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The Exotic World of Cooking For Mr. Latte

January 29, 2011

Cooking For Mr. Latte
Amanda Hesser
W.W. Norton 2003 336 pages
Library Book.

A few pages into Cooking for Mr. Latte I started feeling inadequate. Somewhere around their first cooking at home dinner date… Cornish game hens? Creme fraiche and thin layers of smoked salmon on brown bread? I am pretty positive these things have never seen the inside of my kitchen. Smoked salmon has appeared, maybe, but there was an everything bagel involved.

Reading, and drooling over multi-course dinners, braising, homemade ice cream, visiting the butcher, making homemade marmalade and a recipe for salt-crusted shrimp suitable for dining solo… I started feeling somewhere between sheepish and jealous. I definitely felt outclassed. Sure, she makes reference to cooking in a tiny apartment kitchen. But I was having trouble believing it. I was having trouble believing the economics, too, of eating out that often.  I feel extravagant at the farmer’s market! I feel a little fidgety when I buy something other than the store brand chicken broth. I seek out cookbooks with “quick!” “cheap!” “easy” in the titles.

I started picturing Amanda as that sort of fantasy movie and TV woman, living in New York in a crazy gigantic apartment, working for the New York Times, eating dinner out almost every night, and shopping at gourmet stores.

I had the same problem with Julie and Julia. There’s a decadent glamor to gourmet foods that makes me feel a little too, well, underdressed, to have it in my kitchen as anything more than a wary acquaintance. Delicious though it may be.

Then the penny dropped.

New York Times food writer. So….. work is probably picking up the foodie tab. Talk about the dream job for someone with French culinary experience (cooking school) and both foodie appetites and cred.

Left to my own devices— I’m probably much more like Mr. Latte. Only, scruffier. I cook comfort foods and easy, unfussy things that turn out tasty. I love one-pot, stick-in-the-oven, hands off cooking.

In the past, to impress, I have made soup, stews, steak, and Crock Pot things. The one cooking class I ever took was called, rather whimsically “How to Boil Water.” I haven’t roasted a chicken since. (Which is a shame, actually.) I’m easily flustered by recipes that call for separate instructions for their sauces.

I loved reading about Amanda’s world, though I felt like a visitor there. I love foodie prose and memoir generally. Though every single time, it gives me some kind of existential crisis about whether I could write a similar book. I dog-eared a few recipes. (I know, I’m a dog-earing sinner.)

They were:

  • Grilled cheese
  • African Lamb Stew
  • Oven fried chicken
  • Lamb pita
  • Quail eggs with five spice powder- less about the quail eggs than a reminder that I like five spice.
  • Canned tuna with beans and red pepper (this was after she took a trip to Spain to a place that featured artisanal canned stuff.)
  • Broccoli salad
  • Baked zucchini

The other recipes were intimidating. I love good food. I get a little nervous about cooking for others. But I love making people happy with something tasty I’ve made. I just like to keep it simple.

And yet… I really liked this book, and I think I will get a copy of my own. I liked the moments where she seemed more ordinary, even insecure. Where she and Mr. Latte had to talk things out, and figure each other out. I appreciate that she emphasized the work of the relationship, just as complex as the work of the kitchen.

Predictably, I am now wondering whether I could write a foodie memoir that people would like to read… even if I don’t cook anything French.

For every book I read in 2011, I’m donating $1 to the New York Public Library.

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