How to eat a peach. The cookbook club - fourth meeting
Dear Mrs. Diana Henry,
Nowadays, buying a good cookbook has become an overwhelming task; there are just too many of them. Chefs, politicians, writers, painters, actresses, reality show celebrities, athletes, athletes´ wives, household appliances companies, even the group of mothers at the school close to home, they all have written a cookbook. Which ones are worth getting and which ones are not? You, with your more than 4000 volumes, will surely be able to shed some light in the matter. You mentioned that you flick through a book in order to see whether you can or cannot find enough irresistible dishes, and if so, that is the sign you should get it. I have come back home with copies that pretended to be something they were not and disappointed me deeply. Others were a momentary romance and ended up being banished to the land of oblivion - in the back of the bookcase. There are others that have turned out to be a successful purchase and have become good partners over the years. And then, there is your book.
It all started when I heard about it in a podcast and the name stuck somewhere in my head. One day, I saw it by chance in a bookstore (where I had entered to buy a collection of short stories - not another cookbook) and I couldn't resist the temptation to take a look. I recall feeling surprised when I touched the cover and saw how the velvet hairs caressed my fingers - it was as if I was touching a green peach, not yet ripe. I also remember being captivated by the couple of paragraphs I read out of curiosity. I guess you could say your book passed the flick test. What happened next, as they say –is history.
Of all the cookbooks I've bought, this is the first one I read from beginning to end in one night. Many have told you that your stories resonate with them, that they seem familiar, and at the risk of sounding repetitive and unoriginal, I say so too. Mrs. Henry, I felt that this book was written for me, just for me and for no one else. While I was devouring the pages, as if it were a criminal romance (no offence intended), I wondered several times: had my husband contacted you and provided you with material telling you about my crises and misjudgements in the kitchen?
Right from the start, a connection was established between you and me. A good author is one who knows his audience, and you know very well to whom you directed your book. I am your audience. It is I who wants to know what people eat in other lands; who researches other cultures and their customs before taking a trip; who brings back scraps of memory that I want to revive in my kitchen; who gets obsessed with the remaking of an unforgettable dish. It is I, who wanting to do too much, finds myself dipping my hands in the meat marinade or kneading with a rolling pin a fold of puff pastry late at night. Too much -in fact, is the term that underlies much of what I do in the kitchen: too much stress, too much time, too many quantities, too many dishes, too much lavishness, too much complication, too much disorganization, too much exhaustion. Your book of calibrated, balanced menus without unnecessary excesses, has opened my eyes and showed me the way to practicality - something my husband has been trying to do for quite a long time.
But it was not a menu that we chose for our cookbook club meeting, and rather individual recipes from different menus: Arroz negro with romesco sauce and aioli; Braised pork with ginger and star anise; Roast tomatoes, fennel and chickpeas with preserved lemons and honey; Summer sandal cocktail; Spatchcocked chicken with chili, garlic, parsley and almond pangrattato; and, Chocolate and olive oil cake. Each one of us wanted to travel to a different destination, during different seasons of the year. Sitting around the table, the aromas and colors made us forget for a moment that we were in Beijing. The arroz negro could have benefited from an addition of white wine, but in general, the dishes had their own personality, with well defined and vibrant flavors. The consistency of the chocolate cake was a bit fragile and its appearance rather reminded us of a low-rise quiche, but the flavor was intense and fragrant.
When cooking some of your recipes, intuition is very important. I have the feeling that your book is aimed at someone who knows how to read between the lines, who feels at ease in the kitchen, who has spent time between pots and pans, who is familiar with certain cooking techniques. Nach Waxman, founding partner of Kitchen, Arts & Letters, says in one of his essays that cooking is a complex process that goes beyond us simply complying with instructions as automatons. Many expect an author to guarantee the unquestionable success of the recipes offered, when it is rather the cook who must think, judge, use his intelligence, follow his instinct to make a recipe work. There is no place for rationality and accuracy; the kitchen is not a laboratory nor the recipes a formula. We are not aiming at the verification of results; they are not the most important, it is the process what matters to us. How can we not agree with this logic?
And precisely, your book inspires us to play with our imagination. Mixed menus, an additional hint of this, a substitution of that or an extra ingredient to obtain equally phenomenal results. For me, these elements, combined with a compelling narrative, are
what makes a cookbook worthy of our attention and deserving of a special place on our bookshelves.
Mrs. Henry, after having had this first rendezvous with you, I was not only left wanting to know more about you, but also to go out and get the rest of your ten cookbooks.
Sincerely and, looking forward to our next meeting,
P.S. The members of the cookbook club awarded nine of ten points to the book, however, for me, this book is beyond any kind of grading system, because how can one give a score to a book that has been written for her?