Cooking by the Book: Prologue – Cooking Lessons

Pierre Bonnard, Coffee (Le Café), 1915. Oil on canvas. The Tate Gallery, Presented by Sir Michael Sadler through the Art Fund 1941, N05414

I came up with the Cooking By the Book series years ago (really, almost half a lifetime ago), when food and cooking blogs were ascendant. I had only a vague idea of what I wanted to write about. Something about wanting to write about the books that shaped me, both as a home cook and as an eater, a participant in broader culture and economy of food (which, I reasoned, could include everything from restaurants to agriculture). I never got further than this essay, appropriately titled “Prologue: Cooking Lessons.”

In 2019, I began to think about reviving this concept for a series of essays. When I re-read “Cooking Lessons,” I can see that I am a different writer now, and a different kind of thinker. Less sentimental. More circumspect. The broader culture has moved on, too, and it is no longer possible to write, as I did here, with unreserved romanticism about the production–and consumption–of food. I’ve left the piece largely untouched, though it strikes me as overly naive and sentimental, in part because I was also naive and sentimental then. I think of Joan Didion, asking the question, Was anyone ever so young? And the answer, of course, is that I was that young, once. I was that young, then.

Prologue: Cooking Lessons

I learned to cook out of necessity.  When I moved out of the house, I knew how to cook two things: ramen, and french toast (in a nonstick skillet).  As a child, I never spent much time in the kitchen.  At my grandmothers’ houses, I stood at the doorjamb and watched.  Occasionally, one would ask me to chop vegetables or shell peas.  My mother preferred that I wash and chop, and then clear out.  Our kitchens were never quite large enough to accommodate two.  Instead of cooking, I spent my time reading, studying, waiting to be fed.

I didn’t start cooking, in earnest, until I moved into my first apartment.  I grew tired of ramen and french toast, and though I quickly learned that the principles behind ramen (boil water, add flavor pack) are easily generalized to an entire family of dishes (soba noodles, spaghetti with marinara sauce), my repertoire held clear limits.  So, I taught myself to cook from books.

My first cookbook should have been something basic, like the Joy of Cooking. But I lived in Berkeley, where everything circled back to Chez Panisse, and I had rather different ideas.  My first “serious” cookbook was Paul Bertolli’s Chez Panisse Cooking.  I bought it at a small bookstore called Black Oak Books, just down the street from Chez Panisse itself.  Black Oak did a brisk business in cookbooks.  They always had the latest Chez Panisse book, and a few more for historical interest.  I bought Bertolli’s cookbook because I’d been reading the restaurant’s weekly menus (posted outside of the restaurant) on a semi-daily basis–I lived a few blocks away from Chez Panisse, and the area known as Berkeley’s “Gourmet Ghetto.”  I worked, briefly, in a clothing store called Earthly Goods, right across the street from the Cheeseboard, and without a car, I shopped primarily at the Andronico’s down the street.) The poetic, almost Proustian descriptions of dishes and materials intrigued me.  At the time, I was studying to be a writer and a poet — or at least I told myself that I was studying to become a poet.  Either way, the restaurant’s literary approach captivated me. From these menus, and others, I learned that a meal should have a structure, like a play or a novel.  It could move through themes and variations, crest and fall, and bring the diner to a different place.  If not quite “revelation,” then something like it.

As I developed my skills, I began to notice the importance of starting with the right raw materials.  In Taiwan, I grew up around people who cared, very much, about the production, as well as preparation, of food.

Giovanna Garzoni, Plate with White Beans, about 1650–1662, gouache on parchment, Galleria Palatina (Palazzo Pitti), Florence.

My father came from a family of prosperous farmers.  My grandfather had been a government agricultural specialist.  In my grandfather’s house, food, in the guise of crops and agriculture, was almost always the topic du jour.  Food, the economy, and politics, these 3 topics formed the backbone of my grandfather’s conversations.  Though my grandfather no longer farmed–and my father certainly had no interest in the production of food, only the consumption–family friends and relatives continued to farm.  I remember sitting around a table and listening to my grandparents and our friends and relatives talk about the crops, the weather, the quality of produce.

Eating, at my grandparents’ house, was more than just a pleasurable act.  It was intensely social.  We never ate just lychees.  We ate lychees from a friend’s farm, or fresh pineapples sent by a relative, or green mangoes pickled by one of my grandfather’s colleagues.  Food, I learned, came with provenance.  And one could judge it, an act of connoisseurship, and one always remembered the farmer, whose labor–and love–gave us our rice, our tea, our roast.

As I learned more about cooking and about food, I began to think about restaurants as more than a nice meal.  They represented opportunities for education. For a brief period of time, I was fortunate to date a man whose family enjoyed dining out at “fine restaurants.”  In those years, we ate, it seemed, at almost every restaurant that mattered. 

In those years, I still cooked very much “by the book.”  I didn’t know, yet, how to cook with intuition.  My grandmother once told me that a good cook knows the taste of her dish by its scent.  But all too often, I still pulled out my measuring cups and spoons, and at the grocery store, I flustered easily when I couldn’t find the exact ingredients in the recipe.  A part of me believed, still, that cooking was a kind of chemistry experiment, and it relied on precision as much as taste.

I would like to say “a trip to Europe changed all that,” for the trip to the Europe, followed by the sea-change in attitude and understanding, is a stock trope of such memoirs.  In a way, I would be lying.  It would take 3 trips to Europe, and a lot of careful work between, for me to stop cooking by the book.  Those trips to Europe were catalytic, but not quite in the stock bildungsroman way.  I didn’t have Alice Waters’s revelations.  I didn’t come back and start Chez Panisse.  I didn’t, for that matter, even come back and replicate the many exquisite dishes that we encountered in our travels. I wrote about them.  I thought about them.  I even dreamed about them.  What happened to me in Europe, over the course of those 3 trips, was something different.  What I learned, and what I saw, finally, and truly, taught me what it means to cook, not in terms of nourishment, nor even craft, but in terms of culture, history, and cuisine.

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