Monday, March 19, 2007

From the "Why Didn't I Do That?" File

The rest of you, perhaps, are familiar with the work of Stefan Gates. I was not familiar with him until my mother, being wise in all things, gave me a copy of Gastronaut.

This book is completely awesome, honestly one of the best books I've read.

As all two of you (if that many!) who read this blog are probably well aware, I read cookbooks for fun. There's nothing like a description of the proper way to skin frog legs to while away a rainy afternoon. Although I have prepared frog legs (the frogs came from a biology lab I was in, I am not ashamed to admit this), I will probably never do so again as I doubt my friends would actually consent to eat them. I say this so that you will understand that I do not read cookbooks for any kind of knowledge or skill acquisition, I read them for the little shiver of pleasure that slithers down my spine when I consider the glories of food.

So it will come as no surprise, perhaps, that I read Gastronaut in three sittings over two days. This is a cookbook, sort of, but more than that it is a treatise on the pleasures of the table and, most delightful for me personally, it is an invitation to experiment, sometimes dangerously and disastrously, with food and cooking.

I learned to cook through failure. I remember when my dad thought that a good early cooking lesson was to have me make these pancake things that he used to make from left over mashed potatoes. They were a real bitch of a food, made more so by his insistence that his miracle pans required no oil. The smell of the briquettes that I managed to produce haunts me still: there was crying, there was a thought that I would never learn to cook, there was probably some kind of bribery to make me feel better on my father's part. This is right up there with when my dad told me to put my marshmallow in a particular little tunnel within the embers of a fire. This tunnel, it turns out, had the approximate heat of a point about 6 inches above the surface of the sun. The marshmallow went from cold to incinerated in about four tenths of a second. Again, much crying.

But did that stop me from trying to toast the perfect marshmallow? No! Did that stop me from making potato pancakes? Well I never liked them much to begin with. The point is, you can't make an omlette without spending at least thirty dollars on eggs and ruining at least one good pan. I have a scientific mind: I approach cooking, like I approach nearly anything, with an open heart and the knowledge that, as those Mythbusters put it so well, "Failure is always an option." Every time I've made a batch of biscuits that turned out like hockey pucks, every time I've gone to carve a chicken only to find its thighs are still what I would call rare, every time I've put in "just one more tablespoon" of ginger, every time I've opened the oven only to set off a fire alarm, I've learned how to cook. You don't forget those lessons -- biscuits, I am now confident in saying, turn out much better when you remember to add leavening.

And this is why I'm so in love with Stefan Gates. His approach to food mirrors mine, so well that I'm a little jealous that he seems to have made a career out of loving food and cooking with reckless abandon. This is cooking without fear. This is not your mother's cookbook, unless your mother is like mine. The central tenet of the work, and indeed, it seems, of Gates' life, is


"Food will consume 16 percent of my life. That life is too precious to waste; therefore:

-I resolve, whenever possible, to transform food from fuel into love, power, adventure, poetry, sex, or drama.
-I will never turn down the opportunity to taste or cook something new.
-I will never forget: canap├ęs are evil.
-I will remember that culinary disaster does not necessarily equal failure.
-I will always keep a jar of pesto on hand in case of the latter."

I cannot honestly say that I'm keeping with the second tenet -- I'm kind of scared of organ meats and a lot of seafood. But I do think that I'm doing quite well with the general spirit of not being afraid of experimentation. Indeed, as you probably know from my other blog / my website, a huge part of my life is devoted to medieval cooking. You can't learn to cook medievally if you're afraid of screwing up or of eating something weird.

This is not so much a book review as a love note: I love you, Gastronaut! Some of the things you do gross me out (I had the skip the section on eating things your body makes, as reading far enough into it to figure out where you were going was enough to make me throw up), but mostly you inspire me. I would like everyone I know to read this book, whether or not you fancy yourself a chef. Even if you never cook adventurously, you can still eat adventurously.

So... who wants to come to my house for a proper orgiastic Roman feast? (By far my favorite chapter!)