They all laughed when I sat down to play the Choux.

My cookbook collection. Perhaps a bit single minded?

My cookbook collection. Perhaps a bit single minded?

I learned to cook from a book. When I was fourteen or fifteen I picked up my mother’s copy of The New York Times Cookbook by Craig Claiborne and just started cooking. I think the first thing I made was Choux pastry so that I could make éclairs.

Yes, I know: fifteen years old and making éclairs. Hey, it kept me off the streets, alright?

Chefs may sneer at my learning from a book, but I never had any pretense about being a chef; that’s not my thing. I’m more from the school of cook well so you can eat well.

After my years as a child prodigy, my interest in cooking would then lay dormant. One day, like Rumplestiltskin waking up from his extended snooze, I found myself, wooden spoon in hand, stirring something in a pan. Poof: I was cooking again.

This has had some strange repercussions, the most notable being that unlike many New Yorkers, I rarely eat out. I think that has as much to do with my enjoyment of cooking as the fact that I was a waiter for many years and couldn’t bear to set foot in a restaurant for a long time. No busman’s holidays for me.

My naissance as a cook aside, I noticed recently on Mad Men that Don Draper was eating a dinner of cold chicken salad, Ritz crackers and a can of Bud which the director made a point of showing Don’s wife open with a church key.

(A church key is the little metal tool we used to open cans and bottles before the advent of the pop top and screw top.)

(OK, I will now pause while you insert the joke of your choice about how old I am.)

(No, I do NOT remember the strip mall they tore down to build Stonehenge.)

(The latter was for those of you who could not think of an “old”  joke.)

ANYWAY, watching Mad Men has made me think about the food of the sixties. I mentioned some weeks ago in this blog that I am always fascinated and distracted by food used as a prop in plays, movies, and TV shows. Don Draper’s chicken salad dinner is no exception, but it also made me wonder about the various fashions that come and go in food.

One of the current fashions is cupcakes. Cupcakes are everywhere, and frankly, without mentioning any names, some of them just aren’t that great. The point is though, that at some point cupcakes will get tired, and people will be waiting a half hour in line for something else. Lest you think I’m wrong, think back on the Chipwich and the Dovebar. Yes, you can still get them, but like Madonna’s punk wardrobe in Desperately Seeking Susan, you just kind of laugh and think, “Wow, I forgot all about those.”

My New York Times Cookbook was published in 1961, coincidentally the same year in which the first season of Mad Men is set. I always use this book like a dictionary, usually on a very specific mission, consulting the index first. But I have never read it like a novel, starting from the beginning. Reading the book that way gives you an almost Edith Wharton-esque view of mid-twentieth century food fashions.

You need only go a few pages in to find a world awash in aspic. The best way to describe aspic is that it is basically an amber-colored savory Jello used as a garnish. This lost world is landscaped in chopped aspic, aspic cut into neat geometric patterns, and aspic used as a coating on food, kind of like the shellac on a culinary decoupage. An appetizer of Galantine of Turkey wears its aspic coating like the tuxedo on the Maitre D’s who used to man the doors of fancy hotel restaurants.

The Galantine is the first recipe in the book, and like the opening number of a floor show at the old Copacabana, it is big and ornate. Bring on the dancing girls! Picture a fifteen pound turkey completely boned, flattened, and stuffed with fat back, veal, tongue, duck, raisins, and nuts. It is then rolled in cheese cloth, simmered in broth, chilled, and coated with aspic like a big fat bug trapped in amber. Wheee!

I don’t know how folks in 1961 reacted, but my 2009 mouth is agape.  I honestly can’t decide whether I should be revolted, or struck dumb with admiration. Everyone has an old aunt with a living room like this.  On the rare occasion that Auntie sweeps the plastic dust covers off the furniture and lamps, you’re blinded by the flash and brocade and realize you’re standing ankle deep in a plush-carpeted time capsule.

Admittedly, in 2009 we are perhaps a bit too aware of making sure we can see our feet in the carpet at all times, so I got to thinking, “Don’t be so damn judgmental.” After all, Thanksgiving is just eight weeks away. How many people across America are already thinking, “Yum! Time to order the Turducken!” And isn’t Turducken (and Turporken) just the hillbilly cousin of the Galantine?

Plus ca la change, plus ca la…plush carpeting.

But if you walk back into Auntie’s kitchen, pull up a chair around old Auntie’s dinette, and have your first adult conversation with her, you’ll find her well read, well travelled, with some good stories to tell, and still a great cook. Old Auntie didn’t have a food processor or Kitchen Aid stand mixer. A recipe direction to use a mortar and pestle to grind some spices is not unlike being admonished that we young folks have it so easy.

Yes, there is plenty of “goo-gaw” in the book, but if you wade carefully past the eight different kinds of pate, the monosodium glutamate called for in more than one recipe, and a tempting lesson on how to make your own Danish pastry, “…fit for a Royal Dane,” you end up with an aesthetic that is at once wise, worldly, and reliable.  That, along with Claiborne’s sprinkling of pithy advice, such as reminding the reader to, “…add garlic according to conscience and social engagements” remind me why this book remains a relevant touchstone in my kitchen—especially when I am trying to expand my repertoire.

Now before I go any further, I need to mention another appetizer recipe just a few pages further in. For this recipe, Claiborne wrote a short annotation:

“This appetizer has become almost as popular as pizza pie in metropolitan America but it is still worth repeating.”

Hint: You need to be a certain age to remember this appetizer. I only vaguely remember eating it as a kid—maybe it was at someone’s wedding, I’m not sure.

I speak of Rumaki.

How’s that for a name out of the past? Pizza, thankfully, is still with us. As much as I’d like to say, “Hey, let’s revive this old treasure and make it the new cupcake!” I’ll now print the list of ingredients to illustrate why Rumaki, like the hoop skirt, is not likely to have a comeback, er, return:

  • 6 chicken livers
  • 18 canned water chestnuts
  • 9 bacon slices cut in half
  • 9 scallions, sliced thin lengthwise
  • ½ cup soy sauce
  • ¼ tsp ground ginger
  • ½ tsp curry powder

Intrepid souls or folks into giving Mad Men-theme parties can click here for the full recipe. For the rest, suffice it to say that you make toothpick kabobs of the liver and chestnuts, and wrap them with the bacon and scallions, marinade in the soy sauce and spices, broil and serve.

We could, however, update this recipe by replacing the chicken livers with, say, thinly sliced chicken or beef tenderloin, couldn’t we?

Ah, now I’ve got your attention! All of the sudden my mouth is watering. See what I mean about this book? I’ll start experimenting…

Just by coincidence, my other “go-to” book is How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman. Bittman is Claiborne’s direct descendant at the New York Times.

Finally, there is an irony here that is not lost on me. I am writing a blog, singing the praises of a cookbook anthology of fifty-year old recipes from one of the great metropolitan newspapers. In 1961, nobody could have known the price technology—like blogging—would extract on our newspapers. But I’m hoping that by changing their recipe a bit, as they seem to be planning to do, the great metropolitan newspapers will stick around. Like pizza pie.

Leave a Reply

Follow ButterFlourBlog on Twitter