Cookbooks as companions of life

By Peter Zaballos

The home I grew up in was somewhat of a cooking wasteland. My mother, in spite of her good intentions and efforts, was plainly speaking a horrible cook. Multitasking did not come easily to her, and neither of my parents had strong organizational skills. The concept of a pantry was new to me as an adult. In the home I grew up in we very much operated with a “just-in-time” food inventory approach. We had one of everything, and when we ran out of something, you went to the store to get another. And meals were simply functional. A time to eat. Not a whole lot of conversation: just focus on the food and be done. And we rarely went to restaurants, and when did it was generally for simple and quick meals.

I write this not to condemn my parents. They did the best they could with the tools they had at the time. But it did cause me to approach cooking differently. And things started to change when I got to college in Berkeley. My friends were from all over, mostly California, but from all sorts of backgrounds. I went with these friends to restaurants — all sorts, because well, it was Berkeley. It was there that I had — for the first time —- sushi, Chinese, Thai and Indian food, pizza not from national chains, French and Italian food, all sorts. We cooked a little bit but mostly this expanded horizon came through restaurants. Although I do remember going to Chinatown in San Francisco with my fraternity brothers, Eric and Chris, one weekend and buying 50 pounds of shark steaks and lugging this big plastic bag back to our fraternity house and grilling those up for a summer get together.

It was as I made my way through life working as a young adult in Silicon Valley after college that I was able to more intentionally follow my nose into the kitchen. Where the range and quality of food exploded. When I was at LSI Logic we would head over to an incredible burrito shop in Mountain View where they would grill the meat right in front of you, assemble the burrito and slather it with salsas so hot you’d be sweating for the next 20 minutes. This was the mid-80s, and the food trucks that are so abundant now just didn’t exist.

It was with my first roommate out of college, Bryan, a colleague at LSI Logic responsible for managing our European business, that I made my first serious kitchen commitment. Bryan would head off to Europe for three weeks or a month, and come back with stories about food he’d eaten and recipes and ingredient lists I had never heard of. He would make these incredible dishes and I would try to recreate them. As they say in the tech world, the bit flipped for me in that apartment we shared in Redwood City. 

The first cookbook I purchased, in 1984

That’s where I started to really learn to cook. The first book I bought was “The 60 Minute Gourmet” by Pierre Franey. I got it because other recently minted adults like me used it, and I liked the approachable context. It wasn’t until I met the woman who would later become my wife that my interest — and aptitude — in cooking really took off. When I met Kristine she was a manager at one of the more prominent restaurants in Boston; as she describes, she’s “had had every job in a restaurant.” Her cooking skills were incredibly solid. So for our first Christmas together, when we were friends and not yet dating, I pulled out that book and made us Steak au Poivre. It says a lot that by then I was feeling confident in my skills to take this on at such a pivotal juncture in our relationship. And it says a lot about Kristine that she clearly enjoyed me taking the lead on the meal without getting too involved in the production.

Throughout my cooking journey she has been kind and supportive, encouraging me to take a stronger and stronger role in the kitchen as we built our lives together. The first dish where I followed my nose in the kitchen was making pizza. Soon after we married, I started making pizza every week. I’ve continued to do so for almost three decades. At first I used store-bought pizza dough and made sauce from jars of marinara sauce I would embellish. I soon made the same realization many home cooks do — making something from scratch is simply better and not a whole lot of extra work. So I soon had a family recipe for pizza dough and pizza sauce that worked wonderfully.

Let’s follow this pizza thread a bit further. We had four kids in five years. The first night we brought our oldest home from the hospital, I made us a pizza. Pizza night became a big deal in our house. And as our children grew older, pizza night became a reason to invite their friends over. There were many, many evenings when there might be eight or ten kids in the basement, and I would go down there, take orders, and then turn the kitchen (which in the farmhouse we renovated, was properly huge) into a full-blown home pizzaria, with Kristine often serving as sous-chef preparing the toppings.

Along the way we collected cookbooks: to learn the basics, to explore new cuisines, and increasingly to inform where we travelled and what we did on those travels.

And it’s only with hindsight that you look up from one of those cookbooks and realize just how they have become these documents of life. They mark meaningful moments and become part of you. Cookbooks can be an incredibly emotional record.

