Archive for November, 2011

chef's hatAs I’ve mentioned before, I love to cook. I also love to read about cooking, and with Thanksgiving coming up food is definitely on my mind. So here are thirteen books that are fun to read—some of them include recipes, but not all. Most, however, include a lot of enthusiasm about food.

1. Ruth Reichl, Garlic and Sapphires. I’m a late addition to Reichl’s fan club, but I’m here to tell you the woman knows how to write about taste. This book is her account of her years as a restaurant critic at the New York Times and it’s both hilarious and touching (it tells you something about Reichl that she can actually be touching when she talks about food).

2. Jacques Pepin, The Apprentice, My Life In the Kitchen. Pepin’s account of his career as a chef—it’s unpretentious, funny, and endearing. Plus if you’ve ever wondered about the origin of the famous SNL sketch where Julia Child bleeds to death while pleading with us to “save the liver,” Pepin can tell you about it.

3. Jessica Harper, The Crabby Cook. Harper is one of those irritating people who’s had several successful careers—actress, children’s songwriter and singer, and now cookbook writer. Her account of cooking for her husband and two insanely picky children is hilarious, even if it does include dinners with Richard Gere.

4. Peg Bracken, The I Hate To Cook Book. A classic, recently reissued. Bracken doesn’t really hate to cook, but she has limited time to do it and she assumes you do too. If some of the recipes are a little dated, they’re still fun to read.

5. Jason Sheehan, Cooking Dirty: A Story of Life, Sex, Love and Death in the Kitchen. If you’ve ever wondered how your food gets cooked and served in a restaurant, Sheehan will tell you—more, in fact, than you ever wanted to know.

6. Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential. I have a love-hate relationship with Bourdain, and frankly, it’s mostly hate (his disdain for home cooks as opposed to chefs rubs me the wrong way). But his accounts of how chefs work are fascinating, and in truth he’s almost (but not quite) as tough on himself as he is on Paula Deen.

7. Alton Brown, I’m Just Here For the Food. I’ve also got a love-hate relationship with Alton Brown, but here it’s mostly love. I enjoy Brown’s quirky approach to food science, but frankly I like reading about what he does more than using his recipes.

8. Lynn Rosetto Kasper and Sally Swift, How To Eat Supper. I love Kasper’s NPR show The Splendid Table, and this book has the same kind of well-informed but good-humored approach.

9. Christopher Kimball. The Kitchen Detective. You either enjoy Kimball (editor of both Cooks Illustrated and Cooks Country and host of America’s Test Kitchen on PBS) or you find him insufferable. Most of the time I enjoy him, and The Kitchen Detective has all the kind of obsessive-compulsive approach to cooking that you get in his magazines.

10. David Zinczenko, Eat This, Not That 2012. Okay, I know, what’s this doing in a list with Jacques Pepin and Ruth Reichl? Zinczenko, like a lot of diet gurus, doesn’t seem to have much appreciation for the pleasures of food (although he’s very clear on the dangers). Still, I get a kick out of reading just how screwed up many fast food restaurants are, turning something as healthy as a chicken sandwich into a nightmare.

11. Julia Child, My Life In France. A wonderful portrait of Europe during the fifties and of Child’s coming of age as a chef while learning to cook. Generous, funny, and beautifully written, it’s a must for anybody who wants to see where the Julia sections of the movie Julie and Julia came from.

12. Bill Buford, Heat. If you’re an enthusiastic home cook, like me, and you’ve ever thought about apprenticing in a restaurant to improve your techniques, Buford’s book will cure you.

13. David Kamp, The United States of Arugula. I can’t imagine sitting down and reading this book straight through (the print is insanely small for one thing), but if you’re interested in the origins of the current mania for good food and good cooking, Kamp can tell you all about it—and he does.


So who did I miss? What food books are your favorites?


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woman writingSo the hero in my current WIP is from Louisiana. I can hear his voice in my head when I write his dialogue, which is always handy (the voice is sort of based on some Louisianans I’ve known, although the character isn’t). But when it comes to writing that dialogue out, I have some problems. The voice I hear drops a lot of g sounds at the ends of words. But when I write the dialogue, those g’s just won’t disappear.

Dialects are a pain in the butt, y’all. Basically, if you decide to use them when you write, you can’t go halfway. If the character says gonna and gotta in one place, you’re pretty much stuck with having him say it in all the other places too (unless the first one is clearly meant to be a joke). I mean, can you have a character who says gonna at one point and going to at another? I think not.

But this, in turn, means you’re going to have to pay attention to how you want to spell this stuff and you’re going to have to be very careful when you write the dialogue. If you decide to have a character refer to them as em, you know it’s going to have to be spelled ’em EVERY EFFING TIME. Then there’s the whole spellcheck problem. I get a start every time I look at the page and see all those little red underlines (Word hates dialects).

