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The Commons
Life and Work

Carrying the language of food in their hearts

Cookbooks ring a chord

Originally published in The Commons issue #142 (Wednesday, March 7, 2012).

BRATTLEBORO—This time of year, I often sit in front of the fire with a pile of cookbooks at my feet like a little group of faithful dogs. I pick them up one by one, leaf through the pages in a leisurely manner, not necessarily looking for recipes for tomorrow’s dinner.

Cookbooks filled with ingredients and methods can be strangely devoid of a voice or a story that makes me care about the food described. I know why I cook, what joy it gives, what sadness it soothes, what lessons it offers.

I want to read a book by a cook who writes about her own obsessions, desires, and failures and about her particular links to the kitchen.

Out of the many cookbooks that I read and love, a few favorites always make me feel that I have come home.

I am unashamedly enamored of Nigel Slater and his gorgeous, juicy, two-volume set, Tender. Ruth Rogers and the late Rose Gray of the River Café in London have three books filled with beauteous food and instructive prose.

Marcella Hazan’s straightforward and classic take on true non-Americanized Italian food is frequently found open on the counter at dinnertime. There is southern Edna Lewis and so-very-American James Beard, Marion Cunningham, and Jasper White. There is Alice Waters. There is the irreplaceable Joy of Cooking.

Then there are the books I take to bed with me to read slowly and carefully while I lean back into my pillows, not worried about what time I have to get up in the morning

These books are filled not only with dynamic, captivating recipes but, more importantly, with voices that speak the same language of food that I carry in my heart.

You might know these women and their books, in which case, like me, you will love hearing about them all over again. If you are not familiar with them, it is my great pleasure to introduce you to my kitchen heroes.

* * *

Maida Heatter is a energetic, tiny 95-year-old who lives in Florida and is the most brilliant dessert maker on earth. She was educated at Pratt Institute as a jewelry maker, but when her husband opened a coffee shop in Miami in the 1960s, she baked all the pastry and soon found herself teaching others how to do the same.

In the early 1970s, she came to the attention of Craig Claiborne, then the editor of The New York Times food section, and that was that.

She believes in “the recipe” and in following the recipe. She gives meticulous, precise instructions that produce delicious, beautiful desserts. Every recipe of hers I have ever made has been sensational, and if I could only have one dessert cookbook, it would be one of hers.

Maida Heatter taught me to sift, to measure precisely when baking, to test the temperature of my oven, and to really use cake flour when it is called for. These four rules make the difference between okay and sublime. She is funny and irreverent and tells a story with each recipe she gives.

So when I make her Palm Beach Brownies with their layer of York Peppermint Patties (believe me when I say they are divine), I feel that she is somewhere in the kitchen, smiling her broad, happy smile, and telling me that story all over again.

She is said to always keep a few brownies in her purse to give away: “I wrap them in cellophane so that people can stick them in their pockets and take them home to eat later,” she writes.

* * *

Elizabeth David is in some circles better know for her disdain of social convention than for her actual writing.

Born in 1913 in England, David spent her life traveling, falling in and out of love, drinking, smoking, studying art and theater, eating great food, learning to cook it, then writing about it.

I have always thought of her as the black sheep to Julia Child’s white lamb. Their lives spanned the same years and they held the same interest in European cuisine, but each approached the question uniquely.

Child produced books with precise, technique-driven recipes, professional and removed in tone (unlike her television persona, which was quirky and entertaining). David produced many small books that focused on the seductions of ingredients: olive oil, eggs, vegetables, herbs. Her recipes are written as narratives, with very little precision but much sensuality.

Her first book, Mediterranean Food, was published in 1950. Post–World War II Britain was a bleak, gray, cheerless place. There were no braids of dried garlic, baskets of lush ripe tomatoes, or gleaming liters of golden olive oil for sale in the markets. England was still living under food rationing, and The Naked Chef had yet to be born.

David returned to this gloomy world after years on the Continent, and nowhere found the food she had grown to love during her years skirting the olive groves. She began writing a series of articles on food and cooking for the English Harper’s Bazaar.

She not only introduced the English to a range of foods unknown to them, she also introduced the idea that cooking was an art deserving of time and effort and completely within the reach of even the most modest cook. She taught me reverence for ingredients, reliance on my own kitchen instincts, and appreciation for the beauty of simplicity.

* * *

Mary Francis Kennedy Fisher was an American food writer who died in 1992 at the age of 83. She is the author of countless books of thick and insightful prose, a translation of The Physiology of Taste, and the following quote, which is from her book The Art of Eating.

“It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others,” she wrote. “So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it [...] and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied [...] and it is all one.”

Definitely my kind of cook.

Like David, her personal life was complex and sometimes filled with great sadness. In 1928, she left college, married her first husband, and sailed to France, where they lived for three years while Al wrote epic poetry and Mary Francis explored the food that would come to form the focus of her life.

Through subsequent divorces, love affairs, children, family madness, and the suicide of both her second husband and her beloved and troubled brother, M.F.K. Fisher maintained a strong hold on that connection between hunger and love and warmth in a series of books that I never cease to find extremely moving.

I can’t quite decide if she deliberately used food as the conduit for her musings on life or whether the two were so intertwined in her own experience that there was for her no separation between them whatsoever.

She taught me that we are all hungry and that our hunger is not merely for food but for the comfort and the happiness that often elude us in life.

Sometimes I can, with a little work and the companionship of these three woman, find that solace in my kitchen.

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