As it was for M. F. K. Fisher in The Gastronomical Me, food is more than a metaphor in The Bread and the Knife. It is the organizing principle of an existence. Starting with "A Is for Al Dente," the loosely linked chapters evoke an alphabet of food memories that recount a woman’s emotional growth from the challenges of youth to professional accomplishment, marriage, and divorce.
Betrayal is embodied in an overripe melon, her awakening in a Béarnaise sauce. Passion fruit juice portends the end of a first marriage, while tarte Tatin offers redemption. Each letter serves up a surprising variation on the struggle for self-knowledge, the joy and pain of familial and romantic love, and food’s astonishing ability to connect us with both the living and the dead.
There is a chapter for every letter of the alphabet. Highlights include: A is for Al Dente, B is for Béarnaise, C is for Crab, D is for Dinner Party, K is for Kielbasa, L is for Lobster Roll, P is for Passion Fruit, Q is for Quail, T is for Tarte Tatin, V is for “Vegetarian, W is for White Truffles, Z is for Zucchini Blossoms.
Ranging from her grandmother's suburban kitchen to an elegant New York restaurant, a longhouse in Borneo, and a palace in Rajasthan, The Bread and the Knife charts the vicissitudes of a woman forced to swallow some hard truths about herself while discovering that the universe can dispense surprising second chances.
The book includes six recipes that run the gamut from "Crepes Filled with Huitlacoche" to her stepfather’s homely “Stromboli Stuffing,” including a couple that are more entertaining to read about than to prepare, like liquified olives with pimento.
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My grandmother was a genius in the kitchen, someone whose skill reliably transformed the simple into the sublime. One thing she could not master for the life of her, however, was timing. Dishes emerged from the kitchen at random while she flapped around the table like an enraged hen, shouting, "Mangia! Mangia! Eat it while it's hot!" and waving off our objections that we would be happy to wait or that she should sit down and join us.
Pasta accompanied many of these meals, so the nightly drama was regularly punctuated with the Testing of the Spaghetti. Even after fifty or sixty years, my grandmother claimed to be incapable of determining when pasta was al dente. At a certain point, standing over the roiling pot, she would call out in panicked voice, "Pop? Go find Pop!" No matter where my grandfather was, no matter which of his many hobbies he was pursuing — gardening, winemaking, listening to the ball game — he had to be fetched immediately. By the time he was located, minutes had usually passed, and the only way the spaghetti would have been al dente was if she had called him before she threw it into the boiling water. Nevertheless, she would heave a huge sigh of relief when he appeared, reprimand him for taking so long, and, after a few tries, succeed in capturing a few wily strands on a wooden spoon. These she would lift to his mouth (he was a foot taller than she was). "Perfect," he would say, after looking thoughtful for a moment, or sometimes, "It needs another minute." That couldn't possibly have been true, but you could tell it made her happy.
This charade, as I used to see it, drove me and everyone else in the family crazy. What was the point of bothering him? Why couldn't the woman test it herself, for God's sake, or use a timer, or let someone else do the tasting? It wasn't rocket science. My grandparents had been dead for many years before I understood that it wasn't about sense, or convenience. It was one of the rituals of love. My grandfather was central to the meal, it said. He was indispensable. His opinion was valued above all others. Despite how thin-skinned my grandmother was, she repeatedly braved our ridicule to tell him these things. When I left home and finally learned what al dente pasta tasted like, I realized she had sacrificed her perfectionism for sixty years to say in overcooked spaghetti what she could not put into words.
The rituals of love can take as many forms as love itself. They can be as elaborate as the Christmas Eve dinner that occupied my grandmother for the entire month of December or as humble as my stepfather's making me instant oatmeal every day for breakfast. God, I hated that oatmeal. I can still smell the fake maple flavoring and see the watery beige glop in the bowl. One morning when I was ten, I had a tantrum as soon as he left the kitchen, rattling the spoon around and around the bowl in a kind of frenzy while I talked out loud to myself. How does he expect me to eat this slop? Who does he think he is? It's disgusting. This is fit for a pig! Spooning up the oatmeal and slinging it back into the bowl, I felt someone staring at the back of my head. Filled with dread, I turned to see my stepfather standing in the kitchen doorway, wearing an expression of such naked hurt that the dread instantly turned to shame.
