An Ode to Potatoes

Potatoes. They seem so innocent. So cheap. So accessible. So versatile. Providing starch to any meal. Oh so comforting. But healthy?

Ponder with me for a moment the most common uses for a potato:

  • French fries
  • Potato chips
  • Mashed potatoes
  • Scalloped potatoes or Potatoes au Gratin
  • Hashbrowns
  • Baked potatoes
  • Roasted potatoes

French fries and potato chips…enough said. Next.

Mashed potatoes. I am sorry but what makes mashed potatoes so tasty is not the potato. Have you ever tried mashed potatoes with no butter or fat added? They are repulsive. The key ingredient in good mashed potatoes is butter, and lots of it. The famous chef Joël Robuchon is known worldwide for his incredible potatoes. He found that the best ratio of potatoes to butter is a 2 to 1 ratio. For every two pounds of potatoes, he uses one pound of butter. It takes that much butter to make mashed potatoes taste good.

Scalloped Potatoes or Potatoes au Gratin. Look at the ingredient list – potatoes, cream, cheese. Why do we like this dish? Probably not because of the potatoes. This dish was probably invented by an old country mom who had served her family potatoes one too many times. Not only were they tired of potatoes, she was also out of butter, but realized that she had a plethora of cream and cheese at her disposal. In a moment of sheer brilliance she tricks her family into eating potatoes for the umpteenth time by cooking them in cream and cheese and at the last minute adding more cheese to the top.

Hashbrowns. The best are those that are crispy on the outside but tender and fluffy on the inside. But the only way to crisp them up is to use butter. And you know what makes hashbrowns even better? An over easy egg in which the yolk becomes the perfect sauce for hashbrowns. Either that, or they are smothered in ketchup, not as bad as butter or a yolk, but not exactly health food. Let’s not forget what hashbrowns are typically served with…eggs, bacon, sausage, pancakes, biscuits and gravy. Those hashbrowns definitely make up for those four pieces of bacon, three over easy eggs and the short stack of pancakes.

Baked potatoes. On their own, they look innocent and healthy enough. And in an ideal world, they probably are healthy. Plus baked sounds healthier. Better than fried…right? “So waiter, I will have the baked potato, but could I get that with butter, sour cream, bacon bits, and did you mention you had chili? Some of that too then. And maybe just a little cheese as I am really trying to watch what I eat.”

Roasted potatoes. These are definitely the healthiest of the bunch, but my problem with roasted potatoes is that they really only taste good that first minute out of the oven. You know exactly what I am talking about. Perfectly crisped on the outside while tender and fluffy on the inside. But try that same potato five minutes later and I would swear that some weird voodoo stuff was put upon the potato as there is no way that is the same potato I tasted mere moments ago. So while healthier than every other iteration of potato, they suffer from not being fried, mixed with a lot of butter or cooked in cream and cheese.

I am therefore left to draw the only reasonable conclusion from all of this: Potatoes exist to be a conduit for fat and lots of it.

My Biggest Pet Peeve

My biggest pet peeve in being a professional cook has nothing to do with the hours, the people I work with, or even the customers who can sometimes be completely unreasonable. No my actual biggest pet peeve is when I hear people tell me, “We would love to invite you over, but we are scared to cook for you.”

Listen, I understand. I am around food way too much, cook way too much, and taste good food way too much. And I will admit that it is hard to turn off the critique in my head. Doing something as an amateur around a professional can be nerve-wracking. It can bring to the surface all of the feelings of insecurity and inadequacy we are used to suppressing.

But I still hate it.

First, understand that Claire and I have just finished graduate school and are going to be paying back over $200,000 in student loans FOR-E-VER. So when someone wants to offer us a free meal, we will gladly accept it.

Second, people must think that Claire and I eat like royalty at home every night of the week, which is simply not true. My lunch is sometimes frozen pot-stickers from Costco or beef hot links on a hotdog bun. Not to mention that there are some nights after a long week, where I simply do not want to cook, so Claire and I will enjoy the rare delicacy of Kraft Mac-n-cheese with a can of tuna.

Third and most important, Claire and I love spending a quiet evening with other people around the table. Sure it helps when the food is good, but just being together is more important. I did not start cooking because I wanted to always eat really good food; I started cooking because I noticed something more in feeding people than just the physical act—the deep spiritual connection that occurs when people dine together.

Maybe that is why the statement irks me so much – it reveals that the other person does not know me that well yet.

Even if you order in pizza, Claire and I will be thrilled; we simply want to get to know you.

Or recall the climatic scene from Ratatouille, when Ego is served ratatouille. That is all any of us really want…to experience the warmth, love and security of home every time we sit down to eat.

My Love/Hate Relationship with Michael Pollan

While love and hate may be too strong of words to describe my reaction to Michael Pollan’s new book Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, I figured it might grab your attention. But in reading his latest contribution to the ever changing dialogue of the place of food in American culture, at times he was speaking directly to my heart about the importance of a shared meal, but at other times, I could barely continue reading as I was frustrated and jealous of how he went about the business of learning to cook.

