I'm alone in a rowboat in a howling Nor'Easter, provisioned with nothing but a bottle of Molson Ex and a bag of marshmallows. Twenty years of cooking magazines are acting as ballast, but the boat's taking on water and I'm forced to jettison my collection. What goes over the bow first?
As a recurring nightmare it can't compete with the one where I'm trying to catch a plane to Oslo to pick up my Nobel, only to find that my shoes don't match, my passport has expired, and I've forgotten my speech in the taxi. But faced with the laws of physics, the linear feet of available shelf space and the ever-expanding cookbook collection, I'm bailing out the boat at least once a year.
Sorry, Martha, over you go, just from sheer weight. I'm sure you ace the swimming portion of the Iron Man, and my complete series of Martha Stewart Living has already been eroded, standing in for sand as the leveling agent under the patio bricks. I can find your recipe for piped peapods on the bookshelf or at marthastewart.com. Besides, I'm hanging on to you because I still yearn to craft a complete collection of State Birds entirely from pompoms. (Lest you think that burial under the bricks is a sign of masculine disrespect, my husband adores Martha, and would have served her five months in a flash had she put him on her calendar for an assignation featuring pumpkin carving. She's blonde, she can cook and after watching her tour Steinway and Sons, he's convinced that she can rebuild a nine-foot grand faster than even he.)
Gourmet. Groan. Every other year a mutable pair of adorable nine-year-olds comes to the door, selling magazine subscriptions to raise money for Brownies or soccer camp or Missions to Mongolia. Sigh. Of course I submit, and choose Gourmet. What compels my caving? There's always that single irresistible recipe I want to save, so I add another month to the stack waiting for that rainy-day clipping party that never happens. Come to think of it, I can always consult Epicurious.com. Sorrow is cold comfort Ruth; you're going over the bow.
I shake a dozen blow-in subscription cards from a random copy of Bon Appetit. Here again, Epicurious is my friend. Reserving a card to be inscribed later with a plea for rescue -- which I'll stuff into the empty Molson bottle -- I toss the rest, along with five years' worth of endless holiday tips, into the drink.
For five years, we had unlimited access to the dumpster of America's leading importer of foreign periodicals. That was truly the Golden Age of magazine madness: piles of Paris-Match, Country Life and Madame Figaro obscured the coffee table, the carpet, and the tops of toilet tanks. The Italian cooking magazines were by mille miglia the most beautiful, and I saved (and still cook from) dozens of them. But: I cough into my saltwater-soaked hanky, channel Violetta in the last act of La Traviata, and watch Sale e Pepe, A Tavola and La Cucina Italiana sail away. Quel dolor.
After the operatic catharsis, I manage to pitch a near complete set of Cook's Illustrated, senza lagrima. Thanks for cooking up the compilations, Christopher; the boat's another foot higher in the water. I nibble the last marshmallow -- and prepare to go down with the boat, the beer, and twenty-five issues of Pleasures of Cooking.
I will go to my watery grave with Carl Sontheimer.
By now, I should expect it. Along with those other culinary crushes of mine, de Pomiane and Babinski, Sontheimer was a Science Guy first, a Food Guy second -- I gleaned most of his biographical information at the website of his alma mater, MIT. He was born in New York City in 1914, but spent most of his youth in France before heading stateside to go to college. He was a Mechanical Engineer, inventor and entrepreneur with a passion for microwave -- the frequency, not the oven -- and he sold a direction finder to NASA, who deployed it on a mission to the moon. As a tribute to his ingenuity, MIT has established the Carl G. Sontheimer Prize for Excellence in Innovation and Creativity in Design. (Don't confuse this with the Sontheimer Award, which honors "The driver who best exemplifies all the attributes that make up the professional truck driver.") He sold his engineering company and could have spent the rest of his life bumming around La Belle France in considerable style, munching through every star in Michelin.
You can take the engineer out of the country, but you can't take the engineer out of the rich retired gourmet entrepreneur. In 1971, Carl and his wife attended a culinary trade show in France. In a coup de foudre, he fell in love with the monstre mechanique of the French professional kitchen, the Robo Coupe. He bought a licensing agreement and tinkered with the bulky behemoth, downsizing it for home use. In 1973, he delivered its docile domesticated offspring, the Cuisinart. To paraphrase Carole King, the earth moved under our clogs.
