There were always only two marginally clever possible titles for this post. I chose this one for several reasons.
This week Deb Perelman’s “The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook” arrived to me, unceremoniously dumped in its delivery box over my porch railing (our mail carrier is not the most careful, as the wads of advertisements half-shoved into our mail slot prove). That was the last blasphemous treatment it received, however. I went through it page by page, almost shouting at nearly every recipe, because all sound delicious, and many are simply brilliant. Her combinations are unexpected but make complete sense, and her writing is so human and real and honest – on the site as well as in the book – that I can’t stop picking it up and flipping through it again. It doesn’t matter which page I open to. I’m drawn in by the food but also by the language, and together they make me want to run to the kitchen every time.
That was Tuesday. By Friday, I already had a plan to make every last thing in that cookbook (my first choice involves eggplant, and chickpeas, and tahini, and cumin…), and after a quick round of grading and laundry, I was in the car on my way to Beverly Hills, where Deb was doing a cooking demo and cookbook signing at Williams-Sonoma.
Without having this sound weird and stalker-ish (I’ve apparently become a fan-girl, what can I say?), Deb is lovely and I’m so glad I had a chance to meet her. (I also spotted Joy the Baker in the larger-than-Williams-Sonoma-anticipated crowd, and eventually awkwardly introduced myself. She was lovely as well). I got to ask a question that came out somewhat awkwardly and – I think, though N. keeps telling me this is silly – sounded like I was asking how much I would have to adapt a recipe in order to avoid plagiarizing someone else, which by extension (only in my over-analytical brain, I suspect) sounded like a passive-aggressive suggestion that no one is capable of original recipes, no matter how they might try. Sigh. Not what I meant, of course. What I was trying to ask was motivated by the teacher and scholar in me: we are taught simultaneously that there is nothing new under the sun, AND that we must be original in our thoughts and products. But chocolate cake isn’t new. There’s a formula for it that, yes, can be tweaked and fiddled and caressed into something a bit new, but at what point does that start being yours, instead of the recipe you learned from? I suppose it comes down to a question of copyright, and I don’t know how that works in the world of food.
Despite my clumsy question, which came out sounding – at least to me – somewhat combative, Deb said she thought it was more about technique and writing style than about complete recreation. If you introduce a helpful method within the confines of the recipe, or if you write the directions or description in your own fresh way, the dish becomes yours through your additions to the conversation. You become, I suppose, an author rather than a reader. It’s very medieval, in a way: authors were “auctors,” or authorities, but to gain that authority they pulled from other sources. Only God was the true, original creator. Men could only imitate and produce imperfect copies. That’s why I think the combination of cooking and literary studies meshes well for me: it’s all about reading, or chewing, mulling things over in your mind (and mouth) to see what you think of them. Once you have had some thoughts of your own, once you have digested your meal, you have an opportunity to create: writing becomes cooking becomes writing. You string carefully chosen words together and cultivate them into the form you want before sending them off to be read – consumed by your audience.
Deb made cranberry crumble bars, one of the recipes in her new book, before stationing herself at a little table to sign book after book after book. One of the WS employees made rounds sharing samples of three different recipes from Deb’s book. These sustained us during the 90 minute line snaking (or snailing?) through the store, passing walls of such debatably ingenious gadgets as a banana slicer, a juice squeezer for single slices of lemon, and a coil potato masher (this one was pretty cool, though. I must admit to wanting one).
And then we were around the corner and Deb was signing my little placard from WS (they ran out of books long before the event started, and this was their work-around: order a copy, get a placard, stick it into the book yourself when copies arrive. I already had a copy, but I wanted a signature, so it looks like someone’s getting a tasty Christmas gift…) and chatting, and asking me the name of my blog(!), and then N. and I were tasting apple cider caramels and glowing back into the sunlight of Beverly Drive.
I have Bittman reports to share with you – figs and orange juice and sweet potatoes and bourbon – but I think this deserves to exist on its own. More tomorrow.