I grew up thinking that women cook and men eat what women cook.
Then I got married.
After my wife had straightened me out about that, it wasn't long before I learned that most American of lessons: emancipation is a two-way street. Melissa wasn't the only one who'd been set free; from now on I could cook and eat whatever I wanted whenever I wanted it. I had been liberated!
Needless to say I headed straight for the barbecue and hot sauce.
But it wasn't long before I realized a steady diet of ribs and firehouse chili will take a toll upon even the most iron-clad of digestive systems. So—hesitantly at first, a commando parachuted behind enemy lines—I began to read cookbooks, and was amazed to discover there were cuisines out there besides hot and hotter.
But then a new problem arose.
Maybe it's me. Maybe I have the attention span of your average Chihuahua ... or, then again, maybe I've discovered a flaw fundamental to all cookbooks ... but whatever the reason, there's no denying that after I've cooked, eaten, and fallen in love with the first two or three recipes in a cookbook to catch my eye, the remaining entries inevitably leave me—and my skillet—cold.
Now you have to understand, I'm far from rich. Truth be told, I'm holding on to lower middle-class status only by the skin of my pretensions. I can't afford to buy every cookbook that comes down the pike just so I can use one or two recipes from it.
Which should go some way toward explaining why I thank Providence for the discovery I made shortly after going to work at the library ... the place is loaded with cookbooks—cookbooks that cost not a cent to use! (They don't call it the Talbot County Free Library for nothing.)
The cookbooks begin about half-way down an aisle in the library's non-fiction section, wrap around the far end of that aisle, then march back up the opposite side to form a sort of culinary cul-de-sac. Whenever I wheel my book cart back into this u-shaped cove, I feel as if I've sailed into one of the late eighteenth century's celebrated trading ports, London say, or Canton. I can point my craft in any direction and the scent of spices, the fragrances of the world's great cuisines, drift out to meet me.
Of course it was the smell of hickory smoke that first caught my attention ... Boy Gets Grill, Smoke & Spice, Barbecue Nation ... these were the titles that initially set this old war horse's nostrils a-quivering (and soon forced him to loosen his belt a notch or two as well). Then the rich earthy scents wafting from Diana Kennedy's The Essential Cuisines of Mexico twined round my olfactory bulb and it wasn't long before tortillas and posole were crowding out the baby-back ribs on my plate.
Well, you can see where this is heading.
Good books, like good food, are addictive. If you don't want to learn anything, don't want to grow, change your life, breathe a new and intoxicating air, never open a book. For once you do, once you take that fatal step, there's no turning back: you've embarked upon a journey without end, each discovery leading to another, each reading to another still. You check the index and there isn't a recipe for refritos, so it's back to the shelf where, finding a book devoted to the humble bean, you are surprised and delighted to discover yourself caught up in the long and noble story of this most basic of foods.
For that's another thing books have in common with food: both of them, when good, almost always come accompanied by great stories.
A very beautiful, very wise French lady once told me the reason her daube tasted so good was that she had gathered the thyme and mushrooms with which she flavored it herself, that the wild boar that constituted its main ingredient had been shot by a friend, that she knew the valley where he had stalked the beast, and, finally, that she herself had once, while looking for four-leaf clovers in that very vallée , been terribly frightened to realize she was smelling pig. Then, winking at me, unashamed by her learning, she added, “Besides, it is a daube that Mrs. Ramsey serves her guests in the greatest dinner scene in all of English literature, n'est-ce pas?”
Not too long ago I found the recipe for Mrs. Ramsey's daube on page 322 of Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Years before I had found Mrs. Ramsey herself in Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse. You can find both books, free of charge, on the shelves of the Talbot County Free Library.