Monday, September 18, 2006
Cooking the Books
I want to be Julie Powell, who cooked her way through Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a year, blogged about it, and then wrote a book about her transformative experience. Unfortunately, my cholesterol levels are too high to attempt anything like traditional French cooking. And my admittedly conservative tastes (in food only, mind you) would rule out whole chapters on sweetbreads, shellfish, and anything with really icky ingredients.
Perhaps The America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook? A behemoth captured in a 3-ring binder, this tome is clearly intended to supplant the old standard Betty Crocker in the kitchen (although I've always been a Joy of Cooking follower myself). I love this book. Christopher Kimball and his minions are the ultimate food geeks, and their fanatic recipe testing practically guarantees wonderful results. Of course, with more than 1,200 recipes, it would take me at least four years of dedicated cooking to make my way through the whole book. And the cholesterol? These people focus on taste, not butter limits. There would probably be a whole lot of nights where my family would enjoy all their tasty recipes while I broke out a can of beans to go with my plate of brown rice.
Diana Shaw's Almost Vegetarian might be a good bet. It has some chicken and fish and, while nowhere near vegan, utilizes fresh vegetables and other plant foods while stressing health and good taste. It has about 150 recipes. Doable. Very doable. But this isn't a tome, a classic, a milestone of cookbooks the way the others are. As good as it probably is (and Diana Shaw is a well-known and respected cook and writer), Almost Vegetarian doesn't have the oomph of the others.
Then again, I don't have the oomph of Julie Powell. What a woman. She managed to track down odd and sometimes out-of-date ingredients (bought a marrow bone recently, anyone?), follow lengthy and difficult instructions (boning a duck), and eat stuff I wouldn't even be able to contemplate (brains, lobster). Every day. For a year.
She cooked through a terrible job, September 11th, and the massive East Coast power outage (she lives in New York City). Not only did she eat this stuff every night, but she served it to friends and intimidating people.
In the end, what she did wasn't really about cooking a whole book, but more about transforming her life, finding meaning and joy in a time of personal and national torment. This is what awes me about Julie Powell. I wonder if the irritation Julia Child apparently showed over Julie's efforts was simply a misunderstanding of what she was really doing, or if Julia unconsciously recognized a force perhaps greater than her own in this somewhat bad-tempered New York secretary.
I'm probably not going to find Julie's courage or focus in the kitchen. A little bit of joy, though, would be good.