"I'm sorry," I stammered. "I didn't mean it."
But he had already begun walking down the hall to his room. He never made me breakfast again. I tried apologizing once more, but it was no use. It took me a long time to realize that he believed it was not the oatmeal but him I found wanting, and perhaps he was right. In any case, I learned that day that I had the fearsome power to wound another human being in a way that left a permanent scar.
After four years of drinking Carnation Instant Breakfast, I Started high school at Nazareth Academy, which did not provide transportation for its students. My grandfather, who lived across the street, kindly offered to drive me to school every day on his way to work. Because, like most teenagers, I had trouble getting up on time, he also made me breakfast. He was as regular as clockwork. Never once in four years was he late, or sick, or short-tempered. I would come flying in the door ten minutes behind schedule, uniform half undone, and my coffee would be waiting with a saucer on top, still hot, with the milk and sugar already stirred in. I would object that I didn't have time to eat but would accept being overruled because, bratty as I still was, I had learned my lesson. Watching him stir the oatmeal in a saucepan (real oatmeal this time) or slice exactly half a banana onto my cornflakes with still-powerful but age-stiffened fingers, I knew that these were acts of love.
When my son was born, I knew only what not to do. The sole tools I had were the gifts my grandparents had given me: my grandmother's many expressions of love through cooking and my grandfather's daily example of absolute dependability. Our ritual had never varied, and the collective memory of those mornings buoyed me with a strength that was not my own, enabling me to get up with my son and make him breakfast every morning no matter how I felt, even during a dark year when I wished I were dying. Now, nearly grown, my son sits on a stool at the pass-through counter, eating an English muffin (no oatmeal for him) as we talk companionably about the upcoming day. Next week he will graduate from high school. It may sound ridiculous, but the fact that every day of his life has begun in exactly this gentle and consistent manner is a source of great pride for me. I have failed in many ways, but not this one.
There is something wonderfully redemptive about the idea — proposed in various forms by Native Americans, Aborigines, and Buddhists — that healing moves backward to our ancestors as well as forward to future generations. It makes a kind of sense. Having children forges a link with the past as well as the future: my ex-husband and I are related by blood through our son. Retroactively, whether we like it or not, we have become family. We are likewise irrevocably connected to each other's families, and so the bonds multiply through the generations. Why should it not be possible, then, for ancient hurts to be healed and future ones prevented through the faithful daily ritual of preparing breakfast?
When I told my stepfather I'd like to learn how to ski, he didn't choose a wholesome family resort in New England like Stowe or Sugarloaf for our winter vacation. Wholesome was a concept entirely foreign to him. He picked the Playboy Hotel at Great Gorge in nearby New Jersey, dubbed "the R-rated version of Disneyland" by Skiing magazine. Hardly the type of man who read Skiing, my stepfather probably heard about Great Gorge at the Playboy Club in Manhattan, where he paid twenty-five dollars a year for the privilege of being a "keyholder." From what I could tell, the only thing that key entitled him to was stealing hundreds of black-and-white bunny-head swizzle sticks, which turned up in various drawers for decades afterwards. Although the sprawling resort contained five restaurants, a nightclub, a three-level game room, an indoor swimming pool that converted to an enormous Jacuzzi, indoor tennis courts, and a health club, I spent most of my time on the Bunny slope, wiping out on the icy granules spewed by the snow machine. The only time I ever saw my parents was at meals, which would have suited me fine except for one thing: by December 1975, my sophomore year of high school, I had pretty much stopped eating.
