Friday, May 28, 2010

Literary Masterpiece

There is a literary masterpiece that every serious reader should know, but sadly out of print in its purest, original form. I am referring to the original 1961 Craig Claiborne "New York Times Cook Book". Coming the same year as Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking", these two books opened new worlds for the average US cook. Reading through these wonderful recipes provides credence to the idea of a superior being. You can see that an omnipotent mind created the basic ingredients that when combined with human creativity and curiosity produces a piece of edible art.

The NYT book is, of course, broader in scope covering many cuisines and styles than Julia's. Some recipes are startlingly simple, for example the one for corn on the cob. Some, like the elegant Aubergines a la Boston, are more complex, but always well thought out and easy to follow, You can recreate a Brazilian Feijoada that was served to the great composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, make a traditional, classic and quite easy Chicken Kiev (in 1961 that dish was quite exotic), serve a delicious and unique black beans in rum, or find a good recipe for Sauerbraten (there are actually two in the book).

And so much fun to read with a genteel, elegant prose. The garlic in a Ratatouille Nicoise is to be added "..according to conscience and social engagements". For Lobster Americaine (Lobster in a tomato sauce with cognac) Claiborne argues that "American chefs say it was created by an American and the French say no such thing, unless it was a French chef lured to the US by the Yankee dollar."

Dear Craig misses the boat when it comes to his inadequate gumbo recipe which does not include celery or bell pepper, two parts of the "holy trinity" that are required (I think by law) for a proper gumbo.

In 1990, the book was revised and to me lost so much of its character. Some 40% of the recipes were replaced and many others changed. I am sure today's chefs look at these recipes as unadventurous, bland and utterly boring. I say to hell with their raspberry-garlic reduction coulis and constant tinkering with tradition; this is good cooking. Maybe not what mama used to make, unless you were on the Park Avenue side of life, but grand, tasty dishes considered gourmet and classic when the world was a bit simpler.

If you ever see one, grab it.

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