Book Reviews - Winter 2008

The Casserole Inquisition

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Chronicles from America’s culinary transformation

By Sandra M. Gilbert

December 1, 2007


 

 

The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food, by Judith Jones, Knopf, $24.95

The time: 1955. The place: the dining room of Balch II, a women’s dormitory at Cornell University.

Ten of us are at one of the big round tables where the art of gracious living is inculcated in us during sit-down meals served to the dorm’s more fortunate inhabitants by scholarship girls. I’m looking with perplexity at a bowl of tuna and noodles in a cream sauce, topped with crushed potato chips, that has been set in front of me.

“Oh, my mom makes this,” says one girl enthusiastically. “She pours Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup over the tuna and noodles and then puts on the potato chips and bakes it.”

“My mom does that too,” another chimes in. “And she makes great string beans. She adds a can of Campbell’s cream of celery soup to a can of string beans and she bakes it and adds some crushed french fried onion rings on top. It’s soooooo good.”

Yet another girl explains something that her mother does with cream of chicken soup.

At 18, I’ve never heard of these recipes, and I’m astonished. I resolve to learn how to prepare such dishes myself. Next time I go to my boyfriend’s basement apartment in Collegetown, by God, I’ll do a real tuna noodle bake with cream of mushroom soup and maybe some canned mushrooms and maybe a topping of, oh, who knows what!


The time: 1985. The place: the dining room of Terrace, an eating club at Princeton University.

I’m now a grown-up English professor seated at a small table with one of my students—let’s call her Jennifer—and a few of her friends. “Do be sure,” says Jennifer, “to try the leg of lamb with Dijon mustard crust—it’s one of our chef’s specialties.”

Later I’ll learn from another Princeton student that Terrace, with its dedicated chef, had been recruiting members by simply publishing its menus in the campus newspaper:

Thursday: Thai Marinated Chicken OR
Deep Fried Sea Bass in spicy sweet sauce
Broccoli Rabe with Ginger Butter
Rice
xxx Adult Chocolate Fortune Cookies
And Iced Coconut Cream

Thus did college dining change in three decades. And this change reflected an extraordinary metamorphosis of American culinary practices in the same period, a metamorphosis that is the subject of Judith Jones’s cosy, gossipy, charmingly narrated memoir The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food. A longtime editor for Knopf, Judith Jones is well known for publishing a series of bestsellers by such authors as Julia Child (Mastering the Art of French Cooking), James Beard, Claudia Roden, Marcella Hazan, and Madhur Jaffrey. As its subtitle suggests, her book recounts her own version of the wholesale change in taste that has lately been examined in other volumes—including biographies of Julia Child, along with her own memoir; a joint “biography” of Alice Waters and her renowned restaurant Chez Panisse; and a more general culinary history by David Kamp titled The United States of Arugula. Most of these works in one way or another adhere to a narrative that I’ll call the Tale of American Culinary Transformation, or TACT for short. Here is the history of contemporary American food according to TACT:

Once upon a time Americans ate Jell-O, apple pie, canned vegetables, plain old roasts, and “casseroles” made with cream of mushroom soup. Then an eager but gastronomically innocent young person of WASP or WASP-ish descent traveled to France and was confronted by a whole new world of food in the Old World. There were charcuteries or fromageries where postwar Parisians stood patiently in long queues, often, writes Jones, “in old carpet slippers with maybe a toe sticking through” because “no matter how hard the times, they had to have a good noonday meal.” And there were boulangeries where one bought crunchy baguettes instead of soggy Wonder Bread, vergers where the fruit was dewily fresh, boucheries where one might purchase cervelles (brains) as well as chops and chickens, patisseries vending tartes tatin instead of apple pie.

The young person was stunned, having never (well hardly ever) encountered such delicacies in Les Etats-Unis. As Judith Jones poignantly confides, she had been raised to believe that “garlic represented everything alien and vulgar. It smelled bad, and people who handled it or ate it smelled bad.” Indeed, adds Jones, “one wasn’t supposed to talk about food at the table (it was considered crude, like talking about sex),” and even “spaghetti was always cut into ladylike pieces.” But now the scales of American ignorance fell from the eyes of the young person, who became an acolyte of la cuisine française, with all that such devotion implied: the liberal use of garlic and herbs, the construction of sophisticated roux, the freedom to cook with real wine (instead of the dreadful liquid that used to be called “cooking wine”).

