadventure with a car nicknamed ‘The Green Machine’, a pipe-dreaming inventor named Mr. Jonas, and a dreadful phantom known only as ‘The Lonely One’ who lurks in the ravine.
Why, you may ask, would I mention Dandelion Wine in a weblog on Asian food and film? Well…my favorite chapter is the one that describes his Grandmother’s kitchen. Having recently deconstructed my own kitchen for the move to our new home, amid the process of restoring order once again, I am fondly reminded of many passages from that chapter of Dandelion Wine.
In the first few paragraphs, Douglas muses, “Grandma, he had often wanted to say, Is this where the world began? For surely it had begun in no other than a place like this. The kitchen, without doubt, was the center of creation, all things revolved about it; it was the pediment that sustained the temple.”
But pediment to the temple though it be, Grandmother’s kitchen is the epitome of chaos. Her failing eyesight is dubiously enhanced by a badly chipped and smudged pair of spectacles, and what’s more, Grandmother never uses a cookbook.
“In all the years not one single dish resembled another. Was this one from the deep green sea? Had that one been shot from blue summer air? Was it a swimming food or a flying food, had it pumped blood or chlorophyll, had it walked or leaned after the sun? No one knew. No one asked. No one cared.
…The food was self-explanatory, wasn’t it? It was its own philosophy, it asked and answered its own questions. Wasn’t it enough that your blood and your body asked no more than this moment of ritual and rare incense?”
Each evening, Grandmother laid a out a sumptuous banquet for the Spaulding family, a half-dozen boarders who rented the rooms upstairs, and Aunt Rose, who had come for an extended visit.
“Trailing veils of steam, Grandma came and went and came again with covered dishes from kitchen to table while the assembled company waited in silence. No one lifted the lids to peer in at the hidden victuals. At last Grandma sat down. Grandpa said grace, and immediately thereafter the silverware flew up like a plague of locusts on the air. When everyone’s mouths were absolutely crammed full of miracles, Grandmother sat back and said, ‘Well, how do you like it?’
And the relatives, including Aunt Rose, and the boarders, their teeth deliciously mortared together at this moment, faced a terrible dilemma. Speak and break the spell, or continue allowing this honey-syrup food of the gods to dissolve and melt away to glory in their mouths? They looked as if they might sit there forever, untouched by fire or earthquake, a shooting in the street, a massacre of innocents in the yard, overwhelmed with effluviums and promises of immortality. All villains were innocent in this moment of tender herbs, sweet celeries, luscious roots. The eye sped over a snow field where lay fricassees, salmagundis, gumbos, freshly invented succotashes, chowders, ragouts. The only sound was a primeval bubbling from the kitchen and the clocklike chiming of fork-on-plate announcing the seconds instead of the hours.”
One afternoon, Aunt Rose made the well-meaning mistake of suggesting that she help Grandmother clean and organize her kitchen.
“Grandma,” said Aunt Rose, down again. “Oh what a kitchen you keep. It’s really a mess, now, you must admit. Bottles and dishes and boxes all over, the labels off most everything, so how do you tell what you’re using? I’d feel guilty if you didn’t let me help you set things to rights while I’m visiting here. Let me roll up my sleeves.”
Aunt Rose would not be denied, and before it was all over, the kitchen had been overhauled and organized from top to bottom, including a larder of fresh groceries, new glasses and a hairdo for Grandmother, and…much to her horror…a cookbook! But despite Aunt Rose’s best intentions, suppertime that evening was a joyless occasion.
“Smiling people stopped smiling. Douglas chewed one bit of food for three minutes, and then, pretending to wipe his mouth, lumped it in his napkin. He saw Tom and Dad do the same. People swashed the food together, making roads and patterns, drawing pictures in the gravy, forming castles of the potatoes, secretly passing meat chunks to the dog. Grandfather excused himself early. ‘I’m full,’ he said.”
