Thursday, December 26, 2013

Review: "Old-School Comfort Food" by Alex Guarnaschelli

I've said before that no one will ever love me as much as I love food.

I love eating food. I love preparing food. I love shopping for groceries to make food. I love copying out recipes for exciting new food I haven't tried to make before. I love watching shows about people who have way more skills than I do making (and then eating) food.

My favorite food show is Chopped, in which pro and semi-pro chefs are handed a basket of mystery ingredients and challenged to whip up an appetizer, entree, or dessert before time runs out. Invariably, the basket contains something weird and terrible like squid brains or a bag of gummy bears.  I've learned a lot about cooking from watching these chefs tear through the kitchen, turning disaster into deliciousness.

(If you haven't ever been forced to watch Chopped with me, dear reader, you can watch a few full episodes here to get the idea.)

On this my favorite show, I have a favorite judge: celebrity chef Alex Guarnaschelli. Alex (to use the familiar form of address) is a little grouchy and a little ridiculous. She likes her food to be "whimsical" and has a very disconcerting habit of staring unblinkingly at a contestant while she lifts a forkful of food to her mouth. (She also apparently has a 'thing' for burly firemen, but one must watch a lot of Chopped before that become clear.) As the executive chef at two top New York restaurants, and the daughter of another famous cookbook editor, she released her own cookbook earlier this year--entitled Old-School Comfort Food: The Way I Learned To Cook.

On Christmas Eve I read this cookbook cover to cover. I texted my favorite lines to fellow Chopped lover Traci of Traci J. Brooks Photography, who had given me the book as a present. I snapped phone photos of the food and of Alex's goofy illustrations, which I suppose is the foodie equivalent of sexting. And I cried a little bit, but that might have just been the Christmas Eve talking.

Food is love, isn't it? I bet every chef has talked about food being love (and love being food) at some point in their life--whether in their kitchen or in their cookbook, in an interview or on a TV show about stealing blenders, or in a dim booth in some late-night dive over one too many glasses of whatever fancy-schmancy wine chefs are supposed to drink.

(As I type this, I'm imagining some outraged chef, red-faced and spittle-flecked, pounding the table and insisting that food is food and nothing else, and also that love is a lie. Then my imaginary outraged chef begins crying into a beurre blanc, whatever that is. It's Christmas Eve for him inside my head, too.)

But I digress.

Yes, food is love. If you take the much-discussed Five Love Languages, you'll find that they are about food, too. Food is time; food is a gift; food is an act of service. Food is about touch, intimately so: the sizzling touch of meat to a hot pan, the delicate touch of a knife blade against the fragile skin of a tomato, the seductive touch of caramel melting over the tongue.

And food is definitely about words. From "I'll have the soup of the day" and "What's the recipe for this" to "Brown already, the guests are almost here" and "Please don't be burned, please don't be--AUGH" and lastly, the three most sublime words in the English language: "om nom nom."

Even in solitude, food is love.

While I'm cooking alone, it's an act of generosity to myself. I want to take care of the body that putters around all day. I want to treat my palate to the flavors it likes best. (Sometimes that's nothing more than ramen noodles with eggs stirred in. Other times, I'll go for broke and make cider vinegar steak with roasted asparagus and goat cheese-stuffed mushrooms on the side. This love is unconditional.)

While begging the egg whites to just turn to stiff peaks already before my hand gets a cramp, I'm thinking about the friends to whom I'll be serving those meringues. I think about the time I made them from memory for my grandfather, who passed earlier this year, and the rum balls one of my aunts brought to the same Christmas. As the cookies go into the oven I dwell on the memory of that lovely time.

While meticulously copying out recipes from cookbooks to put into my file, I look for gluten-free, dairy-free, egg-free treats I can share with the people who matter most to me, whose allergies make cooking for them a challenge. It's a challenge I want to rise to meet, because cooking for them is--here we go again--a labor of love.

So food is love. Let's take that a step further and say that love is family.

Family is a concept that has a much broader embrace than we usually think. It's grandmothers and grandfathers, parents and children, but it's also that small family of two lovers hand in hand. It's the boss who has your back and the friend who brings you soup when you fall ill. It's the barista who recognizes you and slips you a free drink. It's the online buddy who sends you care packages when your beloved cat dies.

On Chopped, the great majority of the contestants list their family as both the reason they started cooking and the reason they want to win. They tell stories about the girlfriend who postponed grad school in order to support her partner's cooking career. The children whose favorite dish is the very same one the chef has just offered for the judge's critique. The grandmother in Guatemala, whose delectable recipes comprise the chef's earliest memories, never written down and now lost to time.

The memoirs of cooks are never a listing of what dishes they served at which restaurant. Instead, they talk about the great chefs who trained them, and the people who worked on either side of them in the steaming hell of a line kitchen. That is a family of a sort, too: a temporary one, where blood is shared (remember: the worst accidents are caused by a dull knife) even if genes are not. These memoirs are punctuated by the food they ate with this white-hatted family; each dish mentioned has a human story behind it. The food is the memory, and the memory lives on in the food.

Food is love, and love is family. Why not take it full circle to say that family is food? Family, whatever its shape in your life, is what fuels you. It gives you strength to get up out of bed. Family is the flavor that sets your people apart from the faceless crowds of the world. Family is sweet, overpowering, sour, smoke-filled, cold, comforting, full of zest... all in turn and all in time.

Food is love, and love is family. and family is food.

Now, about the cookbook in question: Alex Guarnaschelli wrote a really good cookbook. It's full of funny anecdotes and Alex's little cartoons of food (the sad parsnips were my favorite.) She offers recipes that are delicious without being absurdly complicated, and doesn't have her knickers in a twist about storebought ingredients. Her approach to flavors uses a lot of "brightness," which I like in my own food--bringing the flavors out of a dish with just a touch of acidy citrus, or a dollop of sour cream, or a splash of vinegar. I'm a big fan. It's a good book. The end.

No comments:

Post a Comment