Transformed, the young person returned to the United States, determined to preach the gospel of la bonne table far and wide. Judith Jones championed Julia Child. Julia Child took to the airwaves. Craig Claiborne ruled the culinary roost at The New York Times. Alice Waters invented Chez Panisse. Chez Panisse invented dozens of other restaurants around the country, all devoted to the nouvelle purity of “California cuisine.” The Food Network was born—and invented Rachael Ray. Anthony Bourdain invented himself. And so on, until we reach today’s culinary paradise of farmers’ markets, Whole Foods, and Williams-Sonoma.

It’s a heartwarming story, especially for foodies like me and my friends. There’s only one problem: it isn’t entirely true. What about those of us, excluded from TACT (and mostly from Jones’s memoir), who did not grow up eating tuna noodle casseroles? What about those of us whose households not only used garlic, but were perfumed with it? What about those of us who came from homes where food was discussed as openly as politics? Obviously the TACT narrative doesn’t apply to those of us who were the children of immigrant families.

If tuna casserole was a surprise, what I had heard of—and had eaten in happy quantities on many festive occasions—was food that the protagonists of TACT only discovered on pilgrimages to Europe: hors d’oeuvre variés (including caviar d’auber­gines and mushrooms à la grecque) produced by my Niçois grand­father; a stuffing of Ligurian origin (made with spinach, mushrooms, sausage, Parmesan cheese—and, yes, lots of garlic!) with which he and my grandmother dressed our Thanksgiving turkeys; arancini (glowing rice balls with mushrooms or chicken livers tucked into their centers) produced by my Sicilian aunts; and paska (a cheese pudding) served with koulich (a coffee cake) that my Russian grandmother regularly procured for Russian Easter from a shop on Madison Avenue.

“The Northeast, where I grew up, had long suffered from a puritan disdain of the enjoyment of food,” asserts Jones sweepingly. But although she was raised on the Upper East Side of the city where I was born, I don’t know what Northeast she’s discussing. Several of my earliest boyfriends were Spanish or Latin American: one introduced me to paella, which we regularly sampled at the Sevilla, in the Village. Another was Armenian: he took me to Middle Eastern restaurants in Manhattan, where we reveled in voluptuous stuffed grape leaves––and afterward we’d go to Port Said, a place on the West Side where (though we were under age) we drank ouzo and eyed the in-house belly dancers. Most of my other boyfriends were Jewish. The one at Cornell for whom I made that casserole of tuna and noodles (we didn’t like it), received regular care packages of Hebrew National salami from his parents in Brooklyn and introduced me to matzoh brei. A later one at Cornell, whom I eventually married, brought me home to his parents’ Bronx apartment where we ate dinners that were carefully prepared by their African-American cook, Mattie. Sometimes Mattie offered down-home fried chicken, but more often she concocted the Yiddish specialties she’d been taught by my mother-in-law-to-be: chopped liver, savory or sweet kugels, braised brisket.

On our first date in the mid-1950s, the boyfriend who became my husband took me to Larré’s, a popular French restaurant on West 56th Street that closed only a few years ago. There we feasted on hors d’oeuvre variés not unlike my grandpa’s—and there too I unwittingly ordered escargots de Bourgogne—snails in garlic sauce—somehow thinking, in my first-date nervousness, that they were coquilles Saint-Jacques; and thus I learned to love a French delicacy about which I might otherwise have been squeamish.

Nor were the restaurants of which I’ve written here lone harbingers of things to come in America. Jones traces the proliferation of ethnic restaurants to the late 1960s, but when I was growing up in New York—not that many years after Jones did—the city was full of little bistros like Larré’s, even in benighted Queens. And there were Italian restaurants everywhere, including the venerable Grotta Azzurra, founded in 1908, where celebrities from Enrico Caruso to Frank Sinatra feasted. Even more venerable was Luchow’s, where my family and I ate sauer­braten, Wiener schnitzel, and headcheese vinaigrette; almost as venerable was the Russian Tea Room, where we all dined on chicken Kiev and beef stroganoff.

