5: Old and on the Shelf

Getting reacquainted with a long-lost (and meaty) friend

First off, Happy Birthday, Mum! In April, when I had to cancel my 50th birthday party, I did not think we would still be staying apart. All the more to celebrate in 2021, I guess. At least we’ve made it past the winter solstice and light is no longer receding but instead returning.

Like food itself, cookbooks are also closely tied to memories for me. I can (pretty much) remember where and when I got each one on my shelf, or who gave it to me. Some have particularly strong ties for me, like Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat, which has almost completely fallen apart since I ordered it from Barnes & Noble when I lived in Osaka. It may have been one of my first online purchases.

Many cookbooks don’t hold up after 20 years, but this one does (just not physically). Its combination of more formal recipes with looser guidelines quietly encourages you to step back and use your own judgement instead of shackling yourself to the printed instructions. I first read about her “Exceptional Salmon” in Saveur and soon after ordered the whole book. When I came home from Japan, it was the first thing I cooked for Beth.

Around the same time, I took a train from Toronto to Memphis to visit my friend, Billy Barnes. Or I tried to. At the Port Huron border crossing I was removed from the train and driven back over the border to Sarnia. I’d been deemed inadmissible to the US for a number of reasons including:

a) I didn’t have a return train ticket. (Billy and I were driving back to Toronto.)

b) I didn’t have much cash with me. (Credit cards)

c) The addresses on my ID didn’t match the address I had provided. (Whoops. I’d just moved back from Japan and was still using old addresses.)

d) My deodorant and toothpaste didn’t have any French on them. This, the border officers felt, was proof that I was actually living and working illegally in the US, since anyone residing in Canada would certainly have bilingual packaging. The truth was that my boss in Osaka, Lee, who was from Indiana, had bought me many multiples of deodorants and toothpastes—It was nice to have familiar brands but expensive to buy them in Japan.—on a trip home.

I had valid answers to all their questions, but even I could see that this was too many red flags to let slide. Dropped back at the Sarnia border crossing, I took a cab back to the train station to learn that the next train to Toronto was 6 or 7 hours away. At the Lambton Mall I yawned my way through Jurassic Park III and dawdled in Coles, where I bought a copy of Jacques Pepin’s Complete Techniques, a compilation of two of his earlier books, La Technique and La Methode.

There aren’t enough books that focus on the technical aspect of cooking instead of recipes. How to cut an onion. What sweating vegetables is and why you’d do it. Like Nigella’s book, it helps you start taking steps away from what’s printed on the page and start trusting your gut. If you feel lost without a recipe, this is a great place to start feeling found.

The cookbook that I have the strongest memories of, without a doubt, is Sheila Lukins’ and Julee Rosso’s The New Basics Cookbook. Written and art directed in the same style as their 80s-defining Silver Palate cookbooks, it aimed to be a much more comprehensive resource. In that way, it created a template for cookbooks like Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything series and Cook’s Illustrated’s The New Best Recipe. It was given to me by my mother at Christmas in 1989 and it too has fallen very much apart.

I read through it so much that thirty years later, I can still remember chapter titles like The Pig Stands Alone and recipes called Berta’s Chopped Liver and Potato Pie Chez Louis. In contrast many of the books it spawned, The New Basics didn’t strive for a somewhat generic ideal for each dish or a comprehensive survey of American cooking. It covered a lot of ground, but it all felt very personal. The whole book was exuberant and sensuous, not clinical or exacting, as so many cookbooks have are today. The recipes were fundamental, but they were often far from basic.

Our second last soup swap of the year was going to be a blind, wildcard swap—make something that can be lunch, it doesn’t have to be soup, and don’t tell anyone what you’re bringing. I knew almost immediately that I was going to bring The New Basics’ ridiculously meaty Hearty Tomato Meat Sauce.

Ten sausages, a pound of ground meat, and a pound of ribs! I made it a few times in my last year of university. I have no memory of how I would have afforded that much meat, but I am quite sure, given my appetite in those days, that I didn’t waste any of it.

The procedure is pretty standard. First the meat gets browned. The recipe specifies that the sausage is cut in half. I took this to mean cut lengthwise, but as soon as I finished I realized they probably meant cut across the sausage. Oh well.

Oh, and that red thing, it’s a Frywall, which I find to be much more effective for keeping the stove and counter clean than a traditional splatter screen, especially with a strong hood fan.

Diced onions get browned in the rendered fat and then everything gets added to a large pot.

And three 28-oz cans of tomatoes go in as well.

Then wine, an entire can of tomato paste, some dried oregano (Hello, 1989!), bay leaves, and what was novel to me when I first made it, lemon zest.

I also tossed in a few parmesan rinds from the bag of cheese rinds I keep in the freezer. And then it’s just a matter of time and patience. After many hours of barely simmering in a partly covered pot, it’s a sauce that is among the most satisfying meat sauces I’ve ever made.

It was a good swap. In return I got latkes from Christie and cabbage rolls from Hilary. Nothing lasted very long.

What I’m Consuming…

What’s on the Menu…

  • Gravlax at Christmas is a tradition in my (Japanese-Scottish-Canadian, completely non-Scandinavian) family. It’s curing in the fridge as we speak. I may do a mini-issue in a couple of days to show how my recipe, which is based on one in The New Basics, has evolved.

  • Beth and I usually do not have traditional Christmas dinners, opting for something special that we both really love. This year it’s raclette.

  • For the past few Christmases, Beth and I have chosen a filmmaker and attempted to watch their entire oeuvre in chronological order. First we did the Coen brothers, which was pretty easy. Last year we were more ambitious and went for Steven Spielberg. We hit some barriers. Neither of us saw Hook as children, so we have none of the fond associations that many people apparently do. We had to will ourselves to watch it. We got as far as Amistad, by which point we were into the run of movies released while Beth was a publicist for Dreamworks, meaning she had seem them all possibly fifty times each. Saving Private Ryan is next on the list and it was just too daunting and the quest petered out. Until this Christmas, when we’ve vowed to get through the rest of them. We’ll see how it goes.

However you celebrate this time of year (or have already celebrated it), I hope it is restful, restorative, and delicious.