I have enjoyed reading Michael Pollan’s books over the past few years, starting with The Omnivore’s Dilemma, then In Defense of Food, and now Cooked. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to state that Michael Pollan may be the most influential food writer in America. Through his three books, he has done more to change the food culture in America from exposing the awfulness of modern agriculture practices to the dangers of our over reliance on corn and to the weird science of nutritionism.

I was excited as I began reading Cooked as right off the bat he states that lately he came to the realization that while he had written a lot about food, he knew very little about how to cook. Not only did he not know much about cooking, but he “made the unexpected but happy discovery that the answer to several of the questions that most occupied me was in fact one and the same. Cook” (1). He laments the lack of cooking being done in America today, which is odd as Americans are watching and talking about food more than ever.

His premise in the book is that cooking “is one of the most interesting and worthwhile things we humans do” (11). And after his education in the kitchen he writes, “the most important thing I learned by doing this work is how cooking implicates us in a whole web of social ecological relationships: with plants and animals, with the soil, with farmers, with the microbes both inside and outside our bodies, and, of course, with the people our cooking nourishes and delights. Above all else, what I found in the kitchen is that cooking connects” (18, emphasis mine).

He also praises the importance of the shared meal. He writes, “It is a foundation of family life, the place where our children learn the art of conversation and acquire the habits of civilization: sharing, listening, taking turns, navigating differences, arguing without offending” (8).

Everything he has said, I reply with a heartily “Amen!” If you know me, these ideas are what makes my heart come alive. I first borrowed the book from our local public library, but after reading the introduction, I told Claire that I wanted to buy the book, to which her response was, “You want to underline and write in the book.” And she was absolutely correct. I wanted the ability to have this book on my shelf so I could quote from it without having to look too far.

Michael Pollan divides his book into four sections based on the primordial elements: Fire, Water, Air and Earth, with each section evidencing a greater degree of civilization. In Fire, he learns the techniques of authentic barbeque from pitmasters in South Carolina. In Water, he learns all about the technique of braising from a local cook who had worked at Chez Panisse and spent two years in Tuscany learning how to cook. In Air he discusses the wonder of the wild yeast found all around us that has made bread baking possible, spending time talking and learning with Chad Robertson, the fame baker at Tartine Bakery. And finally in Earth, he learns the science about fermentation, from pickles to cheese to beer, again learning from experts along the way.

And this is where my frustration (and if I am honest, my jealousy) with the book started to mount. Here was a great writer and thinker discovering what I and many others have known for a while, namely the pleasures of cooking and sharing a meal with others, but he was learning from some of the best in the business, a privilege few people are able to enjoy. He travels not only the states, but the world, to talk to people who have been practicing their specific craft for years. He is able to spend a devoted length of time to learning how to bake a loaf of bread based on Chad Robertson’s recipe from Tartine Bakery, a recipe that requires at least 6 hours of time, turning the loaf every 45 minutes or so. I would wager that anyone could find the same success in cooking as Michael Pollan did if given the opportunities he had.

But the problem is, not many of us will ever be able to simply call up Chad Robertson with a question about our bread starter and be able to hang out with him learning. Chances are if you want to learn to cook, we will have to teach ourselves. And this is exactly how I have learned. Yes I have been to culinary school, but I am still paying off that debt. Yes I work in a restaurant, where I have also learned quite a bit. But by and large, my culinary education has been self-taught. I have taught myself a lot about sous-vide cooking. I have taken the time to bake bread and cultivate a sourdough starter. And I know many others who have taken a similar approach.

And herein lays the small danger of Michael Pollan’s book: unknowingly or unwittingly he espouses the belief that in order to cook successfully, one has to learn from professionals. He laments the outsourcing of a lot of our cooking in modern life, but when he seeks to learn how to cook himself, he relies on the professionals. He might argue that this is no different than reading and copying recipes from cookbooks, but I don’t think it is the same.

When I was starting to explore cooking more and more, I learned from recipes and books, but when and if something fails, I do not have the luxury of having the author right there to answer my question. Instead I am left to figure it out myself and try again. My worry is that others will read this book and instead of feeling inspired to cook might feel discouraged and deflated.

But just as I was ready to give up on the book, I skipped ahead to the conclusion where Michael Pollan returns to the beauty and heart of cooking and sharing meals, where “the world becomes literally more wonderful (and wonderfully more literal) as soon as we are reminded of these relationships” (408). As we cook we are reminded of the beautiful relationships that exist. Our relationship to this earth, that we depend on the earth to feed us. Our relationship to farmers who grow the food we eat. And most importantly our relationship with one another, the community we experience around food that is unlikely to be experienced in any other avenue of human activity.

At the table we experience love, community and interdependency like no other place. Through cooking we remember that we are all humans on the same journey. And I love that Michael Pollan has written about this, but please know that you do not need the best cooks to teach you how to cook. You can start by choosing a recipe that you feel comfortable with and trying it and inviting a few friends over to share it with you.

