Thursday, August 02, 2007

Aspirational Food Writings

Recently, things have been picking up at work (which means less blog time at work!); we're in the process of preparing for Christmas. Besides the usual necessary Christmas orders, I'm sourcing for good titles to feature in our in-store Christmas catalogue. (As much as I adore Jamie Oliver, I'm getting a little tired of featuring a new Jamie Oliver every Christmas. But to exclude Jamie for Christmas would be unspeakable.)

As I'm currently the frontlist buyer for our Lifestyle department, the Food and Drinks titles come under my care, and it is one of my favourite categories (Guess what other Lifestyle related titles I enjoy ordering?)

Cookbooks are often lavishly illustrated - the food-styling and photography set to entice. How many of us have bought cookbooks without ever really trying any of the recipes, simply because they looked great when we saw them in the bookstore? My director once remarked: there is something "aspirational" about cookbooks. We see the lovely dishes and we buy the cookbooks, aspiring to be able to recreate these culinary masterpieces. I love to order cookbooks, and I love it that people are buying cookbooks. I imagine them flipping through the cookbooks, testing new recipes, serving dinners or desserts to their friends. They eat, they laugh, they enjoy each others' company. While people do dine alone - and I am one of those who enjoys dining alone - somehow, when I imagine it, dining is a communal experience.

My interest in food related writings have deepened over the past few years since I started buying for the section, which was why I wanted to read M.F.K. Fisher's The Art of Eating this year. She was supposed to be THE Dowager of Food Writings. If I want to read about food, I was informed, I should start with her.

From the 50th Anniversary Edition of The Art of Eating that I'm reading, her reputation is rock-solid. The editors have included pages of raves and praises for her books, by well-known food writers and chefs the likes of Julia Child, Alice Waters, and Jacques Pepin. From these flattering tributes, I'm most fascinated by the one written by Ruth Reichl, editor of Gourmet magazine, author of Tender At the Bone and Comfort Me with Apples. I was also recommended Ruth Reichl as one of the food writers to look out for.

As the story goes, Reichl was once asked by one of her colleague, what he should read to familiarize himself with the works of M.F.K. Fisher. In response, she handed him her very worn copy of The Art of Eating, with this note:

'Mary Frances has the extraordinary ability to make the ordinary seem rich and wonderful. Her dignity comes from her absolute insistence on appreciating life as it comes to her. You'll see.

'Read in this order:

Foreword, p. 353
Conclusion, p. 350
Define This Word, p. 474
Feminine Ending, p. 552
Pity the Blind in Palate, p. 57
A is for Dining Along, p. 577

'After that you're on your own, but if I were you I'd read all of The Gastronomical Me, just because I wouldn't be able to stop myself. I can't tell you how much I envy you the joy of reading Mary Frances for the first time. It will change your life.'

High praise indeed, although I wonder if my life has been changed by reading Fisher. It did make me consider what I eat, and why I eat - and what does my favourite food say about me.

There are some bloggers who are planning to read M.F.K. Fisher for the first time, or to read more of her works. Either way, I believe they will find something to enjoy. When we allow Fisher to work her passion into our system, our eating takes on new significance. I have said it before, but I shall say it again: Consider the Oyster is Fisher at her wittiest. It pains me a little that I am vegetarian and therefore unable to go out for a dozen raw oysters. Seven years ago my dad brought me to Thailand for a awkward bonding trip. He brought me to a restaurant where they served great raw oysters with fresh herbs and lemon. My dad had 5 raw oysters that night, and he was shocked that I had 14. He had known me all my life but he had no idea of my passion for oysters. Perhaps it is revealing of our relationship: All my life, he had little idea of my passions.

I ended up with diarrhoea that evening, but it was worth it all. For the rich, creamy, sea-salty, metallic, lemony favours in my mouth.

I love snails too. Escargot with butter and heavy on the garlic. And the Chinese-styled water snails fried with sambal chilli my dad and I love. We would suck the little slimy buggers out of their shells and the spicy prawn-paste chilli would make us break out in beads of oily sweat on our foreheads and upper lips. My mouth waters when I read the chapter "Fifty Million Snails" from Serve It Forth, where Fisher wrote about her time spent in Dijon, when Papzi prepared only caught snails.

"Why not buy them, then, all ready to eat?" Fisher had asked. And there was a shocked silence. Because "store snails" were "only for those unhappy people" not fortunate enough to have the chance to taste Papzi's caught snails. Real food is worth the wait - is worth the effort to prepare.

When I was still a child, my mother would bake mooncakes for the Mooncake Festival. I would be deployed - with my father - to help prepare the ingredients. One day, my dad and I were extracting the salted duck egg yolks together, I complained, "Why go through all this trouble for mooncakes? We can just buy them from the stores."

My dad gave me his dirty look. He said slowly, "When your mother is no longer around, you will miss these mooncakes."

