Sunday, July 11, 2010

Kitchen Devils

Ann Hodgman wrote a cookbook called Beat This! The premise of which is that she has perfected the chocolate chip cookie, devilled eggs, meat loaf and so on. She invites her readers to ‘beat this’ that is to say send her an even better version. She can make anything better she says; she’d just add bacon and chocolate. (Weirdly I was recently presented with a tiny bar of chocolate and bacon, which disproved Ms Hodgman’s theory.) But the reason I started this meander is, like all cooks, I am looking for the Platonic Ideal of my favourite dishes.

I’ve found some. I will look no further for my ideal cheesecake. My niece Mei Anne will tell you that my macaroni and cheese bows only to the serving spoon. I have recounted here the path to the perfect pain de mie . . . However, I remember my dad saying he could never be a stamp collector because you could never have ALL the stamps. You can never have ALL the recipes but you can have an awful lot of them and worse luck, however careful (read anal) you may be, some will go astray. If there are kitchen gods, then I think there must also be kitchen devils.

Case in point, I found my perfect pasta puttanesca in an olive oil ad in Food & Wine magazine. Strange admission time: for years I have been cataloguing my cookbooks and magazines, i.e., the recipes I want to try and when this is done rating them, making notes about ingredient substitutions, etc. Imagine my frustration when I discovered that despite having years of back issues, in order, the one I want, October 1994 is missing.

When I began my catalogue of recipes I thought that I would eventually try them all. Instead, the culinary universe is expanding and the Kitchen Devil is abroad in the land. He let that magazine slip away with the recycling. The rice salad recipes my friend Lynda wanted? He has tucked them in the back of a cookbook containing something else I was cooking at the same time.

Perfection is the enemy of good. You hear that a lot lately. At the risk of sounding flippant, everyone’s got enemies. “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” You hear that a lot too. What most people don’t realize is that the “speaker,” Browning’s Andrea del Sarto knows himself to be a failure, a cuckold and a cheat. Now I don’t think there is any shame in being a cuckold, but my point is I retain the vestiges of my girlish figure because I will only eat perfect cheesecake.

I will drive myself and anyone within 100 yards of me crazy, because I can’t find the rice salad recipes, not even on epicurious. I will mismanage my own system and discover that I’ve just made eight servings of a recipe I’d already tried and found wanting. The devil isn’t just in the details. He’s in us.

Beryl Wrote Gems
Beryl Bainbridge died July 2. The BBC interviewed someone, I think Kate Moss (the novelist, not the model – super models don’t get out of bed for less than $10,000 and not at all for departed novelists, methinks). The BBC reporter asked her why she thought Bainbridge had never won the Booker, though she was short listed five times. Before Kate could respond I told my iPod the answer: her books were too short.

Short like diamonds are small, like a little semtex packs a big bang. Short like a well timed glance can cause gales of laughter and silent tears can reflect a howling grief. No doubt about it, Beryl’s humour is delivered on a sharp blade. Her characters aren’t often likeable, but they are human. And she conveyed it all in so few brush strokes.

My friend Carolyn introduced me to Beryl. She gave me The Birthday Boys, about the doomed Scott expedition, and Every Man for Himself about the Titanic for a house warming gift (a bit ominous, now that I think about it, but never mind, I loved them.) I was off. Off like a pig after truffles. Off like a Sandra after chocolate. Not pretty, but very satisfying.

Kate Moss said she thinks that in years to come According to Queeney, my favourite, Bainbridge’s account of Samuel Johnson’s last days and his patron Mrs. Thrale and her daughter, Master Georgie, which deals in part with the Crimean War, and The Birthday Boys will be recognized as works of genius. I agree. Perhaps as we survey the consequences of excess, politically, environmentally, and fiscally, the zeitgeist will make more room for small treasures.