If it fails, order pizza and laugh with your friends, as the point is not the food, but rather the people we share the food with.

The Family Meal & Vespers

Growing up, dinnertime was a non-negotiable, sacred time. Everyone was expected to be there, period. No excuses. No phone calls. And definitely no television. Except on the super-rare occasion when my parents would wheel the TV in front of the dinner table and we would watch a movie together, thereby making the table the central focus and not the TV. Even when Dad would have to work late, which was somewhat common in the early days of the business he and Grandpa started, he would still come home for dinner and then return to work. (Thankfully, the office was and still is only a mile and a half away from my parents’ home.)

As a family, we were not much of talkers, at least I don’t remember having many deep conversations at the table. But the table was still a secure place and a sacred space. If I had to characterize our family, we were the family that always had breakfast and dinner together. So, even though I cannot recall conversations around the table, the dinners engrained within me a deep sense of belonging, security and most of all love.

I have recently been reading For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy by Alexander Schmemann, an Orthodox scholar and priest. After his discussion on the sacrament of the Eucharist, he discusses the sacrament of time: our fundamental reality by which we experience the wonder of both life and death. Within his discussion of time, he writes about the daily offices, the seven set periods of time throughout the day in which Christians, most often monks and priests, have traditionally prayed.

Schmemann begins by discussing Vespers, which are evening prayers, which may at first seem odd since Vespers occur at what we consider the end of the day. But for Schmemann, Vespers signal the beginning, “and this means in the ‘rediscovery,’ in adoration and thanksgiving, of the world as God’s creation” (pp. 73-74). His understanding of Vespers is grounded in the Creation account of Genesis 1 in which each day is marked off, “And there was evening, and there was morning” (Genesis 1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31). He writes:

“The Church takes us, as it were, to that first evening on which man, called by God to life, opened his eyes and saw what God in his love was giving to him, saw all the beauty, all the glory of the temple in which he was standing and rendered thanks to God. And in this thanksgiving he became himself” (p. 74, emphasis original).

Therefore, one of the purposes of Vesper prayers is to reorient ourselves to the inherent goodness and beauty of creation. To simply stand in awe of the gift of creation.

As I read Schmemann’s discussion of Vespers, I began to wonder if a connection could be made between Vespers and the Family Meal.

The connection begins and is most easily seen when we open the meal with prayer, commonly known as giving thanks. In one of his other books, The Eucharist, Schmemann writes, “Thanksgiving is the power that transforms desire and satisfaction, love and possession, into life, that fulfils everything in the world, given to us by God, into knowledge of God and communion with him” (The Eucharist, pp. 188-189). Beginning each family dinner with prayer orients us to a posture of thanksgiving and gratitude towards God for all that he has given us. Or as Norman Wirzba writes,

“When eating is enfolded within the language and grammar of grace, and when food itself is experienced as the delectable manifestation of God’s abounding and incomprehensible love, then the opportunity exists for people to dine with God as ‘the fountain of true delight’” (Food & Faith, p. 180).

Giving thanks for the food reminds us that we are dependent on God for what is before us. While much human skill and ingenuity went in to putting the food before us, God was and is ultimately responsible. I am sometimes in awe of the variety of delectable food God has given purely for our enjoyment. Why do we need so many varieties of apples, tomatoes, potatoes? Did God give us red, green, yellow and orange bell peppers simply so that our food could be more colorful and to remind us of his extravagant love towards us?

Infusing the Family Meal with a Vesper like atmosphere would not stop with the giving of thanks. If the first great theme of Vespers is the reorienting of ourselves to the beauty and grandeur of creation, then the second theme, according to Schmemann, is the darkness and sin of this world. The family meal accordingly should be a place where the hurts, pains, and ugliness of creation are acknowledged. Even though the Family Meal should be a time of celebration and goodness, we cannot also hide from the fact that we are still in exile from Paradise, that all is not right with the world. Starting with the husband and wife, and extending to the children, there must be the freedom to acknowledge the hurts and sins of the day in openness and without shame. It is not easy to cultivate this kind of culture within the Family Meal, but I believe that eating together has the power to create a space where members of a family can feel open to share. As we eat the same food, we realize the level of the playing field – that at the core, we are all the same, humans created in the incredible image of God but who constantly sin and are in need of redemption.

Redemption is the third great theme of Vespers according to Schmemann. He writes, “The world is at its evening because the One bringing the final meaning to the world has come; in the darkness of this world, the light of Christ reveals again the true nature of things” (p. 75). As the darkness of sin is acknowledged, we move to remind ourselves that sin is not the final answer, but that through Christ’s death, death and darkness have been robbed of their power over us.

I don’t think these themes have to be acknowledged in a formal way every dinner, for part of the beauty of the Table is the spontaneity that occurs when people gather. Especially with children, I want to allow space for them to be kids and not impose a rigid structure when what they might want is to be slightly goofy.

