June 10, 2008
MarkBernstein.org
 

The Art of Simple Food

I fancy that, in the introduction to this inviting volume, we hear an echo of Isak Dinesen's "I had a farm in Africa."

My delicious revolution began when, young and naïve, I started a restaurant and went looking for good-tasting food to cook.

The restaurant was Chez Panisse in Berkeley, the year was 1971, and the revolution was complex. The first part is now well known: Waters found that she couldn't buy the ingredients she wanted and, unlike American chefs before her, she wouldn't make do with substitutes or imports, but instead built a network of growers who cultivated produce and raised meat specifically for her. Nor was she content with simply getting great ingredients to her restaurant: she lobbied everyone else in sight to do the same thing, and to patronize the same growers, and so the growers made more money and their neighbors began to emulate them. Out of her kitchen, she set up a series of former employees as bakers and suppliers. And, while she was at it, she made her kitchen the training-ground for an entire generation of American chefs and restauranteurs, many of them women, and they went on to transform the industry Unless you know the story, that line about "my delicious revolution" gets lost.

This manifesto masquerades as a recipe book in two sections. First, we have about 30 pages of introductory essays: what to have on hand, what to cook. These essays are lively and engaging reading for any cook, and they can open your eyes. Waters is the Prophet Of Fresh, but after explaining what staples you absolutely need in your pantry (garlic, onions, shallots, celetery, carrots...), she takes time out to list about fifty dishes you can make using nothing but the stuff you have in your pantry -- that is, dishes you can make for dinner when you just couldn't manage to get to the store. It's terrific to be reminded of what you can do when you have nothing to cook tonight: whip up some carrot soup, a cheese souflée, roast shallots, and finish with lemon curd or butter cookies, and who would know that you couldn't be bothered to shop?

The second section of the book discussed "foundation" recipes, exploring food groups and styles through a few exemplary recipes. We start, characteristically, with salads: how do we make a decent salad? The breads, broths, beans, pasta, and on to baking, satueeing, braising, poaching, and grilling. The book then concludes with hundred and fifty pages of recipes that can be treated more concisely because the foundations have been covered.

This volume, then, is a mirror to the new Ruhlman: where The Elements of Cooking supplements some essays with a glossary, The Art of Simple Food supplements some essays with a recipe book. In both cases, the author (or their editors?) are trying to hide those unpopular, unsalable essays in a more palatable and familiar melange. In both cases, I think, the essays are by far the strongest point. The foundational arguments can be done as well by Sally Schneider (The Improvisational Cook , but only Waters can tell us about her delicious revolution.