Tuesday, January 22, 2013

on cook books

It is sunny and bright this morning, and the dusting of snow we got last night is still on the sidewalks.  It was not enough snow bother shoveling, let alone plow.  Still, I will probably head out with my broom at some point and sweep the snow off the steps.  Anything to eat another hour, even another half hour, of another day, of which there seem to be so many, and all of them so inordinately long, hours and days alike, and many of them so lonely.  The dictionary was the first book I ever loved—it was so generous and so well organized, and not flashy in the least—and it is the standard by which I measure all my reference books.  I have received more than one glossy cook book—it seems glossy cook books are the only cook books that get published anymore—and I have turned my nose up at most of them.  In a reference book, pictures are not worth a thousand words.

This is the second edition, revised and expanded, of Bernard Clayton's Complete Book of Breads.  Most of the year it sits on a high shelf in my pantry library.  I turn to it when I want to make bread or dream about making bread.  The cover you are looking at is the only full-color, glossy photograph in the book.  The remaining 700-plus pages are all text, here and there accompanied by classic ink illustrations.  In cook books, the ink illustration is superior to the glossy photograph because the ink illustration does not trump the reader's imagination.  It encourages it instead of dominating it.  Cook books with full-color glossy photographs on every page carry the baggage of consumer culture and tell the reader, quietly but powerfully, that he or she cannot do what the chef-author of the book can do.  On the other hand, you will never bake a loaf of bread that looks like an illustration; and so, in theory, there is no room for comparison.  It's a reference book, not a cultural mandate.  And yet here I am, showing you the beautiful color covers and not the interiors.  Oh well.  No comment.

I ate gumbo at birthday party recently, good gumbo, and after dinner the conversation came around to the word gumbo and what it meant.  There was at least one gumbo authority in the room, and we moved onto the next part of our conversation after deciding that gumbo meant gumbo, that it referred to gumbo, the stew, and nothing else.  Well, this morning I turned to the index of Bernard Clayton's companion to his bread book, The Complete Book of Soups and Stews, which also sits on a high shelf in my pantry, and I found this little entry:

gumbo, 378—87
     chicken and sausage, 384—87
     origin of name, 373, 379
     seafood, 380—82
     two-way, 382—84

Origin of name?  I had to look.  I turned to page 373 and found one sentence: "There are several gumbos (the name 'gumbo' comes from the African word for okra)."  Satisfied that I'd found the start of an answer, I sat down to write.  


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