I find that instead of using dialect, I sort of rely on my readers to do it for me. With any luck a couple of darlin’s will be enough to give a reader the clue that this particular character talks kinda slow (kinda is, of course, another butt pain word).

My other problem with dialects comes as a reader, though. I purely hate any dialogue I have to read out loud in order to get the gist. I just read a couple of classic British mysteries where the author had secondary characters speaking in unfamiliar British regional idioms. I had to repeat each speech carefully in order to figure out what the hell the characters were saying. And then I got to experience the true joy of realizing the speeches themselves weren’t that important. The author had apparently thrown them in for “local color.” Do I have to tell you I wasn’t pleased?

More skillful writers convey the sound of the character’s voice through the arrangement of words rather than weird spellings and apostrophes. Sarah Smith deals with a lot of different social classes and nationalities in  her Vanished Child series, and she does most of it with the words people use and the way they arrange them. Apostrophes do not necessarily dot her pages.

There are a few books where the dialects used are crucial. Huck Finn leaps immediately to mind, for example. I wouldn’t have Huck speak any other way. But I’d argue that those examples are rare. Any time you see a lot of apostrophes coming up, you’re probably in  for a tough time. And as a writer, after a couple of pages of advanced punctuation, you may decide to take that good ol’ boy from South Louisiana and make him an insurance salesman from Dubuque.


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chef's hatSo Anthony Bourdain is at it again. The author of Kitchen Confidential and the host of No Reservations has a bone to pick with the Food Network. Mainly, he hates a lot of their chefs, or rather he hates a lot of their cooks.

In the professional food world, chef and cook have particular meanings. Chefs usually have degrees from culinary schools and are the heads of kitchens. Cooks have no degrees and learn by doing. In a restaurant they’re the ones who cook the meals the chef creates.

Bourdain considers most of the Food Network’s female stars, who lack the requisite degrees from culinary school, to be the equivalent of second-rate restaurant cooks. He gives Rachael Ray a pat on the head because she’s cute and nice, but he dismisses her food as “mediocre” and sometimes plain awful. Sandra Lee is “as stupid and untalented as Britney Spears” (on another occasion she was “pure evil”).

But his vituperation of Paul Deen is the most extreme: Deen is “the worst, most dangerous person to America” because she knowingly creates terrible recipes that will increase the already dangerous level of obesity in the US.

Now it’s worth pointing out that Bourdain himself got his start in French cooking, which is hardly a model of healthy food, given its abiding love of butter and heavy cream. But there’s more going on here than simple hypocrisy, I think (or simple self promotion—every time Bourdain takes another swipe at the Food Network, he gets national coverage). Bourdain and his buddies are doing what chefs have done for generations. He wants to put those uppity women back in their place.

You see, there’s a larger meaning for cook than just the one used in the restaurant trade. Cooks are also the people, most frequently women, who get the meals on the table across the country, hell, across the world. They’re the ones who try to figure out what to serve a bunch of hungry people every night, usually people who are related to them either by genes or affection. There’s a long tradition of learning from these people since they’ve spent a lot of years in front of a stove, frequently developing and maintaining the recipes of a family or a culture. There’s also an equally long tradition of holding them in contempt, at least from the point of view of the professional chef, particularly the male professional chef.

But my question is this: why are restaurant chefs necessarily the ones we should learn from? It’s true that restaurant chefs get meals out the door every day and night, and their volume is a lot higher than home cooks. But home cooks like me don’t have a lot of the things they take for granted. My stove can’t get super hot, for example, and neither can my oven. Prime cuts are out of the question even if I could afford them since they almost never show up in grocery stores. In fact, grocery stores don’t carry a lot of the items that restaurant chefs can’t live without, including exotic herbs and fresh seafood (most of the fish in my area is frozen). So I may get a kick out of watching Mario Batali work, but I know damn well I’ll never be able to duplicate what he does in my home kitchen. No, if I want to see something I actually have a chance of cooking at home, I’ll turn to someone like Sunny Anderson or Ina Garten.

And why shouldn’t ordinary cooks have a voice too? If I wanted to know certain things—how to fry chicken or fix collard greens, for instance—I’d sure as hell take Paula Deen’s word over Anthony Bourdain. The woman may not know how to make beurre blanc, but she’s done a country-fried steak or two, and she did them on a standard kitchen range.

So I’ll go on enjoying restaurant food when I’m in a restaurant and I’ll go on enjoying Batali and John Besh, but I have no problem watching a woman in a home kitchen show me how to cook meatloaf. At least I’ll have a fighting chance of being able to do it myself.

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