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Cooking by the Book

Cooking by the Book

(photo by Creative Commons user freeloosedirt)

Cynthia Houng | Chef's Blade

I learned to cook out of necessity. When I moved out of the house, I knew how to cook two things: ramen, and french toast (in a nonstick skillet). As a child, I never spent much time in the kitchen. At my grandmothers’ houses, I stood at the doorjamb and watched. Occasionally, one would ask me to chop vegetables or shell peas. My mother preferred that I wash and chop, and then clear out. Our kitchens were never quite large enough to accommodate two. Instead of cooking, I spent my time reading and studying, while waiting to be fed.

I finally started cooking, in earnest, however, when I moved into my first apartment. One soon tires of ramen and french toast and, though the principles behind ramen (boil water, add flavor pack) are easily generalized to an entire family of dishes (soba noodles, spaghetti with marinara sauce), my repertoire held clear limits. So I taught myself to cook from books.

My first cookbook should have been something basic, like the Joy of Cooking. But I lived in Berkeley, where everything circles back to Chez Panisse and I had rather different ideas. My first “serious” cookbook was Paul Bertolli’s Chez Panisse Cooking. I bought it at a small bookstore called Black Oak Books, just down the street from Chez Panisse itself. Black Oak did a brisk business in cookbooks. They always had the latest Chez Panisse book and a few more for historical interest. I bought Bertolli’s cookbook because I’d been reading the restaurant’s weekly menus (posted outside of the restaurant) on a semi-daily basis–I lived a few blocks away from Chez Panisse and the area known as Berkeley’s “Gourmet Ghetto.” I worked, briefly, in a clothing store called Earthly Goods, right across the street from the Cheeseboard and, without a car, I shopped primarily at the Andronico’s down the street.) The poetic, almost Proustian descriptions of dishes and materials intrigued me. At the time, I was studying to be a writer and a poet — or at least I told myself that I was studying to become a poet. Either way, the restaurant’s literary approach captivated me. From these menus, and others, I learned that a meal should have a structure, like a play or a novel. It could move through themes and variations, crest and fall, and bring the diner to a different place. If not quite “revelation,” then something like it.

As I developed my skills, I began to notice the importance of one’s raw materials. In Taiwan, I grew up around people who cared, very much, about the production, as well as preparation, of food.

My father came from a family of prosperous farmers. My grandfather had been a government agricultural specialist. In my grandfather’s house, food, in the guise of crops and agriculture, was almost always the topic du jour. Food, the economy, and politics: These 3 topics formed the backbone of my grandfather’s conversations. Though my grandfather no longer farmed–and my father certainly had no interest in the production of food, only the consumption–family friends and relatives continued to farm. I remember sitting around a table and listening to my grandparents and our friends and relatives talk about crops, the weather, and the quality of produce.