Like Proust’s madeleine, when you open them up certain cookbooks can provoke a flood of warm memories — of the journey you took to master (or not) a particular recipe, of the meals it produced, of the people you shared those meals with. 

There are three cookbooks that quickly come to mind that have had a deep and meaningful impact on me, our family, and our friends.

Note the $20 price

The first is Volume Two of Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” This is one of my favorite and most cherished cookbooks. I found it in the used bookstore at the Milwaukee airport. (The single most awesome aspect of Milwaukee is that they have a used book store in their airport! We have almost missed more flights than I can remember because we were lost in the shelves there.) I paid $20 for it (it still has that price tag on it).

I learned so much through this book. First and foremost is that Julia Child’s recipes are bulletproof. If you follow her clear and lucid instructions, the dish will turn out. Every. Time. She’s amazing. And through Volume Two I discovered her paté recipe, which I make to this day. I recently made two batches and gifted mini loaves as holiday presents to our friends. And then there’s the braised rabbit: oh my, that dish is so yummy, and it always makes a complete mess of the stove top. 

And finally Potatoes Anna, which is fairly labor-intensive: you have to slice a pound or more of potatoes into evenly sized slices, then dry each slice with paper towels, then layer the slices in a circular pattern in a cast iron skillet all the while drizzling them with clarified butter. It’s a lot of work, but when you bake them and turn that skillet over onto a platter, the resulting round loaf of golden-crusted potato goodness is wonderful.

When I read Julia Child’s autobiography, I learned that in the baking section of Volume Two – which her husband Paul did most of the recipe crafting as he was the baker in the family – it instructs you to use a slab of asbestos for a baking stone. The book was published just weeks before the FDA announced a ban on asbestos, and Julia was horrified. She had her publisher rush to pull the remaining copies of Volume 2 from the shelves and amended it to instruct you to use a terra cotta tile. I literally set her autobiography down and ran to the kitchen, pulled our copy and looked up the baguette recipe. And there it was, the instruction to use an asbestos tile. I bought a first edition. In a used bookstore. In the Milwaukee airport. For $20.

Instructions to “cut 1 inch shorter and narrower” – the hazard of asbestos is what happens when the fibers become airborne. Yikes!

Acquiring that cookbook coincided with us moving into the circa 1860s farmhouse we renovated in Wisconsin. Meals for us are social events that bring our family and friends together. Yes the food is important, but the real reason we share a meal is the conversation we share the meal over. It’s where we talk, catch up, check in. It’s where the puns fly, and laughter is abundant and overflowing. My parents would come and stay with us in that house for weeks and sometimes months, and it is the meals we shared that helped our children develop deep relationships with their grandparents, and vice versa.

The recipe is rock solid, notes to save some effort

Our copy of Volume Two is properly stained, dogeared, and annotated. Like all the cookbooks that became staples of our kitchen library.

Next, “The Food Lover’s Guide to Paris” by Patricia Wells, was given to us by my wife’s dear friend, Heidi, who lost a battle to cancer in 2007 and is dearly missed. That book is wonderful because Wells shares recipes for food that you’ll find in the restaurants in Paris that everyday Parisians frequent. That book informed many of our dinners at home and helped us discover a little bistro in Paris that Kristine and I went to more times than I can remember, and where we had my 60th birthday dinner with our four children and three of my closest friends — Erika, Amy, and Duane — a surprise I discovered as we made our way to the table.

The guide also pointed us to Balzar — a restaurant that is so damn Parisian. Small tables inches apart with starched white table cloths. It’s where I had two infamous escargot incidents. 

The first was in 2000 or so. Kristine and I were there together, elbow to elbow with the other diners. Across from and to the right of me was a gentleman wearing an exquisite white shirt with a bright green tie. I ordered escargots to start with, and the odd thing about that dish is that the tool you are given to hold the snail shell while you pry the meat out is counterintuitive. You squeeze the tool to open its jaws and then release the tool to clamp down on the shell.

As I struggled to get the meat out of the shell, I increased my pressure on the tool, causing the shell to slip right as I pried on the meat with the little fork they give you. A jet of hot butter, parsley and garlic shot out of the shell across our table and over to the next, creating a stream of green that left my plate and went all the way up the sleeve of that gentleman across from me.

