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Nashville Scene Book Learning

What is life, except one big mixing bowl?

By John Bridges

NOVEMBER 23, 1998:  I came from a household where there were no cookbooks--at least not any that were actually used. That is because I came from a household where nobody had any imagination, a household where each weeknight's supper menu was as immutable and accepted as God's presence: Pot roast on Sunday, meatloaf on Monday, fried chicken on Tuesday, tuna casserole on Wednesday, spaghetti and meatballs on Thursday, hamburger steaks on Friday, fried fish and french fries on Saturday. Otherwise, we were going to hell.

On a kitchen shelf above the refrigerator, there was a copy of Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book, its red-and-white floral-patterned covers obviously intended to suggest Miss Crocker's Pennsylvania Dutch heritage. By extension, this somehow meant she knew how to make a Nut-Filled Tea Ring rise. As far as I could tell, in my mother's copy of Betty Crocker's Picture Cook Book only one page had ever been used. Goop-stained, it included the recipe for Orange-Glazed Holiday Sponge Cake. Across the top of the page my mother had written, "Tried it. Doesn't Work."

Otherwise, my mother used her one cookbook as a place to stuff things--Salisbury steak recipes from the newspaper, muffin recipes ripped from the side of the All-Bran box, cheese ball recipes clipped out of Progressive Farmer, a Rice Krispie treat recipe distributed by a county extension agent. Except for the bran muffins, none of them was ever used.

When I would open my mother's Betty Crocker book, slips of newsprint and cardboard would flutter to the floor. Sifting through them, I would ask my mother, "Could we make us a cheese ball?" My mother would pause in the midst of pouring a bowlful of cornbread batter into a greasy skillet. Then she would look up at me and say, "Lord, baby, you'd be clogged up for days."

I did not care. At night I would take my mother's cookbook into my bedroom. While my brother stayed awake and read the Hardy Boys, I wandered in realms of Noodles Romanoff, Shrimp Creole, and Hot Tamale Pie. I dreamed of a world in which people ate omelets and canaps and chowders. I longed for the chance to scallop a chicken, poach a pheasant, sift anything with a powdering of confectioner's sugar.

I yearned to make my own Italian meringue, my own little melon baskets, my own six-inch-tall popovers. I was made slightly dizzy by Betty's chapter headings: "How Wild Is Your Game?" "Cozy Puddings That Fit in the Oven," "The Importance of Knowing Our Meats." The very realization that there was something called a "tartlet" made the hot blood rush to my cheeks.

Better yet, I trembled at the thought that, by following simple steps--by sifting thoroughly, folding gradually, stirring over simmering water, and whisking until soft peaks formed--beauty and high culture could come into my life.

On one Thursday night, I was actually allowed to make Betty Crocker's Swedish meatballs. ("Thursday night is meatball night," my mother had said. "I can't see what kind of difference it's going to make.") I told my mother, "This is going to be a special occasion." She served the Swedish meatballs with turnip greens on the side.

At the supper table, my brother looked down at his meatballs and asked, "What's supposed to make 'em Swedish?"

I said, "They're flavored with nutmeg and other exotic spices."

My father said, "Can I get some ketchup on this stuff?"

I still have my mother's Betty Crocker Picture Cook Book. I keep it on a shelf with three dozen other cookbooks. I am sure there are recipes for Swedish meatballs in some of them, but mostly they are about mousses and souffls and pasta sauces and shellfish and low cholesterol and perfect caviar sandwiches and poached sea bass and eating kosher. Julia Child sits next to Jane Brody who sits next to Craig Claiborne who sits next to the Rombeckers who sit next to the imperious Martha who sits next to Natalie Dupree. The recipes I slip between their pages come from The New York Times, Bon Apptit, Gourmet, and a magazine I picked up one time on an airplane.

In every one of them, however, for me there is still magic. When I am lying awake in bed at night, these are the books I still read.

I no longer have to wonder what it would be like to taste Lobster Newburg. I no longer have to yearn for an encounter with haricots verts. I no longer have to fantasize about crme anglaise feeling silken on my tongue. I have done all these things, just as I have done many other things my mother never dreamed of. I have tasted baba genouj. I have my own stash of herbes de Provence. I have been around enough to know the difference between a pate sucre and a pate brisée. If my mother were still alive, she would be fearing for the fate of my eternal soul.

And yet I still have never made osso buco. I have never braised a sweetbread. I have never attempted my own croquembouche. But the doing is not the point. My three dozen cookbooks have absolutely nothing to do with cooking at all. Instead, they are all about readiness. I read them in the same way that I read about museums in Florence and castles in the Tyrol and opera houses in Prague. I read them in the same way I read Edith Hamilton and The Rub‡iy‡t of Omar Khayyam.

I read them for the same reason that I keep a valid passport, for the same reason that I keep my formal shirts starched for use at a moment's notice. I read them for reasons of readiness--just in case, on a Friday afternoon, when I was standing around with a bit of free time, someone were to call me and say, "Do you think you could have a duck a l'orange ready by 6:30 this evening?" I read them just in case, in a moment of desperation, a friend were to call up and say, "Would you happen to have a fresh pan of madeleines?"

I read them because, late at night, it is good to have something to dream on. I read them because, in this life, it is important to have knowledge you may never need. I read them because, even though I have created my own recipe for roast chicken with fennel and garlic, there are still places where I have never been.

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