The Cuisinart is a fixture now, a standard item on the bridal registry, like a covey of canisters or an electronic foot spa. Typical is the daughter of a friend, married a year: she has yet to sully the work bowl with so much as a shallot, because the newlyweds rely on that other shower perennial, the microwave, for all their romantic dinners a deux. I weep for that flame set of Le Creuset, and the gleaming gaggle of All-Clad that will likewise remain virgin long past the Paper Anniversary.
But, oh those heady early days! Sauce Maltaise in rivers. Mayonnaise every night, whether we needed it or not! Pate without cranking the clunky grinder that n'er cleaved to the counter. My weekly batches of quenelles, mousses, terrines and Anchoiade Nicoise rivalled the output of the garde-manger on the QEII, and we ate enough Potage Crecy to handle our lifetime requirement of beta-carotene.
I worked at Crate and Barrel when Gordon Segal owned only four stores and flipped burgers for us employees at the company picnic. The cookware store jillionaire was mad for the Cuisinart; I julienned cases of carrots to the amazement of the nascent foodie class -- and for the personal enrichment of my boss. I used my employee discount to buy my own slice/dice/knead/puree miracle machine (Cuiz One), and replaced it for the first time only two years ago, 6,240 batches of pizza and seven cars later. Not because the machine didn't work -- hell, the motor still purred to life with a flick of the fingertip -- but it had become a wearisome chore to order the now- obsolete mixing bowl. We decided to blow some money for Cuiz Two. In non-culinary terms this is like replacing an '88 Honda never driven outside Southern California.
I lugged Cuiz Two (a Deluxe 11) upstairs to the bathroom and set its squat booty on the bathroom scales. It weighs in at twelve and a half pounds before breakfast -- a food processor middleweight -- some of the Big Boys push twenty pounds. But that twelve and a half pounds is enough to prevent the machine from going walkabouts when it's kneading a pound and a half of bread dough, and its motor has never stalled or overheated. I knocked out a blender in the first twenty seconds of Round One without so much as a standing eight count; it stayed on the mat in acrid electrical meltdown while trying to shred tough artichoke leaves on their way to the compost heap. Cuiz Two doesn't break a sweat.
The food processor's knockout punch is the s-curved stainless steel blade. Pureed chicken livers for all those terrines in about fifteen seconds, pate brisee in thirty, and bread dough in a minute and a half. It's the attachment that gets the most use unless you are, as I was, briefly, in the underground carrot cake business. That said, some of the happiest hours of my working life were spent wowing the world by demonstrating how to grate a zucchini in three seconds with the grating disk, or how to deconstruct a cabbage with the scary-sharp slicer.
I don't pull out the plastic dough blade very often and I don't own the newfangled attachments like egg whips or fruit juicers; I don't need them. The basic kit has never failed me, although I've pulled stupid stuff. Hint: Do not puree large quantities of liquids, crepe batter for instance. To yield two cups prepare five, since three cups will ooze like thin sweet library paste over sixty square feet of countertop and floor when you remove the bowl from the shaft. But the blade will function perfectly, and it will be the work of thirty-five seconds. The cleanup will take a month -- two, if you have grouted surfaces. Trust me.
Should you desire advanced guidance in feed-tube plunger pressing, or need specs for competitive food processors, I refer you to How Stuff Works.
After setting up Cuiz One for its virgin voyage, I shook the box and out fell a slim spiral-bound cookbook: Recipes for the Cuisinart Food Processor (James Beard and Carl Jerome), along with an invitation to join the Cuisinart Cooking Club. I felt as if I had been invited to join a cozy crowd of early adopters before the term had been adopted. Signing up would get me a subscription to the club newsletter, and a magazine called The Pleasures of Cooking. Assuming that my memory hasn’t been wasted by age and Maker's Mark, I remember that the first couple of issues were free, Little Girl. The heady contents of my first issue hooked me, and I would have considered a life of petty crime in order to feed my The Pleasures of Cooking jones -- if the magazine were available today, I'd turn to drugs, numbers and prostitution.
Someone once told me that his collection of The Pleasures of Cooking was the only paper he bothered to rescue from his burning house. The edges of the survivors are black, brittle and redolent of smoke, but he still uses them. Should my house be set ablaze by an untended vat of duck fat, why would I rescue what my daughter calls "that really greasy sticky stack" of cooking magazines before I grab the family silver but after her hand-made Mother's Day cards?
