“What would our lives be like without tradition? What terrible fatigue would overwhelm humanity if it only had to concern itself with the future?
Edouard de Pomiane
“Her last conversation in Sinhala … ended with her crying about missing egg rulang and curd with jaggery.”
from Anil’s Ghostby Michael Ondaatje
At Chronicle Books, Bill Le Blond publishes cookbooks known for their splendid photography. For those hoping to publish however, he has bad news: cookbooks are not the sellers they once were. While there are more writers than ever, readership has dwindled. These days, finding a recipe is just a click away.
For a while, everyone was reading cookbooks for fun. Salsas! Chocolate! Slow Cooking! The I-Can’t-Chew Cookbook! You name it, there’s a book all about it. But this hobby may have run its course. True collectors of cookbooks are a special and passionate group. A bit like stamp collectors. My friend Vikki says, “For me, going to eight or nine sources to answer a cooking question is pure pleasure. That these sources are on my bookshelf is icing on the cake.” For the majority of home cooks, however, one or two all-purpose cookbooks, newspaper clippings, and a couple of local compilations sufficed until recently.
I risk sounding disingenuous. After all, I myself have written a nifty little cookbook and am always thrilled when someone buys it. Nevertheless, just as Wikipedia and Google are today’s reference tools, Internet cooking sites are where you find recipes. And from TV chefs. Cooking shows have filled the gap for the entertainment minded cook just as Epicurious is there at day’s end when you’re standing in the kitchen wondering what to do with one onion and a package of chicken.
But is that the whole story? Have we simply abandoned the crusty old tomes for (equally) sticky keyboards and remotes? What about word of mouth?
Word of mouth is stronger than ever; its voice perpetuates food culture, memories, and practical know-how. Thinking over the past few weeks, I come up with at least six situations which could have been resolved through a book or other source but in fact, were imparted word of mouth. These include:
- explaining why sometimes eggshells stick (a heartbreak when you’ve signed on to bring devilled eggs to a picnic)*
- asking a friend for her really good soup recipe
- passing on two simple things to do with fresh figs
- learning that putting a mound of stiffish herbs, such as thyme and rosemary, under a piece on fish helps avoid sticking to the pan or grill
“How did you make that?” Dedicated cooks love that question and most will go out of the way to share. Even the pros. When I had doubts about a fish recipe from Happy in the Kitchen by Michel Richard, I called his restaurant, got the sous-chef and explained my concern. He reassured me the recipe would work. “10 minutes! Not more! Call anytime!” he said and I believed him. The fish turned out perfectly. A word of caution: if you are an adventurous cook and want to call a chef, remember the hours of service are frantic. Call only in the morning or late afternoon if you want to get some attention.
Asking how a dish is made is perfectly acceptable in a restaurant and, if your waiter is not run off his feet, the information is gladly given. You may not be able to replicate the dish but you will know the ingredients. Skill and imagination, not a recipe, make for glorious food. Which explains why recipes ( that is, the ingredients and measures) can not be copyrighted because you can’t claim ownership of a fact. Apple Pie and Beef Stew are public property. However, the language of recipes is considered original so you can not simply copy and publish someone else’s take on a recipe.
Those How do you make that? conversations are not just about cooking. My father would call regularly asking for the same two recipes: fried chicken and Hollandaise sauce. I remember thinking, “Why doesn’t he write it down?” but I came to love those requests. It reminded us both of my grandmother (a Hollandaise maker extraordinaire) and of the days when fried chicken was a once-a-week meal. Now, when my grown children request a recipe, I am equally touched.
During World War II, my friend Monna remembers the meager meals at her school outside Paris. “Once a week we’d have a treat of fresh bread from the local baker. With each bite, we’d pretend it was something we really loved. Roast chicken! Chocolate cake!” Longing for full stomachs, the girls dined on their food memories. Her experience brought to mind the poignant In Memory’s Kitchen: A Legacy from the Women of Terezin, an extraordinary collective memoir by starving prisoners at a Czechoslovakian ghetto/concentration camp. Written by a number of different hands, the original manuscript (now in the Holocaust museum in Washington, DC) contained remembered recipes from their former lives. Attempting to resurrect those lives, these women nourished and somehow sustained themselves through memory. The writing of this collection was no quiet activity either: arguments flared over the correct way to make a certain dish. “We never used eggs! There was much more sugar!” And thus time passed.
