Category Archives: Culinary Diversions

The Best Worst Cookbooks

 Russ Parsons of the LA Times recently reached out to ask the industry’s opinion on the most important cookbooks.  Most of the contributors ponied up Joy of Cooking, the Times Life Series, Escoffier Larousse Gastronomie and a few other classics. James Beard, Craig Claiborne and Dianne Kennedy made the list. Emeril, Martha Stewart and  Jamie Oliver did not.

About five years ago I did my own important list, or more accurately, my not important list. My books followed Parkinson’s Law: Matter expands to fill available space (Cookbooks multiply to fill then overwhelm available shelves.)

My collection over-filled three walls of shelves. Some  had to go. The only way to make the cut was to determine not what I wanted to keep but what I didn’t want. I’d watched an unhinged family hoarder try to make a path through the material chaos of her home enough to realize the futility of the “Lets keep this and I can do away with that” approach on anything with the emotional burden of cookbooks. Fortunately the real rotters in the cookbook field are childishly easy to categorize.

The Culling list:

1)      Any book mentioning speed or time. The speedy gourmet cookbook. Ten minutes to French Cuisine. These byproducts of women’s liberation which promised women that they could pursue their careers and still put out a health meal on a napped table. Take out made the obsolete.

2)      Any book mentioning human body parts, processes or infirmities: The Lower your cholesterol cookbook, Chef Markus cooks for a healthy liver, The Good Digestion Cooking Bible.

3)      Hollywood celebrity cookbooks including the Vincent Price cookbook ( now selling for about $300). Somehow Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ Cross Creek Cookery and The Rich and Famous Cookbook survived the cut.  Rawlins included recipes for venison. Cookbook irony is good. If Hollywood celebrities could cook they’d have restaurants. You wouldn’t buy an acting guide written by a chef.

4)      Dinner party and cocktail party or hors d’oeuvre cookbooks: The Perfect Party. The Perfect Hostess. Cook For a Crowd! (Whoopee!!) Having lived the Mad Men years, I have no desire to revisit their food.  If I remember correctly, most of the guests were usually too inebriated to know if the dinner tasted good or not.

5)      Appliance specific cookbooks including a few food celebrity books for the first Cuisinart, microwave oven and, of course, the blender.

6)      Any books with pinkish pictures of tomato aspic, stuffed mushrooms and spinach soufflé or gray veal in gray sauce.

7)      Cooking with wine books. You need a book for that?

8)      Anything gender specific. Sunset had a few inane paperbacks announcing the wondrous fact that men, if the recipes were simplified and the heat source charcoal could actually make food. Men? Imagine that.

9)      Any book which, if opened to a random page, included canned soup or flavored salt in an ingredient list.

10)   All but the earthiest and simplest ladies’ guild self-published cookbooks. I have no idea how the Flavor of Pittsburgh slipped past me (French Fried Ice Cream Balls? Tangerine Pie?) but it’s staying just for funkiness.

11)   25 years of Gourmet Magazine. Except the cookie issue.

12)   Porn disguised as cookbooks. Very seventies.

I recently went to the local book store in search of a book in pickling by Sandor Katz. I found a new category that I didn’t need to deal with : TV Celebrity Chef cookbooks. I rarely watch food shows, so perhaps I am missing something, but I suspect that ten years from now cooks buying these books now will be loading them into bags for the Good Will.

Just in case you have too much book space and are bemoaning not having had a shot at these books, you still have a chance to own books chock-a-block full of thoroughly superfluous mediocre  recipes: Every year the San Francisco Public Library has a book sale crammed full with the culinary literature ripped from shelves like mine.


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Farming as Spectator Sport

Time was people couldn’t wait to get off the farm. My father’s family put up everything they had to leave their Oneida truck farm and head out to own and run a small transient hotel in considerably more urban Sterling Colorado. The hotel still had a garden patch – it was the depression and growing food meant having it – where my father picked potato bugs until he was able to escape to college and the eminently more luxurious life of a printer’s devil, who slept under the printing press of the Boulder newspaper. I never once heard him speak wistfully of the experience.

To a generation forced to read travails of the Job family in the Grapes of wrath,  farming sounded less than romantic, until the Hippies resurrected and altered the concept in a back to the land rush of families and co-ops, living in buses and communes across the country and raising equal crops of corn and pot . I missed that bullet, but fate and hormones (call it love if you will)  moved me to a town on a plateau in the Jura mountains with twice as many cows as people and a mish mash of cross hatched fields and orchards, farm gardens and eventually our own plot. In the second season our plot took on truck farm proportions thanks to a borrowed tractor,  and I was, like it or not, farming, at least by todays altered criteria.  I thought it was gardening at the time, but the concept has been adjusted to meet our romantic nostalgia for what you probably didn’t know, so that any meridian or sidewalk cutout with a stray carrot now counts as a farm.