Having lost more than twenty-five pounds since the previous summer, I weighed just 101 pounds at five feet five. Up until then, I had managed to disguise my growing emaciation beneath my Catholic school uniform. Designed to obscure the figure, the polyester pleated skirt, boxy buttoned "weskit," and blue blazer were what had gotten me into trouble in the first place. I simply hadn't noticed the pounds packing on until the summer before, when the girls with whom we shared our beach house started calling me "wide load" and I took a good look in the rearview mirror. It was true that I needed to lose a little weight, but at fifteen it was easy. I'd never known, until they pointed it out, that you could eat half an English muffin instead of a whole one, or that it wasn't a good idea to buy a half gallon of ice cream every Saturday night and eat it out of the carton with a spoon. It was an education. The less I ate, the more I swam, rode my bike, and played tennis. As I watched the needle on the scale drop from 119 to 111 to 105, a dark elation took hold of me. Less was definitely more. I felt like a sculptor paring away everything that was unnecessary. Although a nagging voice told me it was time to stop, I didn't want to.
The psychic low point of that summer was my defeat by a small dish of vanilla ice cream at a decrepit soda fountain in Atlantic City. I had already lost fifteen pounds, and people had begun commenting on how good I looked. Part of me knew I deserved a treat. All day I had argued with myself about whether or not to order it, and by the time it arrived in a pedastaled stainless steel dish misted with cold and beaded with condensation, I was in such an agony of indecision that I rushed to the bathroom, sat on the toilet seat, and wept. When I came back to the table, I had made up my mind. The answer was, and would remain, "No." From then on, not a day passed during which I had eaten little enough to satisfy myself. I went to bed berating myself for what I had eaten that day and woke up plotting how little I could consume in the hours ahead. Like any obsession, it was exhausting, and part of me resented wasting so much valuable energy on something that felt so circular and, ultimately, unwinnable. By the time of the ski trip, five months later, my weight had reached a plateau from which it stubbornly refused to budge. No one talked about anorexia then, but I had a sense that to force my body further down would be to take a step from which there might be no turning back. I was still just sane enough to be afraid.
This vacation at Great Gorge was the first time in memory that my family had sat down together regularly for meals, and it didn't take long for my parents to notice that I ate practically nothing all day. At lunch on the second day, I must have come into focus for them for the first time in years. The meal is a blur except for the completely foreign experience of seeing fear in my mother's eyes, which quickly reverted to anger. She threatened to ground me when we got home until I gained five pounds — useless, since ordering me to put on weight was then tantamount to suggesting I set myself on fire. My stepfather, however, was too clever for a frontal attack. He made reservations three nights running at the VIP Room, the resort's "gourmet" restaurant. He knew I had loved fancy restaurants since I was a little girl. It had always delighted him that I ordered the most outré thing on the menu — frogs' legs or sweetbreads — although he himself rarely strayed from variations on prime rib.
The VIP Room may seem silly now, with its liveried "butlers" ceremoniously carving Chateaubriand for two, but the cooking was pure Escoffier. I would be lying if I went on to describe an exquisite meal, bite by bite. I most certainly did not sit down with the intention of enjoying myself — this was war. My memories of those three dinners are disoriented, conflated, strobe- lit. The decor, as befit the "Very Important Playboy," was all black, and the lighting so dim it was difficult to see the food. Flashbulbs of memory explode in the darkness: nearly fainting when I picked up the head of my filleted trout thinking it was a clam shell, my mother laughing, and a waiter whisking it away; the whoosh of Steak Diane igniting tableside; a bite of shrimp with a yellow sauce. And here the lights go on. The yellow sauce was without doubt the most delicious thing I had ever put in my mouth. Buttery, tangy, tinged with some vaguely licorice-y herb. I forgot to be self-conscious and asked the waiter what the sauce was, what the herb was (Béarnaise, tarragon). I also forgot, for the first time in months, that I wasn't supposed to be eating. When the guilt returned, which it did with a wallop to my gut, a huge protest welled up inside me. For a moment, I had stepped off the seesaw of yes and no onto terra incognita, and I did not want to climb back on. Those few bites had had nothing to do with whether I denied myself or allowed myself to indulge in a known quantity like vanilla ice cream. They had represented the excitement of the unknown, the taste of the world I knew was out there and couldn't wait to escape to. The hunger in me to experience that was stronger, if just barely, than the voice that said no. While I was still teetering on the great gorge — you can't make these things up — this meal lured me back from the edge. Always a shrewd judge of character, my stepfather was absolutely right to sidestep the issue of power — my parents' over me, mine over myself — and appeal to my sense of adventure.