I am not familiar with the history and liturgy of Vespers, which is why I plan on doing some more reading about its historical and theological development. Some friends have already suggested some books that I have requested from the library.

In the meantime, I would love to hear your thoughts. Have you been able to incorporate an attitude of prayer and worship within your Family Meal? What practices have worked? What ideas have not worked so well?

Grandma on Cooking in 1958

With Grandpa having passed away a little over a month ago, and Grandma close to nine years, my dad has been sorting through a lifetime’s worth of papers. Most of it ends up in the trash, but every so often he comes across a piece containing rich family history or a piece that sheds further light into who my grandparents were.

Recently my dad found two pieces of the latter sort. Two speeches my grandma delivered—one in 1958 on cooking and one on gardening, which unfortunately has no date. He had them both scanned and emailed me them, knowing that I would especially love the speech on cooking.

I just finished reading In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan, and some of what Grandma talks about in 1958 sounds like it could have come straight from the book, but Grandma had Michael Pollan beat by a half century. Both speeches are too good not to share, so here is the speech on food. It is a little long, but is quick easy reading.

Bon appétit!

__________________________________________________________

One of the most interesting things Bill [her husband, my Grandpa] and I have learned the last few years that makes cooking those three meals a day that we are all required to do much more intriguing and fun is that cooking is culture. In reading noted cooks from the past, present and from all over the world—they all agree that cooking is definitely one of the arts and is therefore culture. Sounds rather strange when you first hear it, but stop and think, if one is to live so every minute counts, to be alert and alive instead of numb, then cooking and eating rank high as cultural matters. Nothing affects the very quality of life itself so much as our diet, our pleasure in it and what it does for us nutritionally.

The person who cooks and eats to just assuage his hunger is living no more fully than an animal. The person who is interested in food on many levels is actually living more. For the more you know about food, the more you can appreciate it—sensually and intellectually. The cooking you accomplish from day to day, whether cooked by yourself or others, is as indicative of the quality of your life as your architectural surroundings, the books you read, the clothes you wear, the music you listen to or the objects you rest your eyes upon. In some ways, it is more important than all these other things, for there are so many times in a day, and therefore in a lifetime, when food must have your attention as a necessity.  Once you become aware of how fascinating the world of food really is you bemoan the years you have wasted.

Some people associate gastronomy with “excess” but Andre Simon has expressed it best saying, “Excess is the hallmark of fast living, as sure a road to damnation as good living is to salvation. Gastronomy is, on the contrary, intimately bound to moderation, the very reverse of excess. Without moderation, appreciation becomes impossible. Others confuse gastronomy with high living. It is entirely opposed to it. High living is inseparable from extravagance, from rare and rich costly foods and wines, and from fatty hearts and enlarged livers.”

There are many levels on which you can pursue food as culture. First, there is the gourmet point of view—that is the training of one’s tongue, one’s eye, and one’s nose to recognize small differences. Without this ability to distinguish small characteristics, it is impossible to develop as a critic, as an expert or as a cook. This sensitive awareness is the cornerstone on which a cultural attitude toward food must be built.

Once you start paying attention to food in this critical way you open new areas of interest. You make observations about how food expresses national and racial differences, and how it reflects economic conditions. For instance, has it occurred to you the reason France is such a cheese producing country may be that they have so little refrigeration? Whereas, we consume our milk as milk thanks to our superb transportation system and universal refrigeration.

Thus the intellect comes into play, and you see food and cooking as living history. The folk wisdom and practices of any nation are in their cooking traditions. If you know how to analyze them you learn more about their values—from the status of women in society to the nutritional protection afforded by native diet.

The Germans have a proverb “You are what you eat.” Scientists have proved that many so called racial and national characteristics—laziness, energy, persistence or instability often bear a direct relation to habits of eating. From whatever point of view, it would appear that the proper study of mankind is FOOD, as food is linked with every branch in the tree of cultural history.

A knowledge of cooking adds a new dimension to travel. It is, in the truest sense of the word, your passport into new areas and your introduction to people, things and places, which the ordinary tourist never sees. You cannot understand any country or people unless you know something about their food. When you travel you should taste your way around the world. The tourist that insists on an American steak or an American cup of coffee is missing much a country has to offer. I feel we miss much here in our own country when we are not willing to experiment with regional dishes. I have greatly enjoyed the Southern dishes Izetta [the wife of Grandpa’s brother, Don] has brought West—like the country ham and egg pie she once made for our PEO. Too many people refuse to try anything they are not familiar with and consequently deprive their families and themselves of a great deal of pleasure.

One of the pleasures of cooking is being able to increase your skill. We all know the act of doing something successfully is a pleasure. It is fun to perfect a technique, to become better and better at something. We can analyze why a thing contributes to flavor, texture or efficiency or speed. It is fun to think of the alternatives open to us—whether to soak lamb in wine or soy sauce or whether to use ginger or garlic. Cooking this way is not work or drudgery for you are always testing a theory, pursuing a point of view. You are creating as you cook.

