E is for Epicure

The Silver Palate Cookbook (Original)

When I was in my early teens, I bought the Silver Palate Cookbook.  This book was so far from my childhood reality of tuna noodle casseroles and chicken chow mein; the instructions promised color and beauty and, above all, flavors I never imagined.  Even the ingredient lists read like poetry.  But how I learned to cook is still a bit of a mystery.

I often helped my grandmother make dinner, but she was the one who decided what we would eat.  My mother does not cook; were she to live alone, I imagine she would live off grocery store iced cake, and possibly some Stouffer’s “frozen entrees”.

Broccoli was covered in Cheez-Wiz.  Vegetables came out of a can or out of a bag from the freezer.  Mashed potatoes came out of a box.  Sauces came out of packets.  There were a few notable exceptions (like the occasional beef stew or roast), but food was packaged and salty.  At the time, I had no idea we were poor.  When I went to college, I realized most of my friends did not live off this kind of food, and many had parents who embraced the religions of The Joy of Cooking and The Moosewood Cookbook.

Food, I now know, is the best indicator of a family’s socio-economic status.  A can of tuna fish would, with some celery and Miracle Whip, feed the three of us.  A can of Campbell’s tomato soup, six slices of buttered bread and three or four slices of American cheese singles would be a comforting weekend lunch.  Cooking from scratch often required more ingredients, leading to a costly grocery bill; without culinary skills, making food from scratch was even more unlikely.  We were poor.

Had I realized this at the time, I may not have claimed food as my form of rebellion.  The Silver Palate Cookbook subverted reality; it was my escape into a world where people ate well and walked to geranium-lade stores in the New York City I saw in movies.  I spent many days tracing and re-drawing the pictures in the book.  I saw orange slices as geometric wonders, and carrots–that hated vegetable–as beautiful in their strange roots with their feathery tops.

The first dish I made out of Silver Palate was Pasta Primavera Gregory (p. 69).  Let me compare this with what was normal.  We had two kinds of pasta dishes during my childhood.  Pasta Alfredo (from a sauce packet), and spaghetti with meat sauce (a jar of sauce, usually Ragu, and ground beef).  The notion that you could put fresh snow peas in pasta blew my mind.  My grandmother, placating my persistence, helped me grocery shop for this litany of ingredients we did not have.  It was expensive (a sentiment my husband usually stands by when I go grocery shopping).  I chopped garlic–which previous came as a powder in a spice jar– and trimmed snow peas; I diced prosciutto, salty and sticky on my fingers; I wept through sliced onions.  Tossing in fresh olives and raspberry vinegar was downright subversive.  I did not even know flavored vinegars existed.

And it made so much pasta!  Perhaps just seemed like a lot since we were used to eating so little.

I remember the reactions after I proudly served it: “It’s ok.”  “It’s different.”  “We’re just not used to this.”  “Why isn’t there a sauce?”

Devastated, I ate on, and ate all the leftovers during the following days.  (I now cannot remember the last time I made it, and that may have been the only time, after eating so much of it.)   I pressed on, and switched my energies to desserts.  Cappuccino ice (p. 309) was “too strong”.  Peach cake (p. 300) was “too complicated”.  Extravagant pancakes not made from Bisquick were shot down at the mere thought.  I didn’t even bother asking about bismarcks (p. 318).

I tried a fairly simple salad dressing, the Mango Chutney Dressing (p. 207).  My mother eyed the bottle of chutney.

“What is that?”

“Mango chutney.”

“What is it?”

“It’s like salsa made from a fruit.”

“What kind of fruit?”

“A maaaangooooooo.”  I rolled my eyes the only way a 15-year-old can.  They did not like the dressing, or my eye-rolling.  I pressed on, even making extravagant dishes for friends when I was in college.  I remember searching for out-of-season figs in Lexington, Virginia’s Food Lion.  In the late ’90s and early ’00s, even fancy supermarkets had fewer “obscure” items, and the Food Lion was not fancy.  And we were in the mountains.  And in college.  And broke.

I found out that my heroines were no longer the dynamic duo when I was in NYC for my internship.  I was seven years too late.  Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins went separate ways.  Lukins died this past September, and I cried a little when I heard it on NPR.  Yet their sparkly elitist world was filled with good intentions: let people eat well.  A student once analyzed this cookbook as being The Gossip Girl of our time: it was a window into a world we did not know of otherwise, and was more than a little ridiculous, yet magnetic nonetheless.  Rosso and Lukins’ world became my dream world, and I am grateful for it.

I still don’t have the funds for caviar and oysters, but I no longer associate good food as the result of having a big paycheck.  A few summers ago, I spent my weekends indulging on the Campari-orange Ice when my husband had a leftover bottle of Campari (we’re still not sure why), and getting tipsy in the early afternoons off of the tart, sweet slush.  We were broke and in grad school, but this tiny luxury brightened a summer of cheap chicken thighs and rice dressed up with whatever we had.

It’s hitting the low 80s early this spring; a day in the just-blooming garden, savoring orange ice sparkling like a jewel, might just hit the spot.  Even rebellion–despite constraints–can be decadent.

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