I escaped the Alp in ’85 to a city house with too much land behind it and found myself caught up again in the world of digging forks and slugs and soil amendments, aiding my newly divorced budget to feed a twelve year old. It was my lonely love hate cross to bear 2008 created a gardening explosion.

Alice Waters and Slow Food, with vast funds, installed a “Victory Garden”  (what were we trying to vanquish, actually?) in  the City Hall Plaza. The “plots” were made of straw bumpers filled with luxury soil and planted with pre grown flowering and fruiting “crops” by a few hundred eager volunteers – there was a waiting list – while Alice stood on the steps with her hands folded and took a lot of credit but no dirt under her nails. His Honor Gavin Newsom, on the other hand, was down on his knees planted pre grows heritage beans and nearly grown kohlrabi and romaine with the disciples, Godblessem.. Waters claimed the plot was producing 200lb of food a week for the homeless,  (I’d guess more like fifteen).

Of course this was not really farming. Nor, for that matter, was it extreme gardening. It was container planting. Someone described it more precisely as agro decorating – placing fully grown plants in a tastefully created pattern of improvised containers. Real farming involves seeds and weeds and fungus and worrying that grubs and funghi don’t get it before it’s big enough to resist. It’s all muddy boots and washing off the leeks so as not to stuff up the drain with mud. Containers are not farms.  Nor does farming involve around the clock guards  (more volunteers) to keep the bums from snatching the tomatoes and relieving themselves among the squash.

The “Victory Garden” was an immediate success. San Franciscans marched reverently through the paths separating the snap peas from the corn in awe, few remarking that the VG’s tomatoes were free from the early blight and powdery mildew which afflicts our own coastal vines. Waters, aided by an adoring and unquestioning food press,  urged America to go out, rip out their lawns and plant corn and tomatoes, and rip they did. Local stores ran short of Burpee’s seed and Home Depot hired new garden sales people.

With the Slow Food spin the construct of d.i.y. food production eventually morphed from garden  to “Urban Farm” – a term conveniently offered up without contest by the Urban  Farmer drip watering supply store near the zoo. It inspired thousands of urbanites to plant something – most of them to plant way too much and too many. My neighbors dug up their heavy clay and asbestos containing serpentine soil and started a plot, but gave up when reality set in, leaving the weeds to blow seed into my own 26 year old vegetable garden, where my version of vegetable gardening (It really isn’t farming) involves swearing a lot of blue streaks and plenty of Advil.

Organizations like Slow and the Commonwealth Club tossed fuel on the smoldering farm romanticism through panel discussions with Farmer Al from Frog Hollow Farms. Tours were organized to familiarize the city folk with the new organic farm practices.

It was probably Farmer Al,  a mountain of a man with a mind to match, who thought first of the entertainment value of farming. Frog Hollow has some of the best stone fruit in the state and a full kitchen, where Al’s  pastry chef wife creates jams and pastries available at the Ferry Plaza Market. Big Al figured his packing shed  could house a long table and the kitchen could provide food.  For a hefty fee  he could bring us city slickers out there, run us around the back forty on a tractor bed and feed us an organic banquet under the corrugated tin roof. He started something.

Farming has become a spectator sport. You take your kids to the zoo to see the monkeys, you go  to the farm to see the rutabagas. There’s something enchantingly Victorian about the public’s urge for self-betterment through the investigation of the source of things.

Of course farm tours as marketing tools for seed and produce salesmen have been around for years. I have been on a few, and I enjoyed them terrifically, but I considered them part of my job. I could never resist the temptation to make a quick bend and  yank out some miners lettuce or grab a handful of soil and play with it, deciding if it is loam or clay or envy it’s damp black coastal crumbs.  It was fun because most of the people who were there know about the product or the process – we smelled leaves and tasted tomatoes and wondered what the market price would be.

I got an invitation today from Les Dames de Escoffier for a farm tour – $48 to visit the farms at the University of California at Santa Cruz with lunch made by a graduate. It’s one of at least five such invitations I have received so far this year to do something I considered work people who have never had the opportunity, it’s probably great fun, but I keep hearing the distant echo of Tom Sawyer and the fence in the new identity of Farming as Entertainment.