You may be asking, what is the down-to-earth pay-off of making cooking a culture area? Here are a few ways.

  1. Once cooking becomes more than reading and blindly following somebody else’s recipe, you begin to cook superbly well. For, let’s fact it, many, many recipes are not superb because they are created by people who may not have their own cooking practices sharpened by years of tasting the best. You, though, begin to view a recipe as something you can improve. You look for faults in methods or the lacks in seasoning and you correct as you go along.
  2. This way of cooking lets you create new methods, new combinations and new short cuts. A huge mass of recipes are obsolete in the light of the revolutionary meaning of new appliances and new foodstuffs.
  3. You can order a meal well in a restaurant, for you know how to run your eye down the menu and judge the capabilities of the chef and order the best he has to offer.
  4. You can buy the best foodstuffs available for your own kitchen, screening from a huge variety of sources the choicest. You tap the local and national sources in a way you would not have known before.
  5. You get a better focus on price, for you know when to pay extra to get something better, and when not to pay more because there is a false value buried in the price. For instance, peak-of-season plenitude is also the time of peak flavor and lowest prices. Out-of-season means lowest flavor and highest prices. The gourmet eats in season.
  6. The cultured cook knows when to cook quick and when to cook long and adapts the menu and the recipes to time available. Just as there are certain types of music written to played as encores, there are certain types of dishes for fast concocting.
  7. The cultured cooks commits no clichés such as the ever present buffet menu of baked ham, potatoes au gratin and green salad.

More and more people are learning the fun of creative cooking as is seen in many of our new kitchens. The kitchen is becoming one of the most interesting, as well as expensive, rooms of our homes, as it is a place where families can have an adventure together.

The devotees of food as culture are a merry company. You find them everywhere—some are rich, some are poor, some are in cities, some in little town or in the country. A few are young—many are older, for the gourmet attitude seems to increase with the mellowing effect of years—which is another way of saying, experience. The type of culture seems to thrive among warm-hearted kindly folk. This makes it all the more fun to be one of them.

I’d like to tell you about some of the books and periodicals we have read that started and has increased our interest in experimenting with food. I’ll admit that Bill is the one that purchased our books and read them first and then whetted my interest enough to read some of them. Some of the periodicals that we feel are well worth subscribing to are:

  1. Gourmet, which is a monthly publication and always has several articles on the history of different foods, some points on making cooking easier as well as tastier and always has reliable recipes.
  2. House Beautiful, its editor, Elizabeth Gordon, is a true gourmet and there are always some food articles and generally good recipes. It gives you much food for thought.
  3. The Wine and Food Quarterly, put out by the Wine and food Society in London, which is an organization for man only and does much to stimulate their interest in food. This makes cooking a lot more fun for women if their menfolk are appreciative of their efforts. It features experiences in gastronomy and has a section on Memorable meals which comments in detail on certain meals and menus. It also gives the menus at the different meetings of the Wine and Food Society Chapters around the world. It reviews the old and new cookbooks as well as other articles on food.
  4. House and Garden, also has a section relating to food. It will take one subject, like meat, and spend the entire chapter on it.
  5. Sunset is another magazine to take as the recipes are dependable but perhaps not as classic or fine as some of the others.

Have you notices how many magazines are adding food articles that have never had them before these last few years, like Vogue, Glamour, and some of those?

Books that really can tell you why cooking is a real art and should be treated as such, and yet, are most interesting reading are:

  1. The Art of Eating by M.F.K. Fisher. It is a book of observations with a few recipes. What I especially enjoyed was the history of food from 3000 BC to now, as well as her clever stories on places and people she’s known in various restaurants or who were cooks.
  2. The Art of Good Living by Andre Simon. The flyleaf says that this is a book to shape the mind and not one of action. Simon tells why he feels gastronomy is so vital to our well-being as an enjoyable art. He is the founder of the Wine and Food Society.
  3. The Physiology of Taste by jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. Brillat-Savarin was a French lawyer, politician and writer of the 18th and 19th centures. He is still a noted reference as an outstanding gourmet. A couple of his quotations are: “Tell me what you what and I will tell you what you are.” “The man who gives a dinner for a group of his friend and takes no trouble over what they are to eat is not fit to have any friends.” “The discovery of a new dish does more for the happiness of mankind than the discovery of a new star.”
  4. Trader Vic’s Kitchen Kibitzer by Vic Bergeron. This is a humorous book on food with recipes by a man with whom we are all familiar.
  5. The Unprejudiced Palate by Angelo Pellegrini. Mr. Pellegrini is a teacher of English and Literature at the University of Washington. He says his book is a philosophy of cooking and that the discriminating eater is seldom a sour puss. This is a cleverly written guide to good living.

Outstanding well-rounded cookbooks that are good to use regularly. Whenever I wish to find a different way of preparing a dish that I haven’t tried before, I go to these first.