My French was still a bit rough then. I was mortified and unsure of what to do. So I did nothing. I kept my gaze fixated on either my food or Kristine across from me. At one point in my peripheral vision I saw that gentleman glance at his sleeve, then follow the stream of green back over to me. I was mortified but did not meet his eye. He decided to not say anything. To this day I am as embarrassed as I am astounded that nothing came of this.

Fast-forward to my 60th birthday week in Paris in 2018 with our family and friends. Kristine and I went back to Balzar with our son Jameson and his friend Mitch, who was visiting from Barcelona, and as we were enjoying our meals at the table next to us was a mother with her adult daughter. The mother ordered escargots. And as she was prying the meat from the shell, a stream of green shot across the table and landed on my blazer. I burst out laughing. As she apologized profusely she puzzled over my reaction. My French had fairly improved, I was able to explain to her that I’d done the same thing to another diner in that very same restaurant almost 20 years earlier. I assured her it was karma coming home to roost. Eventually she seemed to enjoy the irony as much as I did.

Most recently, “Night+Market,” which Kristine got me a year or two ago, has become a staple. Like Volume Two, it has bulletproof recipes and is a delight to simply read to gain perspective on Thai food, ingredients and the role food and drink have in Thai culture. It has been responsible for many of us in the family making Pad Thai a mainstay of our cooking. 

Awesome pad thai, dangerous roasted chili pepper flakes

I love the care this book takes with recipes for the basic ingredients of Thai cooking. There’s an awesome appendix with recipes for stir-fry sauce, everyday curry paste, and roasted crushed thai chili peppers. That latter ingredient has also been responsible for near life-threatening levels of capsaicin fumes as I roasted Thai chili peppers in a hot wok. (Worth it.)

What sent me down this rabbit hole of cookbooks to write this? Well, the BBC naturally. 

In their series on cooking, “The Food Chain” there was a wonderful segment on the role cookbooks play in the lives of people, and they featured two women whose cookbook collections are legendary. In both cases these women describe how their cherished cookbooks are repositories and records of memories: the food splotches, the notes — all of that have meaning. And how simply buying a replacement book cannot replace those memories and records.

So the thoughts of the stories shared above all flooded me as I listened to these two women describe in their own way how their cookbooks had informed and enriched their lives, just like our cookbooks have done for us.

To bring this back to where I started, I may have grown up in a home where cooking lacked a central role, but it turns out, because of our own ethos on cooking, we passed on to our children a love of cooking and the role food plays in life, relationships, and being together. They all know how to make pizza from scratch — first one and then another took over the weekly pizza-making job when I worked remotely — and make it themselves with regularity today. 

In fact, one year when our middle son, Benjamin, was away at college in New York and a storm came through and knocked out power for the campus, he happened to be living in an on-campus apartment that had a gas stove. And weeks before while on a video call with him, he expressed a desire to make pizza there. So while on the phone we ordered the equipment and the ingredients and had it shipped to him. A case of San Marzano tomatoes, 50 pounds of flour: you know, a normal amount. Let’s just say Benjamin was well prepared, and quite popular, when he had the only functioning kitchen on campus and was making pizza after pizza when the power was out that weekend.

We never really sat our kids down and said “here’s how you make ____.” They have all become confident and comfortable in their kitchens mostly from being an observer and being a part of making the meals we shared when they were growing up. It is incredibly gratifying to hear, like I did yesterday, one of our children let me know he would be late to our online gaming and to hear his two siblings respond with “No worries! We need to make curry!”

And in this world of COVID, perhaps it’s the absence of these family meals that I miss the most. Our family loves to be together, and being together for us is often about sharing a meal. And while group Discord video calls bring us together to be seen and to talk, these do not replace the hours of casual conversations among us about what we should have at that meal, and the preparation of that meal together. And the sharing of that meal together.

With me mostly retired and Kristine still working full time I am the one making most of the meals, and the one benefit of this COVID landscape is that we are eating at home better than we ever have. Every week we’re trying something new as well as going back to an old standby. We’re eating more plants and beans, and making more things from scratch. It really helps that we live literally a block away from Seattle’s Pike Place Market, so pretty much any ingredient we need or want to try is at our fingertips.

Cookbooks indeed are a record of memories, and I am glad my COVID memories are being memorialized in the cookbooks and recipe binder we have here. I’m even more looking forward to the memories yet to be recorded — when we can all share meals together again. 

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