For one thing, they're damn near irreplaceable. Sontheimer published two cookbook anthologies: The Pleasures of Cooking Fruits and Vegetables (Maria Kourebanas, Editor, Carl Sontheimer, Editor Ecco, 1998) and Classic Cakes and Other Great Cuisinart Desserts (Carl G. Sontheimer, Cecily Brownstone, Contributor Hearst, 1994.) They're both out of print, and fine as they must be, they're mere single-subject compendiums. The Pleasures of Cooking was exciting precisely because the subjects were so eclectic. Here's the bill of fare from March/April 1987.
- "Eye Opening Weekend Breakfasts" (Marion Cunningham!)
- "Bhutanese Cuisine" (Suzanne Waugh)
- "The Waffle Makes a Comeback" (no author cited.) Ten glorious glossy pages of waffle recipes and photos. Hmm . . . Curried Waffles with Chutney Butter sound interesting…
- "Seafood Specialties from Maine Chefs" (Sally Tager) Flambeed marinated salmon?
- "A Wealth of Welsh Fare" (Fay Carpenter). Gee, I can't remember the last time I saw a long article, with recipes, about Welsh food; in fact, it's the one and only. A slice of Teison Nionod, anyone? (Hang on a minute here -- Bhutanese Cuisine?).
- "Plenty of Polenta" (Mindy Heiferling) Think back, Dear Reader: In 1987 polenta didn't nestle in a cryovac tube next to the bacon at the Piggly Wiggly. The few Americans who knew what it was called it as they saw it: high-falutin' cornmeal mush.
May/June 1982 gives us Roy Andries de Groot on "The Mussels of Brussels," and Florence Lin on "Baked and Steamed Chinese Buns". Cuiz One churned out hundreds of steamed Lotus Leaf Buns. Lin teaches us how to turn them into Bat Buns; I remember that I dipped the tip of a chopstick into red food coloring, then dabbed the bun twice. "Mommy! Bat Eyes!” In the September/October 1982 issue, Jacques Pepin butchers, ties and trims all sorts and sizes of game from quail to venison, then Cecily Brownstone offers us a piece of Applesauce Cake for dessert. Julie Sahni teaches a seminar about Indian flatbreads a la Cuiz; the grease stains on the page remind me that in 1982 I made Phulka and Aloo Poori. Left to myself, I would never allow a sweet potato through my front door. Not only that, but in 1982 I distrusted turmeric, had never touched a tandoor or tasted so much as a forkful of vindaloo. Completely ignorant of Indian food, I still felt seduced, impelled, inspired to puree those orange tubers with cinnamon, flatten the paste into discs, and deep fry them in three quarts of bubbling canola oil. It took a month to degrease the ceiling.
The Pleasures of Cooking masthead included James Beard (from its inception until his death), Cecily Brownstone (Sontheimer's Number Two), Paula Wolfert and Jacques Pepin (for the entire run of the magazine). The photography was way ahead of its time, both seductive and instructive. No ads, of course, because the entire magazine was an ad, though forty per cent of the recipes don't require a Cuisinart. There's foodie arcana -- James Beard tells us that he breakfasted from a tray delivered to his bedroom every morning until he turned twelve. In rereading the sticky stack, I marvel at the space Sontheimer gave to Asian food, the charm of Susan Purdy's interview with Jeanette Pepin (May/June 1986. Hmm. Green Bean Salad with Cream Sauce,) and the poignancy of Jacques Mendes's piece about the late Bernard Loiseau in which Christian Millaut describes him as a "fundamentally happy man." (March/April 1986.) Even the reader recipes on the back page are consistently solid: Next time I'm in Oakville, Ontario I'll look up Barbara Gibson, and present her with my Key Lime variation of her Lemon Icebox Cookies, which rock on in the top ten of my Cookie Hit Parade.
Sontheimer inaugurated a long hot series on Indian regional food by Copeland Marks that makes me want to go Goan tonight. Brownstone's series on Classic American Cakes nudges me into the kitchen, where I at last bake the Williamsburg Orange Cake I never found time for back when Jane Fonda and I worked out to Jimmy Buffett together. Here's Copeland Marks again, this time from Tunisia; I'll try that carrot salad with capers, mint, olives and hard-boiled eggs. In fact, I'll make it tonight!