  1. Gourmet Cookbooks, Vol. I and II. These books have the simplest to the most complicated recipes and cover every range of food. They are expensive but worth it.
  2. Complete Book of Outdoor Cookery by Helen Evans Brown and James Beard. This is much more than just a barbecue book and is especially good for our western type of living. My pet!
  3. Cooking a la Ritz by Louis Diat. This is a good basic cookbook as is Diat’s French Cooking for Americans.
  4. West Coast Cookbook by Helen Evans Brown. This is one that has good recipes and also is fun to read the little quips she writes about some of the recipes and how we westerners got them.
  5. Fireside Cookbook by James Beard

There are many, many more books that I use regularly but more as references.

  1. Escoffier Cookbook by Escoffier. Most often quoted author today as this book is regarded as the Bible of Culinary Art, the one indispensible book on fine cooking. Escoffier says it is not a book for beginners but I disagree as it has helped me answer many questions pertaining to food.
  2. Concise Encyclopedia of Gastronomy by Andre Simon. A dictionary type of reference on everything.
  3. Game Cookery in America and Europe by Raymond Camp, for the hunter’s wives whose husbands were lucky on their last pack trip.
  4. Madame Prunier’s Fish Cookery Book – Translated from French. This is still the most noted fish cooking book.
  5. Sauces by Louis Diat. The most complete and authoritative book on this subject.
  6. The Epicurean by Charles Ranhofer (formerly chef at Delmonicos). This gives detailed instructions of cutting meat, vegetables, cooking and serving. It has pictures and drawings to illustrate techniques.
  7. Modern Culinary Art by Henri Paul Pellaprat, who was formerly head instructor at the Cordon Bleu School of Cookery in France. It is also a complete book for decorative foods.

Then we have books that are just fun to read that are as interesting and as entertaining as a novel.

  1. Scot’s Kitchen, It’s Tradition and Lore by F. Marian Mc’Neill
  2. Scot’s Cellar, It’s Tradition and Lore by F. Marian Mc’Neill.
  3. Food in England by Dorothy Hartley
  4. By Request by Andre Simon that is an autobiography. Simon has many books that are most interesting and informative.
  5. Paris Cuisine by James Beard and Alexander Watt
  6. Fine Bouche by Pierre Andrion. A history of the restaurant in France.
  7. The Gentleman’s Companion. Two sets of two volumes. First is Exotic Cookery and Exotic Drink of the World. The other set is South American food and drink.
  8. Last of the ones I’ll mention, but not the least, is the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise which is a weekly paper from Virginia City, Nevada that always has a good food article, has advertisements of every known restaurant in the United States and is most entertaining reading about the town of Virginia City.

Authors to look for while reading that can be depended to have something of interest to say and fine recipes.

  1. Andre Simon, a grand old man in his 80’s whose life has been spent in learning and teaching good food.
  2. Helen Evans Brown, an American of today who writes for many magazines like House Beautiful, Sunset and Virginia City Territorial Enterprise and whose books are the absolute best concerning Western living.
  3. James Beard. Also a noted present day authority. He has an excellent fish book and barbecue book out. This last weekend I read he is publishing another book right away.
  4. Louis Diat, writes regularly for Gourmet. He has an article each month for beginners.
  5. Escoffier. Any reference to him is like taking a case to the Supreme Court. Cooks use his works as law.
  6. Vic Bergeron. Always fun reading and has recipes for good eating of all kinds.
  7. Frank Schoonmaker, a noted wine expert and cook of today.

These are just a few of many good cookbooks that are fun as well as practical. However, I want to point out that the vast majority of cookbooks are a complete waste of time and many, as too many are written by unimaginative and unauthoritative cooks. When you take the time to look up something, you want to know it is the very best.

It is standard practice in our home to try a new recipe each dinner. I’ll have to admit, it has added a great deal more pleasure to the cooking and to the fun of eating for our entire family.

In closing, I’d like to read the last chapter of Andre Simon’s autobiography, By Request. It gives in his words the joy he has had in finding that food is culture.

[The chapter is not quoted. Grandma must have read it from the book.]

An Amuse Bouche

My childhood was rare according to most people, and this was only twenty or so years ago.

Mom was a stay-at-home-mom. Mom was a stay-at-home-mom who baked bread, at least once a week if not twice. Mom was a stay-at-home-mom who baked bread without any of the modern conveniences, no stand mixer and definitely never using a bread machine. Her sole equipment –  a wooden spoon, a mixing bowl, and arms strengthened from simultaneously kneading dough while holding and caring for her children.

Cracked Wheat BreadYou see, I was raised on homemade bread of two varieties, either white sandwich bread or cracked wheat sandwich bread. (Now as a married man, I make cracked wheat bread, but I use a KitchenAid stand mixer to aid in the process.) There were school days when my sisters and I would come home to the heavenly aroma of fresh baked bread, and beg Mom to cut us a slice. The worst part for a kid whose idea of delayed gratification is waiting 30 seconds is being told by Mom that the bread had just come out of the oven and was too hot to slice. We would have to wait.