My folklorist friend Miriam first told me about interleavings. These are scraps of paper, ticket stubs, old envelopes, receipts, and all manner of jottings found in cookbooks. A treasure trove of information for anyone curious about a family, a community or an area. I knew immediately what she was talking about having gone through many old family cookbooks. In one old book belonging to my mother-in-law, there were letters between friends containing recipes but also plenty of news and gossip. Putting some pieces together, I realized these folks lived no farther than 30 miles apart but rarely used a telephone. Word of mouth via the pen.
- Cookbook Interleaving: A French hotel bill with dried flowers
I found the interleaving pictured above in Leslie Forbes’ beautiful book A Table in Provence. I might not have remembered that my friend Rolf gave me the book if I hadn’t seen his hotel bill (and the dried flowers). A social scientist might find it interesting that in 1987, an American couple spent the night at the Hotel Beaurivage in Cros-de-Cagnes, had breakfast, and it cost less that $25.00.
Asking questions (Where do you shop? What about farmers’ markets? Where are the bargains?) eases you into a new neighborhood. If you’ve just moved, word of mouth information gives you a jump start in the process of feeling at home. For new parents, the world of baby food is much more compelling to talk about than to read about. Dieters, folks cooking for one, heart patients, party givers, in short, everyone benefits from direct talk about food.
So, don’t forget to ask your Aunt Tilly for that chocolate cake recipe before she gets any older.
Here are a few recipes I pass around frequently.
And happy cooking! xoxo, Mary
* Eggs shells will stick to very fresh eggs. After about a week, the interior of the egg and its membranes will shrink slightly, creating an air space. After hard boiling, the egg is plunged into ice water which slightly contracts the contents and when cracked, it’s shell slips off.
I really like zucchini raw and came up with this salad and it’s gotten a lot of raves. I do not add the dressing until just before serving – the salad should remain cool and crisp!
- 8 small zucchinis cut into a small dice
- 1 bunch cilantro, chopped without the stems
- ½ cup cashew nuts, coarsely chopped
- 1 small shallot, minced
- 3 tablespoons soy sauce
- 3 tablespoons olive or canola oil
- 1-2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
- Optional: 1 clove garlic minced
In a bowl, toss the zucchini, cilantro, nuts, and shallot.
Combine the remaining ingredients, whisk thoroughly, and mix into the salad.
Variation: Zucchini and Chard Salad
- 1 bunch Swiss chard
- 4 small zucchinis cut into a fine dice
- ¼ cup cashews, coarsely chopped
- 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce
- 2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
- 2 tablespoons canola or other oil
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
Strip the stalks from the Swiss chard leaves and cut them fairly finely. Put in a saucepan with a small amount of water. Cover and bring to a boil. In the meantime, cut the leaves into fine shreds and then crosswise (so that the shreds are not too long). Add these to the pot with the stems and cook a few minutes or until just tender. Drain and cool.
Toss the chard with the zucchini and nuts. Combine the remaining ingredients to make a vinaigrette and pour over the salad. Toss well.
Spicy Peanut Dip
I have been asked for this recipe more than any other. I got the recipe from my sister-in-law Debbie and changed it a little, using peanuts rather than peanut butter. That’s the secret!
- 1/4 cup tea, cooled
- 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
- 1/2 cup soy sauce
- 2 cups salted peanuts
- 1 teaspoon sesame oil
- 1 cup mayonnaise
- 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
- 1 tablespoon chili paste (or more, to taste)
In a food processor, grind nuts until fine. Add everything else. The dip will become quite thick and can be thinned with water or tea.
Serving suggestions or Are you ready for this?