Now it may be objected that I am bearing witness to the culinary delights enjoyed by a very special group—immigrants, in immigrant-rich New York City. But what of the dishes found in Chicago and New Orleans, San Francisco and Santa Fe, Richmond and Savannah? It doesn’t seem likely that all these cities were populated by Jell-O eaters. Polish sausages, “dirty rice,” gumbo, cioppino, chili, tamales, Southern fried chicken, greens with pot liquor—these now fashionable foods didn’t appear out of nowhere.

What, then, is the real story behind the Tale of American Culinary Transformation? For me, it’s a tale of education and institutionalization. In France such gourmets-to-be as Child and Jones learned about foods of whose existence they’d barely been aware, even though many of their compatriots already dined on such delicacies. Then, in an effort to analyze the nature of these new dishes, they began what did in fact become a transformative process: they wrote in detail—or edited books—about what they had learned. As educators, they were extraordinarily influential at a time when many Americans were ready to change—notably when the conservatism of the ’50s began to wane and the consciousness-expanding ’60s opened many minds to new ways of thinking.

Jones focuses on the details of this pedagogical process throughout The Tenth Muse as she recounts her editorial wheelings and dealings with great chef teachers and tells stories of her own progress as a cook and connoisseur. There are wonderful scenes with Julia, for instance. At one point, the American “French Chef” complains bitterly about her French collaborator Simca (Beck): “I will not be treated like dog Tray anymore,’’ she cries, alluding to Stephen Foster’s song about his ever-faithful old dog Tray. And her husband, Paul, cheers. In another episode, Jones joins the Childs at a Chinatown dinner where,­ because “Chinese cooking was their second love,” the Childs—both sophisticated chop­stick wielders—dig in so passionately that they don’t notice that Julia’s editor is going hungry.

Speaking of Chinatown, the Chinese-American cookbook writer Irene Kuo helps Jones understand the need to convey such methods of cooking as slithering, exploding, plunging, purifying, smothering, mating, nestling, capturing, choking, flavor-potting, light-footing, sizzling, rinsing, scorching, drowning, wine-pasting, and intoxicating. Finally, after coming to terms with her own snobbery about American cuisine, Jones herself begins to read our “food story as a way of uncovering interesting aspects of our social history.” Supporting her throughout this steep learning curve is her culinarily adept husband, Evan, who (in the flesh and in the spirit) inspires her to stew squirrels, braise beavers, and otherwise push the gastronomic envelope.

Still, given Jones’s version of TACT, what did it mean for me and other children of immigrant families when Julia Child and her cohort began to preach the gospel of la bonne table? I’d say that the growing celebrity of Julia, Marcella, and others allowed us to affirm the excellence of our various ethnicities. If we’d tried to become more American—my mother had yearned for lamb chops and I had, if only briefly, sought tuna cas­seroles—we no longer needed to. What we’d known intuitively and experientially was now returned to us in the lucidly organized prose of accomplished writers.

To be sure, we’d always had cookbooks of our own. In 1958 I began my married life with The Talisman Italian Cookbook (1950) by Ada Boni and a range of other volumes, including (among non-Italian collections) Dione Lucas’s Cordon Bleu Cook Book (1947), of which my husband was a particular fan, and Edward Harris Heth’s marvelous compendiums of seasonal recipes, The Wonderful World of Cooking (1956), a work that emphatically proved the strengths of traditional American cuisine. Oddly, Jones dismisses books of this era, defining the period as a “wilderness” in which authors of such compendiums “boasted of the number of recipes they had crammed between the covers [because who] cared about the quality of the instruction”? But though I’m offended by this judgment of writings I love, I have to concede that when Julia and Marcella and the other authors featured in The Tenth Muse became influential, their productions had a far greater reach than those of their precursors. Now everybody wanted to eat the way we immigrant families had always eaten.

And we too learned to love and honor our ancestral kitchens in new ways. In her seventies, my mother (who died at 97) began to re-imagine some of the Italian recipes she’d renounced in her earlier efforts to become American: escalore in bròdo, marinara sauce, Sicilian sausages roasted with lemons. The culinary revolution that’s at the center of the gastronomic transformation Judith Jones helped foster had reminded my mom that, after all, those dishes were American too.


Sandra M. Gilbert is the author of eight books of poetry and of Rereading Women: Thirty Years of Exploring Our Literary Traditions. With Susan Gubar, she wrote The Madwoman in the Attic and edited The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women.


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