My Thanksgiving preparations were a laid back this year; Hosting was not my job this time around, and I gleefully took responsibility for making “pies”, plural. Not promising anything too specific left me with an opportunity to improvise, which in my case means “procrastinate and then dash to the Acme ('Ack-ah-ME') for last minute ingredients.”
This year did not disappoint, though my trusty backup - a $5.99 pumpkin pie from Costco that is easily the best on the planet (fight me), and measures approximately 2 1/2 feet across - keeps me out of too much trouble if things go sideways.
Tuesday night had me in a bit of a panic, as I’d not yet chosen a recipe. But I hauled out The Joy of Cooking, and turned to page 670.
A photograph of page 670 of The Joy of Cooking.
Photograph Only ©2023, Ben Levin
Now, I have a number of go-to cookbooks. The Silver Palette, The Book of Jewish Food, The Frugal Gourmet, etc. My favorite is an anthology of MFK Fisher’s - The Art of Eating - which I re-read almost every year. It has recipes, sure, but also Fisher's stories of cooking and eating and living with and around and through food; aside from Anthony Bourdain I don’t know any other food writers who capture the essence of the experience so tautly. I am especially fond of her description of freshly-peeled tangerines... I'll not do her the disservice of quoting from memory, but instead directly from Serve it Forth's Borderland:
In the morning, in the soft sultry chamber, sit in the window peeling tangerines, three or four. Peel them gently; do not bruise them, as you watch soldiers pour past the corner and over the canal towards the watched Rhine. Separate each plump little pregnant crescent....
You know those white pulpy strings that hold tangerines into their skins? Tear them off. Be careful
Take yesterday's paper (when we were in Strasbourg, L'Ami du Peupe was best, because when it got hot the ink stayed on it) and spread it on top of the radiator. The maid has gone, of course - it might be hard to ignore her belligerent Alsatian glare of astonishment.
After you have put the pieces of tangerine on the paper on the hot radiator, it is best to forget about them. Al comes home, you go to a long noon dinner in the brown dining-room, afterwards maybe you have a little nip to quetsch from the bottle on the armoire... Finally he goes. Of course you are sorry, but -
On the radiator the sections of the tangerines have frown even plumper, hot and full. You carry them to the window, pull it open, and leave them for a few minutes on the packed snow of the sill. They are ready.
It gets decidedly blue from there, but you get the impression.
Fisher’s narrative-with-recipe format (originating in the 1950s) lays to waste the eyeball-grinding, enervating universe of food blogs whose attempt at SEO relevance produces bland and yet throughly offensive imitations.
The Joy of Cooking, here in its 24th edition, a multi-generational family project whose content is both voluminous and thorough; broad and deep, a massive and complete compendium. Heaven help those who purchase anything but the hardback edition.
It’s at this point I feel the need to draw attention to something that, so far as I can tell, is replicated almost no where else in good writing:
A photograph of page 671 of The Joy of Cooking.
Photograph Only ©2023, Ben Levin
Where nearly every recipe I’ve ever seen follows the Intro-Ingredient-Instruction format, The Joy of Cooking blends the latter two into a single, unctuous melange of perfect functional form.
This is less of a striking relief viewed on a printed page than it would be in electronic format - have you ever tried scrolling up and down from recipe to ingredients on your phone, fingers caked in wet flour and egg, trying to remember exactly how much salt to add? Here, the interspersing of ingredients and their quantities into the instructions is a masterpiece of form-as-function, departing from the norm.
It is the embodiment of user-centered-design, built for the real-life and actual user - home cooks who only occasionally search for a written recipe, and never take instructions so seriously that they would follow the Standard Form:
That sequences assumes you will first gather all the ingredients, measure them out, and arrange them in sequential order of use in precisely sized bowls. The Joy of Cooking accepts you for yourself: a harried and procrastinating mensch who’s going to pull the corn starch out from the third shelf in the far cabinet across the kitchen, assuming you can find it, right as the apples, bubbling in the Dutch oven, require it, and not a second before.
Heaven forfend this book ask you to flip back a page to see how much salt to add, or whether those peaches needed to be drained. No, that information is provided exactly where you need it, in the order in which life demands your attention, and you can afford it.
I’m smitten with intentional design this thoughtful, and aspire in my most creative moments to consider so purposefully and deftly the context of use in which my products will discover themselves.
Such choices are rarely made off the cuff, and in the crafting of this book I doubt they came without much debate. I imagine that, more than once, someone pointed to an experience they had in their own cooking, and found common cause with others’ similar experiences.
However the process unfolded, I am grateful. I hope this week, this year, and the next, finds you grateful as well.
Whatever you dig into, save your fork: there’s pie.
A photograph of three slices of pie
©2023, Ben Levin