Recently, through a combination of luck and some truly obsessive digging on the Internet, I managed to track down the chef de saucier of the VIP Room from 1975. Not much older than I was at that time, he now teaches at the Cornell Hotel School. He could not explain to me how the BÉarnaise sauce, which was served with beef, found its way onto my shrimp. It is possible that I mentally combined the shrimp from one meal with the sauce from another, but the sauce I remember perfectly. Here is the chef's recollection of the version I ate that night:
As I remember the BÉarnaise sauce for the Chateaubriand and the filet mignon was a reduction of fresh tarragon, tarragon vinegar, and a very dry white wine. It was reduced by one-half and brought to room temperature (this is important to not break the end sauce). We then clarified whole butter and cracked and separated egg yolks into a very clean mixing bowl. Using a bain-marie, we would then slowly whip the yolks over a moist heat until they start to thicken. Be careful not to overheat the eggs as you will have scrambled eggs instead. Once the egg mixture becomes rather thick, we start to slowly incorporate the butter into the egg mixture. Once the fluffiness is achieved, we then slowly incorporate some of the tarragon mixture to taste (please not too strong and maintain a thicker-than-nappe consistency). The goal is to achieve light and fluffy with a prevalent tarragon flavor. At the very end, a squeeze of lemon to brighten the dense flavor of the yolk. You can finish with chiffonade of fresh basil or tarragon. I prefer to leave the sauce like the sun, bright and yellow. I hope this brings a wonderful memory back to life.
Beginning to question whether a mere sauce could have saved me from borderline anorexia, I came across a quote from Baron Brisse, sometimes referred to as the world's first food journalist. A man of enormous girth, who had to pay double to get on the nineteenth-century equivalent of a bus, he wrote of Sauce Béarnaise, "It frightens me! With it, one might never stop eating." Clearly, I had august company in believing that Béarnaise was more than a sauce; it was a force.
* * *
Twenty years later, I was sitting at a large round table at French Laundry, Thomas Keller's legendary restaurant in Yountville, California. The Sauce Béarnaise had done its job so effectively that I had become a cookbook editor, and the chef had designed a tasting menu for six of us to showcase the proposal for his first cookbook, which I was considering. Across the table sat my husband's new business partner and his girlfriend, whom I had met for the first time earlier that day, horribly hungover by the pool. After running to the bathroom several times, she claimed she had eaten something that hadn't agreed with her the night before. My husband had told me she was a single mother and knew she wasn't getting any younger. She desperately wanted the man to marry her, and it was vital that she look good in a bikini. Claiming not to be an adventurous eater, she accepted a sourdough roll but declined every one of the fifty-three astonishing dishes that came out of the kitchen. At some point, I realized it was useless to urge her to taste the eggcup of White Truffle Oil — Infused Custard with Black Truffle Ragout or even the Salad of Petite Summer Tomatoes with Vine-Ripe Tomato Sorbet in the hope that she might find her own "Sauce Béarnaise." It had been too many years since she sacrificed her body to the jealous gods of anorexia and alcohol. So she sat alone in the middle of the feast, rolling her bread into little white pills that she washed down one by one with a swallow of red wine.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Bread and the Knife"
Copyright © 2018 Dawn Drzal.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
A is for Al Dente,
B is for Béarnaise,
C is for Crab,
D is for Dinner Party,
E is for Eggs,
F is for Fowl,
G is for Gruel,
H is for Huitlacoche,
I is for Indian Breakfast,
J is for Jordan Almonds,
K is for Kielbasa,
L is for Lobster Roll,
M is for Melon,
N is for Nova,
O is for Omul,
P is for Passion Fruit,
Q is for Quail,
R is for Rosemary,
S is for Stuffing,
T is for Tarte Tatin,
U is for Urab Sayur,
V is for "Vegetarian",
W is for White Truffles,
X is for Xanthan Gum,
Y is for Yquem,
Z is for Zucchini Blossoms,