The fresh baked bread got even better when Mom started making homemade strawberry jam during the summers with farm fresh California strawberries. Her trick was to go to the Farmers’ Market, asking the vendors for the bruised strawberries that were too ugly or too overripe to sell in baskets. (After all, we Americans want our fruit pretty and uniform, not misshapen or ugly.) The farmers were happy to make some money from otherwise worthless produce and gladly sold my mom whole flats of bruised strawberries for five dollars, which were perfect for turning into jam.

Fresh California strawberries turned into fresh strawberry jam smeared across still slightly warm homemade bread. To this day, there is still no better treat. To this day I am still very particular about the way I eat these first few slices of bread, something my wife did not understand until she also tried it, and was instantly converted.

I begin by peeling away the top crust of the bread which is at once both chewy and slightly crunchy. There is a depth of flavor here that I have only truly come to appreciate as an adult as a result of the mixture of the grains and the sugars intermingling to produce a rich, sweet nutty flavor only found on the outside crust of the bread. I will then sometimes eat the bottom crust, while not having the depth of flavor as the top crust, still yields a greater chew and density than the interior of the bread. With the crust having been consumed, I am now left to enjoy the middle of the bread, which when freshly out of the oven is so soft I handle it with the greatest of care.

I do have a confession to make, however. Growing up with this plethora of bread, I did not realize how lucky and fortunate I was and am. Sure the first slices of bread were soft and delightful, but soon after, the bread would fairly quickly lose its once soft texture and become drier and drier. We kids wanted soft bread. And soft bread was found when we would visit Nana (Mom’s mom) and she would have a loaf of Wonder Bread for us. Soft, flavorless bread, now that was a treat!

There really is nothing like fresh, homemade bread. The smell of bread baking brings people into the kitchen. We are instinctively drawn to the smell. I wonder if the Atkin’s Diet became so popular because most people have stopped baking bread and have forgotten the immense joy and pleasure found in bread and the breaking of it.

Sadly the loss of baking bread in the home has influenced the Church as well, most notably in her celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

Alexander Schmemann in his discussion of symbols as it relates to the Eucharist writes, “Its [a symbol’s] function is not to quench our thirst but to intensify it” (The Eucharist, p. 39). A symbol no matter how perfect it correlates to that which it symbolizes is never the object itself. A symbol is never meant to replace the primary object. A symbol should stir our whole being, causing us to long for that to which it symbolizes. It should awaken our hearts and desires more fully to that reality.

A sacrament might function in the life of a Christian much like an amuse bouche functions in a great meal. The literal meaning of the phrase is “something to please the mouth,” and the purpose of it is to awaken the palate to what lays ahead. A singular bite to simply excite you about what lies ahead.

The Eucharist is meant to excite us about God’s kingdom breaking forth. It is meant to entice us to reflect on the great joy of salvation, the great mission of God that he has invited us to particpate in. It is a singular foretaste of the heavenly banquet, where one day we will all dine with Jesus as he intends. An amuse bouche of the totality of the Christian experience.

But if the Marriage Supper of the Lamb tastes anything like what we serve at the Lord’s Table, I, for one, am not all that excited. A stale, flavorless, pre-broken piece of cracker and a pre-portioned miniscule serving of high fructose corn syrup laden grape juice? No offense, but that in no way awakens my senses or amuses my mouth.

Sourdough BreadOne day I want to be walking up to church and from 50 feet away, smell the unmistakable perfume of fresh bread wafting through the church parking lot. I want to be in service and here that crackling of the crust as my brothers and sisters share the one loaf, remembering “Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf” (1 Cor. 10:17). I want to share with my brothers and sisters the immense joy of fresh bread, remembering and greatly anticipating what is still to come.

Remembering Grandpa

Grandpa Camp passed into glory on Saturday, April 13 at the age of 89. I was able to share at his memorial service, and here are the words that I more or less shared.

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1992_XmasEve_MomDadGrandkids (1)Growing up, Grandpa was a man to be feared and respected. For many years, Christmas Eve was celebrated in Grandma and Grandpa’s condo. We grandkids were banished to the kids table. It was not so much that kids were to be seen and not heard, it was more like, “Kids are neither to be seen nor heard.” On the night before a joyous day of celebration and presents, we children were told to be not kids.

As I grew older, I would occasionally do work for Grandpa at Eclectic Associates, which Grandpa and Dad started. And in work it was his way or no way. Everything had to be exactly to his specifications even the laying of computer cords that no one would see. He was a perfectionist, an extremely hard worker and demanded everyone else be the same. Laziness was the unforgiveable sin for him.