The following afternoon, Grandfather took up a collection from the boarders to buy a train ticket for Aunt Rose, and had Douglas distract her while they packed her bags. When they returned to find Aunt Rose’s luggage on the steps of the front porch, Grandfather announced, ‘Rose,’ ‘I have something to say to you…Goodbye.’
That evening, with Aunt Rose out of the picture, Douglas crept downstairs at midnight and restored Grandmother’s kitchen to its original state of chaos.
“He took the baking powder out of its fine new tin and put it in an old flour sack the way it had always been. He dusted the white flour into an old cookie crock. He removed the sugar from the metal bin marked sugar and sifted it into a familiar series of smaller bins marked spices, cutlery, string. He put the cloves where they had lain for years, littering the bottom of a half a dozen drawers. He brought the dishes and the knives and forks and spoons back out on top of the tables.
He found Grandma’s new eyeglasses on the parlor mantel and hid them in the cellar. He kindled a great fire in the old wood-burning stove, using pages from the new cookbook. By one o’clock in the still morning a huge husking roar shit up in the black stovepipe, such a wild roar that the house, if it had ever slept at all, awoke. He heard the rustle of Grandma’s slippers down the hall stairs. She stood in the kitchen, blinking at the chaos. Douglas was hidden behind the pantry door.
At one-thirty in the deep dark summer morning, the cooking odors blew up through the windy corridors of the house. Down the stairs, one by one, came women in curlers, men in bathrobes, to tiptoe and peer into the kitchen — lit only by fitful gusts of red fire from the hissing stove. And there in the black kitchen at two of a warm summer morning, Grandma floated like an apparition, amidst bangings and clatterings, half blind once more, her fingers groping instinctively in the dimness, shaking out spice clouds over bubbling pots and simmering kettles, her face in the firelight red, magical, and enchanted as she seized and stirred and poured the sublime foods.
Quiet, quiet, the boarders laid the best linens and gleaming silver and lit candles rather than switch on electric lights and snap the spell. Grandfather, arriving home from a late evening’s work at the printing office, was startled to hear grace being said in the candlelit dining room.
As for the food? The meats were deviled, the sauces curried, the greens mounded with sweet butter, the biscuits splashed with jeweled honey; everything toothsome, luscious, and so miraculously refreshing that a gentle lowing broke out as from a pasturage of beasts gone wild in clover. One and all cried out their gratitude for their loose-fitting night clothes.”
Of course, by the time I prepare my ‘Seven Years in Tibet’ dinner, I hope to have achieved a somewhat more orderly arrangement than Grandma Spaulding’s in my new kitchen, which is still a work in progress. But even in the most orderly kitchen, I will still subscribe to her philosophy of food, asking no more than this moment of ritual and rare incense.
Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain (July, 2006)
These last two weeks have been a kind of stay-at-home vacation for me, in which I attended to a few household and personal projects, hung out with my son Will on his summer vacation, and actually sat down and read a book for pleasure: Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential.
It had been on my reading list for several years, and once bought had been sitting on my shelf for several months. I rarely read for pure pleasure anymore. I read headlines and news, I read food blogs, I read cookbooks, I read reference books, and I read books that I review for ThingsAsian. So while I had this idle time, I decided to indulge myself. And I must say it was well worth the wait.
It’s good to know that while Tony Bourdain was following his bliss as a chef, he didn’t miss his calling as a writer. It’s obvious he has a gift for both. I spent two scorching summer days in his world, a world so vivid that when I’d finished the last page and retired Kitchen Confidential to my library, I felt I’d actually been on a trip with Tony Bourdain and had returned home to the Napa Valley with a head full of shared and cherished memories.
In his epilogue, Bourdain says, “And the events described are somehow diminished in the telling. A perfect bowl of bouillabaisse, that first, all-important oyster, plucked from the Bassin d’Arcachon, both are made cheaper, less distinct in my memory, once I’ve written about them.”
And to that, all I can say is, “Au contraire, Chef Bourdain, au contraire.”