Monday, January 30, 2012

How to Cook in Your Sleep

I often stay up too late at night to read, but I've lately surprised myself, violating my bedtime by reading a cookbook.

The difference between a standard cookbook and An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace by Tamar Adler is the difference between, say, King Lear and The Actor and the Text. A standard cookbook is a script of recipes, often very good ones, but Adler's book is about how to think about food in such a way that cooking and eating make sense.

The book doesn't have many recipes in it, but that's just as well for me, a person who isn't good at following recipes. I got used to improvising upon recipes when I found out I was allergic to dairy but was still determined to eat whatever I liked. I also tend to skip any step in a recipe that looks sensitive or inconvenient, as long as the food looks and smells right while I'm cooking it.

An Everlasting Meal is about cultivating the right attitude toward cooking and eating. She treats ingredients as though they have personalities and volition of their own. To her, asparagus is happiest when roasting in olive oil, and chicken bones have a deep yearning to become broth. "An egg can turn anything into a meal and is never so pleased as when it is allowed to do so," she writes. I love that.

She makes the food complicit in the way it's being eaten. So you don't say, "What do I want to eat?" Instead, you look in your fridge and say, "How does this kale want to be eaten?" (Incidentally, kale in our fridge usually wants to become kale chips. I force it into being salad with lemon and goat cheese sometimes, but it really likes to be vinegar-y chips.)

Here is a video she made, which is essentially a visual summary of her chapter on vegetables, entitled, "How to Stride Ahead."

How to Stride Ahead - Part Two from CJ Richter on Vimeo.

Some lovely, well-meaning acquaintance gave Blade and me the Williams-Sonoma Bride and Groom Cookbook as a wedding gift. The book claims to be an introduction to the basics of keeping a proper kitchen and instructions on how to cook things everyone should know how to cook.

I paged through it not long ago and found that I didn't have any of the bafflingly specific equipment needed to make the "basic, essential" recipes. I'm sure that's because Williams-Sonoma paid someone to write the book, and Williams-Sonoma wanted me to register for all their gadgetry. (This book is probably on its way to Goodwill soon.)

In contrast, Adler's chapter, "How to Paint Without Brushes," she advocates "not filling your kitchen with tools, but becoming, rather, the kind of cook who doesn't need them."*

Now, it's late at night, and I haven't been able to sleep, because I need a book to read. I finished An Everlasting Meal a couple of days ago, but the books I've casually picked up since haven't held my interest. I might fry an egg instead.

*Except for wooden spoons: "A writer named Patience Gray recounts the provenance of her favorite wooden spoon. ... It came flying out a kitchen window at the climax of a couple's squabble, and she picked it up and kept it. I buy a wooden spoon whenever I see one I like because I may need to throw something, and a passerby may need one." Dear Tamar, can I be your friend?


  1. I keep trying to figure out if she's wearing a wedding ring in her videos. No luck. Ah well. I suppose I would need to at least start by reading her book, anyway.

  2. Awesome! I'm going to need to read this book. I love reading cookbooks ... ones that actually have text ... and I agree that wooden spoons are the most important tool to have (in my mother's kitchen they were used for spanking too so I have an odd association with them but love them all the same). My best wooden spoon comes from my mom's kitchen and it is rather short-handled but very, very smooth.

  3. I finally know what to get you as a wedding gift!

    Do you have a ladle? Do you use ladles?

  4. Marty -- I tried to Wikipedia that for you, but she doesn't have a Wikipedia article. I thought about creating one for you that would say that she's NOT married and is looking for a philosophy/comedy guy.

    Courtney -- If you can't find the book at the library, let me know, and I'll bring it next Pomegranate for you to borrow.

    Lauren -- We have a ladle, though I don't think we got it as a wedding gift; I may have bought it at Goodwill once upon a time.

  5. I am glad that you didn't plant such an article for me to find. I'd have probably been halfway through a letter to her before stopping, looking out the window, and thinking, "wait..."