So PK says to me the other day, 'The thing is, you think you can cook, but can't; while I think I can't cook, but can.' Well, whether he has a point or not, he's evidently not going to get another meal out of me. At the same time, what if he does have a point? A few nights ago we gave some chums a Yotam Ottolenghi-styled chicken with saffron plus what was, by my standards, rather a subtle Barbera D'Asti Superiore. I don't know about Yotam, to be honest. I want to like his recipes, but in my hands they tend to spiral out of control, what with all the fancy ingredients, and the arduously sophisticated preparation. The chicken looked a lot more desirable while it was still sitting in the marinade, if you must know. I am starting to have doubts.
Which are confirmed when I dig out a book which has been a mysterious resident in our household for decades, one of those books which arrived with my wife all those years ago for no good reason and which, for no equally good reason, has never been thrown out. It is Cooking à la Cordon Bleu, by Alma Lach, published in the States by Harper & Row around 1970 (no actual publication date) and with a foreword - well, I never - by Andre Simon, whose ghost hung benignly over our prize, seven weeks ago.
And it is a terrifying book. It is written to appal early Seventies Americans with their ignorance of the finer arts of cooking, containing as it does, sections on Dark Warm Sauces; Porc, (with its we're-all-perfectly-relaxed-about-this opening line 'Pig is the only critter on God's green earth that goes the whole hog for mankind'); Homard au Cognac; Poularde Sainte Hélène (twenty-four separate ingredients, including foie gras and truffles); French-fried Cauliflower ('Dip in batter coating no. 3'); Poached Eggs in Gelatin, Pain D'Epinards ('Put a 2-inch buttered foil collar [step 1, p.336, for instructions on making collars] around the top of the mold'), and more. And if that wasn't enough, the wines.
Whoever picked wine pairings (someone called Dr. George Rezek gets especially fingered in the Acknowledgments) must have had pockets as deep as the Pacific. To accompany Jambon en Croûte (Ham in Crust)? A nice Margaux. Rognons de Veau aux Champignons (Kidneys in Mushroom Sauce)? Gevrey-Chambertin. Fish Steaks? Puligny-Montrachet. Chicken in White Wine? Pomerol. Chicken with Artichokes? Corton Charlemagne. Sauteed Pork Chops? Erdener Treppchen (German, as it points out). Roast Beef? Chateau Latour.
It's an exercise in intimidation, something expressly designed to draw your own shortcomings to your own, haggard, lack of attention. That's what cookery books did in the Anglo-Saxon world in those days: they traumatised housewives and set domestic cooking back a decade. Besides, if you could afford all those things, either you'd get someone else to cook them and decant them, or go out to a restaurant. I mean lobster, truffles, Chateau Latour, I'd have to sell my Kodak stock and get out of Eastern Airlines just to pay for the main course.
And yet: there's a part of me that wants to believe in this terrible gastronomic ransom note, a part that accepts the necessity of impossible catering when guests come round, because that trauma is an essential part of the transaction. Most of the time for the hard-pressed housewife two generations ago? Chops, baked beans, Arctic Roll, some kind of dismal salad. Once in a terrifying blue moon? Aubergines Farcies and a Chateauneuf du Pape, whatever that was. Without wholesale terror and a superabundance of unfamiliar, deathly, ingredients, there is no commitment, no genuine giving. I now understand that I must raise my game to a point at which it is impossible for me to succeed, and give up kidding myself that I'm basically cool with Yotam. It's Medaillons de Veau St. Fiacre (with a nice Fleurie, apparently) from now on, and hang the expense. Not that PK will ever know.