Archive for May, 2009

Tongue in Cheek…Musings on Literary Food Porn

Radishes

One of my best friends once dated a guy who claimed to read his pornography.  I don’t mean he **air quotes** purchased Playboys for the articles, I mean that he didn’t care for erotic pictures; he found lusty stories and written accounts to have a greater appeal and, er, effect.  The peccadillos of a true intellectual I suppose…

Until this past week I would have denied that the same preference was possible for a lover of food porn – that aside from the real thing nothing could make the mouth water more than a gorgeously styled gourmet photograph.  Of course, I’m not the first to repeat the wisdom that we taste with our eyes first.  The sight of a deep crimson strawberry, plump and glistening with morning dew can evoke the sumptuous sweetness of the fruit before it even hits the tongue, and increase the anticipation all the more.  Websites such as FoodGawker and Photo Grazing cater to the needs of the average degenerate foodie — offering a harmless fix (It’s just looking!) to get him through the day until he gets home to his own dinner.

Brussels sprouts

Yet this week I have discovered literary food porn and damn, it is gooood…  Erica Bauermeister’s The School of Essential Ingredients is my first indulgence (and you never forget your first, I’m told).  This novel, the author’s debut, is exceptionally crafted.  Bauermeister sculpts each character with rich language and heartfelt empathy, revealing them slowly through their most intimate histories – an elderly couple’s crisis of infidelity and eventual reparation, a young man’s heartbreak over the death of his wife, a new mother’s conflicted self-perception – and then bringing them all together around the counter at the cooking school named in the title.

I find this book nearly impossible to put down.  The stories are intriguing and deeply sincere, and the writing is decadent.  Certain passages have completely blown me away, particularly the lush descriptions of food and the simple but profound metaphors the author composes to explain her characters’ emotional strife.  At one point she writes, after a series of insults from a contemptuous, critical boyfriend: “Chloe felt sometimes that he was tying her up with string, into a small ball that he could throw far, far away from him.”  I cannot tell if you will read that and find it as apt and poignant as I did, or if it will mean nothing without reading the context, but I see that as further evidence of how engrossing the narration really is.  The words are not indulgent literary flourish – they are the story.

tomatoes

I contrast my experience with this book to my reading of The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry: Love, Laughter, and Tears in Paris at the World’s Most Famous Cooking School, a memoir by Kathleen Flinn.  Also about a cooking school, specifically Le Cordon Bleu, Flinn’s writing lacks all of the elegance and expert pacing of Bauermeister’s.  Admittedly, Flinn is a trained journalist and is writing non-fiction.  Nevertheless, the reader could have been, but is not, transported by her book.  I don’t fall in love with her husband-to-be along with her.  I do not feel her frustration or her intense determination — I just hear it.  Does that make sense?  I recall the most basic lesson of college-level creative (and academic) writing — Show Don’t Tell.  Flinn’s book was more of a telling.  As one reviewer put it, “It’s all matter of fact: this happened, she had this amazing experience, she lived this dream, wouldn’t you like to read about it?”  Sure, I guess.

French spice marketThis is not to say I didn’t enjoy the book at all.  I did.  As did many other bloggers and critics.  The thought of dropping everything (or having everything dropped for you and against your will, as in Flinn’s personal story) to go to live in Paris and attend cooking school full time is quite enticing for me!  Plus, the book is riddled with funny stories and some great recipes I cannot wait to try.  I am just saying that I didn’t read The Sharper Your Knife with the same kind of hunger that I did The School of Essential Ingredients.  One review on Amazon.com of the latter book reads, “My main complaint is that there isn’t enough of it. It’s a very short book and feels highly polished, every line labored over until it gleams…but there’s just not enough of them.”  You certainly leave The School of Essential Ingredients wanting more… much like the first course of a fantastic meal.  I cannot wait to see what Erica Bauermeister comes out with next.  Consider your appetites whet!

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May 7, 2009 at 8:12 am 2 comments

Tiramisu Cake

Tiramisu Cake

Since I started food blogging, I have participated in a group called “The Barefoot Bloggers.”  The idea was a good one — every other week a different participant chose a recipe from one of Ina Garten’s cookbooks and the group would all post on the same recipe.  I loved being able to read how all of the creative home cooks out there altered the recipes to suit their tastes, their available ingredients, or their equipment limitations.  It’s amazing to see how many variations on spaghetti and meatballs are possible!

cake-in-pans

Yet, a week before my honeymoon, I pointed out to the group organizer that of the 200 or so participants, only about 3/4 of them were actually posting to their blogs on a regular basis, let alone posting on the group recipe as was “required”.  I thought it really took away from the experience if you tried to click each link on the blogroll and only slightly more than half had actually participated in the bi-weekly recipe challenge.  Not too long after that email, I was unceremoniously cut from the group, along with a fair amount of others.  Having only missed one or two weeks over the 6 months I’d been a member, I found the decision to cut me spiteful… but I digress.

cake-filling-2

A far more exclusive “cooking the book” group is the Tuesdays with Dorie contingent.  Now these ladies are diligent.  Well-organized, fun, and committed, this group is one to emulate.  Since they are not taking any new members, I am forced to do just that.  I love reading their weekly adventures in shortbread, pies, and cakes (oh, the cakes!) as they cook their way through Dorie Greenspan’s Baking: From My Home to Yours.  This week, I was unavoidably compelled to tag along.  The recipe, chosen by Megan of My Baking Adventures, is Tiramisu Cake.  I LOVE Tiramisu.  Tiramisu cake was my wedding cake (there’s a 6 inch cake top in my parents’ fridge right now, in fact) since it was a perfect compromise between chocolate (RJ’s favorite but somehow kinda morbid for a wedding — am I crazy?) and the traditional but boring and tasteless white cake.

Cake liqueur soaked

So, this week, I played along.  Though I’m not on the official blogroll, making this cake and eating it was rewarding enough!  RJ called it “decadent and scrumptious” (with only a modicum of sarcasm over the literary language of food writing).  I thought it was very good, though the multiple steps and extended effort made me ask more than once “why aren’t I making real tiramisu?”   The cake was certainly delicious, with a tight crumb and a perfect balance of the ascerbic coffee, the slight booziness of the alcohol, and the sweetness of the creamy filling.  I doubted the balance at first and did not use all of the “espresso syrup” suggested in the recipe, and I regret that — going forward I will trust in Dorie!

Check out the recipe by visiting Megan, at My Baking Adventures.

Tiramisu Cake Slice

May 5, 2009 at 8:17 am 3 comments

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