Snacks: spread it on celery sticks, apple slices, crackers and flatbreads
Appetizers:to accompany a raw vegetable platter
Wraps: spread on lettuce or rice paper wrappers with various fillings such as rice, chicken, shrimp, fish and bean sprouts
Sandwiches: the PB and J using a jam such as rhubarb, guava, or lime marmalade ; the PBB and J which is the same plus a little crispy bacon
Main dish: as a sauce with cold soba, udon, or rice noodles. Thin the spread with a little water or cold tea just to a pouring consistency. Garnish with chopped peanuts and mint. Also, as a dressing. Thin the spread with tea or water and add diced cooked chicken or turkey, chopped red peppers, carrots, and green onions. Serve on a bed of shredded napa cabbage.
Dessert: use a dollop on top of vanilla or coconut ice cream. Garnish with mint. Or spread a thin layer on ginger cookies and fill with ice cream for ice cream sandwiches.
My Fried Chicken
What I can tell you about fried chicken is that if you make it often, it becomes very easy. The problem is that virtually no one eats fried chicken every week so it’s a bit harder to get practice. I learned this method of frying chicken from Margaret Miles, now in her nineties. She has lived most of her life in Kentucky and her recipe is, I believe, as genuine as it gets for southern fried chicken. She always drained her chicken on newspaper and I still do that but you may prefer paper towels.
Serves 4 – (8 pieces)
- 1 fryer
- 1 cup flour
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano or oregano and basil mixed
- 2 cups, approximately, oil for frying or Crisco (see note below)
- Cut up the fryer into 8 pieces (2 breast halves, 2 thighs, 2 drumsticks, 2 wings), reserving the wing tips, the back, and the giblets for another use. (Such as chicken stock)
- In a paper bag, combine the flour and seasonings. Margaret only used salt, pepper and paprika but I like a bit of dried herb which I rub between my fingers as I add it.
- In a large heavy skillet (cast iron is best), heat oil to a depth of about ½ inch. Heat up to nearly smoking.
- As the oil heats, shake several pieces of chicken in the flour mixture. Carefully, slide a piece into the oil. If it immediately starts sizzling, the oil is hot enough and you can add the rest.
- Cook about one or two minutes just to ‘seize up’ the chicken pieces and then turn them. Again, cook one to two minutes.
- Turn again, lower the heat to very low, cover the pan and cook for 15 minutes.
- In the middle of the cooking time, carefully turn the chicken (the coating will be soft and fragile).
- After the cooking period, turn up the heat all the way, remove the cover and cook on each side until it is as browned and crispy as you like. This will take about a minute per side. Don’t walk away during this step.
- Remove and drain on paper towels. Salt each piece and serve immediately. Also good cold.
Just a few caveats:
- A fresh good quality chicken does make a difference in taste and is worth spending a little extra on.
- In the US, the thinking now is don’t wash chicken – it just spreads bacteria around the sink. If you do wash it, it should be lightly patted dry (not bone dry!) before shaking with the flour.
- Frying: Never drop food into hot oil – always slide it and take care turning it to avoid splashing. I use metal tongs so that the meat isn’t pierced when I turn it.
- The oil: it must have a high smoke point such as peanut or canola. Margaret used Crisco and that’s what I use. Crisco is now trans-fat free.
- Covering the chicken: leave the lid a bit askew so the steam can escape. Otherwise when you remove the lid and turn up the heat, you risk a lot of painful grease popping.
- Cooking time: 15 minutes covered time is an approximation. Don’t overcook it or it will be dry. If I’m cooking a lot of chicken, I use two pans and cook the thighs and drumsticks separately from the breast as dark meat takes longer to cook.
Added bonus…..Cream Gravy
Also called milk gravy, this stuff puts you over the top in every way imaginable… it’s good on biscuits, mashed potatoes, or rice. You can also make this gravy using chicken stock (it just won’t be cream gravy).
- Crunch and dripping from the frying pan
- ¼ cup of the seasoned flour from frying the chicken
- 2 cups milk
- Salt and pepper
Drain the oil out of the fried chicken pan reserving all the crunchy bits. Add the flour and stir over low heat for a few minutes to cook the flour.
Add the milk, stirring until thick with a whisk or wooden spoon, adding a little more if the gravy is too thick. Taste and season with salt and pepper