When I was a child, I had my first bit of education about luxury when I found myself drawn again and again to the same two-page spread of my mother’s New York Times Cookbook, which featured no recipe whatsoever, just a photo and description of the best way to serve caviar.
It was Craig Claiborne’s famous cookbook, and we kept a copy not to cook, but to stare at and get ennobled by through osmosis, by merely perusing the veloutés, the lobster a l’ Americaine, the poached chicken in aspic. Or perhaps my mother actually intended to try and cook some of the things. I do not think she ever made more than one or two of them.
My mother cooked about once every two weeks or so, when she was home from her gigs teaching college philosophy courses at night, and the rest of the time my sisters and I ate cold cuts from the supermarket, scrambled eggs, Campbell’s tomato rice soup, and bread.
My father, it’s important to say, didn’t cook, either, although he did show an example of astonishing gusto in his food by constructing lipsmackingly elaborate sandwiches for himself, not fancy but delicious-looking: roast beef with piles of tomatoes, cheddar cheese, pickles, olives, onion. Mayo on one side, mustard on the other; he never made any sandwiches for me.
My mother, when she did cook, usually made pot roast: flanken, as we called it, with potatoes, carrots, onions, in a brown gravy. It was sustaining, occasionally even tasty, but I wanted more: wanted something different every time, wanted a parent who would cook for me every night, wanted things in different colors, different textures, wanted something expensive, elaborate, that would cram pleasure into the back of my throat, ravish my teeth, and thrust some unimaginable delight behind my eyeballs.
Because nobody had taught me how to cook and almost nobody used the stove in our house, I assumed that any kind of cooking would be as far beyond my ken as piloting a spacecraft. My mother had brought us up with the idea that if we didn’t start out excellent at something, there was almost no chance we’d ever be able to become good at it over time. She wanted us to stick with what we were already good at. The New York Times Cookbook, therefore, was a rather frightening read. But I could look with considerably more ease on my two favorite pages, which I now know almost by heart, over 30 years later. It was there that that gouty gay alcoholic, Craig Claiborne, pronounced the following round and fizzy words: “Appetizers or hors d’oeuvres are the frivolities of a meal, and, like champagne, they are capable of setting a mood. There are several that are almost guaranteed to give a feeling of elegance and richness. These are fresh caviar, genuine foie gras, cold lobster, smoked salmon and thin slices of fine ham such as that of Paris, Parma, Westphalia or Bayonne.”
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