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[whitespace] Escape to the Kitchen

How reading about food can be almost as fun as eating it

By Rachel Kessler

The Measure of Her Powers: An M.F.K. Fisher Reader
Introduction by Ruth Reichl
Counterpoint Press; 432 pages; $20 paper

Pot on the Fire: Further Exploits of a Renegade Cook
By John Thorne, Matt Lewis Thorne
North Point Press; 416 pages; $14 paper

On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen
By Harold McGee
Simon & Schuster; 824 pages; $22 paper

THERE ARE TWO kinds of cooks: intuitive and cookbook. Babetchka, my best friend's Czech grandma, simply exhaled and there was kneidleiche, a big sausage-shaped potato dumpling she sliced and fried up with eggs. When my friend and I got older, we asked Babetchka for recipes. She just clucked her tongue and said, "Vatch," so we hovered with pen and pad in the steamy kitchen, scribbling down ingredients and guessing at measurements. Then we attempted, unsuccessfully, to distill a dish from our documentation. We wound up asking Babetchka to repeat her cooking lessons and eventually learned alongside her, making our own crumbly, sticky dumplings, fetching this or that from her garden or cellar, getting underfoot, transported by the wisdom of tradition.

Intuitive cooking--like learning to write music by ear--requires a knack, but also a school of thought, a way of learning and of living. Babetchka had been trained like a jazz musician; I was more like a church organist. My "grandma" was an assortment of cookbooks, beginning with my mom's nuptial Better Homes and moving through the two shelves of volumes I consult now.

I TURN TO BOOKS about food and cooking for inspiration on what to cook, a language in which to speak about the experience of eating, and, finally, to escape the drudgery of the task. As a young mother and a freelancer, the specter of housewife hovered until I bumped into an M.F.K. Fisher essay, "Two Kitchens in Provence." Without romanticizing, Fisher evoked the beauty of participating in the cyclical, seasonally dictated labor of preparing food for a family. I began to appreciate cooking a la bonne femme as a creative challenge under the formal constraints of budget. Fisher's world-view of cooking celebrated the minutia, honing details into near-poetry.

Like the poetry I enjoy, food writing is sensual. It indulges in lyricism, dwells on particular texture, flavor, aroma. Reading these authors allowed me an escape from my by-the-book cooking. I witnessed the flow of creativity, desire and wisdom in their kitchens. They instructed while expanding upon pet theories and passions.

John Thorne, in his new book of essays and recipes, Pot on the Fire, engages with hilarious theories on picnicking, porridge and prosthetic appetite. Thorne, whose Simple Cooking I also read voraciously, lovingly documents that most intimate of cuisine, the three square meals I am currently intertwined with. "If I had spent the same amount of time making this meal from a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese dinner, the work would have been less, but the experience would evaporate into nothing ... on the other hand, there is nothing in the making of mac-n-cheese to offer true challenge to the good cook ... But mastery of the difficult is only one of the rewards of cooking, and it is worth remembering now and again that there is a humbler gift a dish can give a cook: the pleasure of its company."

On Food and Cooking: the Science and Lore of the Kitchen maps out historic, cultural, evolutionary contexts that Harold McGee uncovers with fascination and glee. Besides validating my everyday, McGee's scientific particulars provide factual framework for my own theories.

In the pages of these books I find a comforting resonance in our shared interest in sustenance, exchanging tips and treasured recipes as cooks have for centuries. These writings supersede the isolation of American kitchens, shiny with appliances and gourmet magazines. These common appetites and documented daily lives preserve and structure the much-maligned American cuisine--not flashy restaurant cooking.

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From the November 8-14, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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