"I'll make it tonight!" Those four words explain why I'm still clutching those twenty-five issues to my bosom when the Coast Guard throws me a line. Of course, I try new recipes every time I pull a cooking magazine from the mailbox. Yeah, I find good, even great, new dishes in print and on line. Sure, Carl Sontheimer wanted us to fall hard for his machine -- and to buy one for Mom come Christmas. He knew that your girlfriend would head to Crate and Barrel and get one for herself when she saw you make child's play of zucchini bread. But the man's love of good food (frat house meals at MIT were a severe disappointment after a French boyhood!) and his pleasure in its cooking continue to inspire, one issue at a time. Within a four-day period this month, he inspired me to make Suzanne Jones's Beaten Biscuits, the Williamsburg Wine Cake, Basque Lamb Stew, Pickled Pears, and Oatcakes.
Browsing Pleasures of Cooking for even five minutes can still, after all these years, turn me on, lift me from my chair and into propel me into the kitchen. I’m, excited, aroused -- lusting! -- to cook something new, something old, something exotic. Something wacky.
I last toasted a marshmallow on the shores of Lake Massawippi, singing "Louie Louie" around a campfire with my fellow prepubescent Episcopalians. Commercial marshmallows are cheap and dependable, and my annual consumption is exactly one bag, to be melted into the obligatory No-Fail Chocolate Fudge at Christmastime. As my daughter now prefers costlier Christmas confectionery, I may have bought my last squishy sack.
But Carl Sontheimer inspired me to make marshmallows.
The March/April 1984 issue of Pleasures of Cooking included an article by Susan Smith titled "Many Many Marshmallows." I came upon it last month. Lingered over a full-page photograph (a wall of pink and white, chocolate-dipped, coconut-coated marshmallows.) I smiled the way the yearbook portrait of the guy I dated in tenth grade still makes me smile. (Sam was silly, sweet and sideburned.) "Many Marshmallows?" In 1984, I guffawed: Carl had finally lost it, meandered that meter too far on his road to show me the seductive features of Cuiz One. (I do remember making the Devilled Crab from "Jim Beard's Tray Dinners" on page 16.)
This time I read the recipe. Hell, all the ingredients are pantry staples, and cheap ones at that. Boil corn syrup, water and sugar until it reaches 250 degrees. Dissolve some gelatin and keep it warm. Whip three egg whites with an electric mixer, dribble the hot sugar syrup, gelatin and vanilla over them and beat continuously, until the sticky stuff becomes cool and thick. Spread the whole mess into a pan dusted with powdered sugar and cornstarch, wait two hours, cut into squares, and it's magic time, folks. Marshmallows!
Knowing well my struggles with confectionery in general, and hot sugar syrup in particular, I parted with four bucks at Target for a candy thermometer. The drive back seemed longer than usual, the red lights more frequent, the motorists deeply respectful of the speed limit. I did have the decency to mock myself: I was courting a speeding ticket hurrying home to make marshmallows!
Three hours later, I dusted the cornstarch from my fingers. I beamed. Stacked on my best pedestal cake plate were tiers of chocolate-dipped, coconut-coated, pink and white marshmallows. Frothy fripperies, silly and sweet, made, come to think of it, with no help whatsoever from a food processor.
I'd been inspired to cook something new, just for the fun of it, because a whimsical photograph, good writing and a seductive recipe reached from the page, wiggled a flirtatious finger, and pointed me straight me to the kitchen. That's the real reason I'll never part with Carl's sticky stack. Every issue reminds me of how I began to cook, shows me why I still love to cook and pulls me from my chair to cook some more. The title once seemed stuffy, stilted, even smarmy, but Carl Sontheimer christened it right.
Sontheimer didn’t care if you flunked Pompoms 101. His magazine isn’t about restaurant reviews, collectible can openers or finding the best brand of baked beans. He was proud of his late-life Baby, the machine that revolutionized our kitchens, and he wanted us to coo over it, chuck its chin and contribute to its college fund. But above all, he wanted us to believe in the endless delights beckoning us to cook -- the classic, the cutting edge, and the exotic. The pleasures of cooking.
Margaret McArthur, aka maggiethecat, is host and Dark Lady of the the Daily Gullet Competitions. She writes, cooks and tends her garden near Chicago.
Art by Dave Scantland, after The Lady of Shallot, by John William Waterhouse. (1888, Tate Gallery, London)