Grandpa was also a man who would speak his mind, even if the words were extremely hurtful. For me it was right after moving back from three years in China. I stayed with Grandpa for about 6 weeks as my parents’ house was being remodeled and there was no bed for me. Moving back from China was an extremely rough time for me. I felt lonely but most of all I was disoriented, not knowing where I was or even who I was. The day I moved into an apartment, literally right next door, Grandpa said to me, “You are about to start seminary, and never once did you ask me if you could do anything for me.” Here I was in complete culture shock with almost no one asking me if they could help, and here he is turning the tables on me. It was hard to hear. And for a while I did not want to talk to him.

You might be wondering why I am sharing these memories, but the Grandpa I came to know and love in the last 7 years is all the more remarkable when I recall how he once was.

Right before Deborah, my sister, moved to Colorado for grad school, she cooked dinner for Grandpa, and Grandpa loved it and so did Deborah.

So I decided to take a chance and do the same.

These were still in the first few months of me returning from China. Still feeling lonely and very disoriented. But I was beginning to cook more and was really enjoying it.

If my memory is correct, that first night, I made filet mignon with a mushroom red wine sauce finished with truffle oil. We drank wine and enjoyed a great meal together. I don’t remember much from that night—not because of the wine drank—but it must have been a good night because we started having more dinners together.

IMG_2658The deal was I could cook anything; try any recipe on him, and he would reimburse me for the food costs, plus provide wine. As a result I tried many new recipes on Grandpa, expanding my cooking repertoire. I made my first beurre blanc sauce, specifically a Champagne buerre blanc. The sauce turned out great, and I remember thinking to myself, “Beurre blanc sauces are not so hard to make. I don’t know what the big fuss is all about.”

It was not uncommon for us to sit at his table for hours, even after dinner was over, sipping wine and talking. Grandpa being the man he was, was usually not content with just one bottle of wine. If you knew Grandpa, you knew he loved to compare and contrast different products, especially wine. So we might open two bottles of different wines to see which paired better with the food.

A little aside and confession: There have been only two times in my life where I have thrown up from drinking too much, and both were with Grandpa.

The first was a wine and cheese night that Deborah and I had with Grandpa. Instead of dinner, it was just wine and cheese. And Grandpa being Grandpa, wanted to give us the full education. We first started with three different bottles of white wine and about half way through opened three bottles of red wine. The three of us did not finish all six bottles of wine, but if memory serves me correctly, we came close. Needless to say it was a rough night for me and a rough morning as I got up to go to work.

The second was the night before I started my last year at Talbot in the Fall of 2009. For dinner we enjoyed seared scallops with a sherry mushroom sauce served over risotto. With dinner we enjoyed a bottle of Riesling, which we finished; plus we split a bottle of beer. (I am also proud to say that I was able to get Grandpa to see that beer is more than Budweiser.) Grandpa had some blue cheese that we enjoyed after dinner, and so we opened a bottle of red wine. As we were enjoying the cheese, I realized that the amontillado Sherry I used for the sauce would pair great with the cheese, so we also sipped the sherry. I did not do so well that night either. And I may or may not have been slightly hung over in discipleship class with Dr. Wilkens the next morning.

As the meals progressed, our conversations progressed. They moved beyond the food to talk about family and memories and life.

And so began my transformation of seeing Grandpa as grumpy old man to a man, still flawed, but who was taking a deep and honest look into his life, coming to terms with who he was.

Through our conversations I learned about his rocky relationship with his father—from idealizing him growing up to seeing the truth of his father’s character, which was anything but good, according to Grandpa. I learned to see a man who began the hard work of ridding the family of generational sins. He was far from ideal, but he did the best he knew how in being a father and a grandfather and a person in general.

Wedding Picture with GrandpaBut most importantly I saw a man who deeply loved his wife, Anita, my Grandma. Tears would often fill his eyes at the mere mention of Grandma. (Grandma passed away right around Christmas 2004 after having a debilitating stroke in February 1993.) He regretted not loving her more. He regretted buying into the lie his father told him of not publically displaying his love for Grandma more so. He spoke fondly of the few years in Connecticut, which he described as the best years of their marriage. During those years, he worked in New York, taking the train to and from work. Each day on his way home, he would stop by the flower stand and pick up a single rose to give to Grandma each night.

Grandpa truly thought the world of Grandma. I almost got the sense that in some ways he did not think himself worthy of her love. Grandma made Grandpa a better man.

I began to sense how difficult it must have been to watch Grandma’s health, strength and vitality be taken from her for Grandpa. Here was the woman he cherished and who was responsible for his salvation, literally and figuratively, wasting away.

I glad that right before Claire and I moved to Utah this past summer, she was able to join me for one last grand dinner with Grandpa and hear some of the stories herself. He also challenged us to love one another deeply. He challenged me to love Claire fully and sacrificially.

But most of all we shared life together. And why food and wine? To quote MFK Fisher, a 20th century food writer:

“The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry.  But there is more than that.  It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others.  So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it…and then the warmth and richness and reality of hunger satisfied…and it is all one.

“There is communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk.  And that is my answer, when people ask me:  Why do you write about hunger, and not wars or love?”

And I am so thankful that I was able to share in this joy with Grandpa.