It has been more than seven years since my mother was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. She had stopped making mooncakes since. I still eat them during the Mooncake Festivals - when we received them as gifts. I have eaten some delicious, well-made mooncakes, some expensive ones bought from famous shops or hotel restaurants. I appreciate their flavour, but it made no difference to me if I never eat a mooncake ever again.

Because no matter how great these store-bought mooncakes taste, they weren't my mother's mooncakes. There's no love in them at all.

On a more personal front, after all my reading on food and eating, I have decided on a more hands-on approach to food. I had plans - great, dastardly plans - to bake vegan cupcakes (recipes from Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World) last weekend. To my chagrin, after seven years of neglect, our home oven has passed on. So. No vegan cupcakes. Damn. To think I have my colleagues lined up to sample my inaugural baking attempt.

But all is well. I have Plan B: Tiramisu, which does not require an oven. This shall be my second attempt to prepare tiramisu. My first attempt was a 50% success. Half of it was decent tiramisu, the other half was dry and un-tiramisu.

I just need to get a whisk and some liqueur. Stay tuned.


Carl V. Anderson said...

Although it seems wild to think you are getting ready for Christmas, the reality is that it will be here before we know it! It is wild how fast time passes.

I miss Jamie Oliver's Naked Chef show. I've seen the newer one a few times and it is just not the same.

darkorpheus said...

What I love about Jamie is how he makes cooking look simple. Like I can do it too? Jamie gives me confidence. :)

Oh yes, Christmas. Humbug. We have all these meetings trying to come up with fresh, creative concepts for Christmas, pretending it's new and exciting. Truth is, Christmas will always be Christmas.

We eat. We drink. I sell the Cookbooks. The Wine Books. The Party Books. By January next year, I sell the Diet Books. ;p

Anonymous said...

Every year leaves me more cynical about the holidays (more so due to the commercial engine associated with them than anything else). It's strange to think how Christmas has now encompassed four months of the year for people in the retail business.

I'd never heard of mooncakes, but they look fabulous.

darkorpheus said...

Kim That's the reality of retail - the holidays are the peak sales periods. Competition is tough, and books are competiting with other forms of entertainment for the dollar.

Sometimes I don't like being in the business side of books - I think it changes my relationship to books, but I deal. Being in the retail side of books allows me to promote the books I love and the love of reading. Everything has its good and bad side.

But I am still disgusted at myself sometimes for selling so many copies of The Secret. Eeek.

Ah, yes, mooncakes. There are different types of fillings - and I prefer the ones with lotus seed paste stuffed with double egg yolks.

My mother's special recipe is the type filled with nuts - cashew, pumpkin, almond etc with winter melon.

This year's Mooncake/Mid-Autumn Festival should be around September 25 (I think) I'm not sure if it's available at your local Chinatown. If it's available, maybe you would like to try.

jenclair said...

You are making waiting until September to read Fisher most difficult!

I've read Ruth Reichl's Tender at the Bone and enjoyed it, but expect Fisher to be much better. I'll admit, though, Reichl's titles are terrific and Comfort Me with Apples calls on the strength of title alone.

darkorpheus said...

Jenclair Actually, there are some people who didn't quite like Fisher. They found her a little dry. So, read her with an open mind.

chrisa511 said...

I can't believe it's time for retail to order for Christmas already, but I guess it really is...I was just thinking the other day that I'll have to start shopping in a couple of months!

I absolutely love cookbooks. Always have and I'm always looking for new ones. We have a few here in New Orleans that are classic New Orleans cookbooks that you are guaranteed to find in the home of anyone who was born and raised here. Do you have a favorite cookbook?

Mooncakes sound really good! I'll have to keep an eye out for them. And let us know how your Tiramisu comes out ;)

Anonymous said...

i'm no cook but i have to agree that cookbooks often look gorgeous and make me want to buy them just for the way they look! :)

Anonymous said...

I just had lunch and you have made me hungry again. Your mooncake story is beautiful.

Too bad about the vegan cupcakes. I've got to get me that cookbook. I've heard it is fantastic.

darkorpheus said...

Chris Will do a report on the tiramisu - if it turns out decent. If not, let's not mention it. Hee.

jean pierre Oh yeah. And buying cookbooks make me want to cook (or bake). I really love being the buyer of cookbooks. So many pretty pictures to look at.

stefanie Mooncakes are more fun eating than preparing. It's a lot of work, but somehow my mom did it every year for half my life.

But there's the salted egg yorks involved - the salted duck eggs come packed in sticky black clay that I have to wash off before cracking the egg to retrieve the salted yolk. And sometimes if your luck is bad, you find a rotten egg - and they STINK TO HIGH HEAVENS!

I'm usually assigned the dirty job for the yolks. The luck of being the youngest. The clay ges under your fingernails and the smell gets on your fingers and sometimes on your clothes. Heh.

Melwyk said...

I think it's great that you're preparing for Christmas. I love Christmas. I'm preparing ahead as well because I'm helping organize an art/craft show for the Xmas season this year. Hmmm.

Hope you get your oven fixed/replaced and are able to try out the Vegan Cupcakes cookbook. It is great! I love the plain chocolate ones.