There is a terrible misconception about cooking. Betty Freidan, though she meant well, is its most famous proponent: Cooking is “drudgery.” This view is well intentioned in its way: Betty Freidan and others who were forced to live in the home came to view its principle occupations, the cooking, the laundry, the cleaning, as things that nobody really enjoys doing. Perhaps for the latter two they are right: I have never particularly enjoyed doing the laundry and only enjoyed things like dusting as a child. Yet cooking, they forget, is the occupation of European chefs, whose special recipes win them money and esteem. This is because real cooking is an art form, and the main difference between it to painting and sculpture is that the object d’art is gone in a relatively short amount of time. It is like and unlike music in that regard. Musical concerts are heard by an audience, who listen reverently and then go home. Yet because the music is written on paper (ala classical music) or recorded (ala Jazz) it has a certain timelessness. (I won’t argue here the merits of pop or folk music.) Evening suppers contain unrecognized greats because only the family of the cook eat them. Yet there is this surface similarity: cookbooks exist, and so do recipes that accomplished chefs compile.
Now tonight I used the kind of improvisation cooks have. I was making a recipe I have in a book: asparagus rolls. It is a relatively simple recipe, but–alas–Mom forgot to get the lemon peels for me and also did not get white bread but wheat bread. Nonetheless, I made passable asparagus rolls. Here is the idea (for once I will cheat the reader by not using the recipe book):
8-12 stalks of asparagus
lemon pepper (as opposed to pepper and two lemon rinds)
4 tablespoon mustard
16 ounces butter (2 sticks)
8-12 pieces of white bread (I used wheat but white is really better)
- Heat oven to 375 degrees.
- Boil asparagus for 10 minutes or more.
- Melt butter.
- Mix lemon pepper, mustard and butter.
- Brush bread with butter mix (or use a spoon and spread it on the bread).
- Place a piece of asparagus in bread and roll bread.
- Drizzle top of the asparagus roll with mix.
- Put on cookie sheet.
- Place cookie sheet in oven.
- Cook 25 minutes.
- Take out.
The original recipe only makes 8 asparagus rolls, and lemon rind–whether as lemon zest scraped from the lemon or from lemon rind from the spice rack in the grocery store–was something I didn’t literally have. Yet I am proud of my “creation” because though I didn’t have exactly the ingredients on hand and boiled all of the asparagus I had, I like to think we had a truly fine supper–and leftovers. I do not know if we shall eat the leftovers, but I do not know. I am afraid, however, I shall not write tomorrow about whether we shall eat them.
To really cook is an act of creation. I know there are people who don’t like to cook who still cook well–but that is the exception. The real cook is the person who loves it as a painter loves and a sculptor his chunk of marble. Though strictly speaking most professional cooks–bakers, cheese makers, winery owners, and chocolatiers–are seen as mere “craftsmen” along with smiths and welders and such–it should be noted that Michelangelo himself could not scoff at good craftsmanship in the form of people who cut chunks of marble for sculptors for a living. In fact, his problem was that as much as he admired them, he could not let them select his marble for him. Part of why it took him so long to make his statues is because he would literally carve his own marble out of the mountains. Nothing was too good for his art. So he did the craftsman’s job and not just the artist’s. That is why each of his famous works is not only well made but involves the very finest marble. He really could pick just the right piece of marble.
The cook, therefore, is doing work Michelangelo himself would not have scorned–at least, not if he were consistent. Italy and France are not only the homes of great art but also great food–and there is nothing inconsistent about this. What is sad is that even in these cultures, the cooks are less than the painters and sculptors. People always take their daily meals for granted, I suppose. They forget that the words “give me today my daily bread” are contained in the Lord’s prayer. Though perhaps it only signifies a person’s need to survive, perhaps it also points to the basic truth that a person’s bread is a holy object.
Jews have always had a peculiar relationship to their food similar to the Lord’s prayer. During Temple times, people sacrificed animals at the Jerusalem Temple. Yet when the Temple was destroyed, the rabbis had an ingénues idea. They said that the table where people ate symbolized the Temple, and the prayers said sanctified the food. More, the Hallah bread represented the sacrifice, and I believe that is when the custom of “salting” the bread began. Why salt the bread? Because in Temple times, the priests at the alter salted the meat as a form of cleansing it. Hence the Temple was domesticated and made portable. And every synagogue, on Shabbat, re-enacts the sacred ceremony we all share with the Hallah. All of this gives an extra religious significance to what we eat.
Jews are not known for our cooking the way the French or Italians are. Yet food–the nourishment it takes to survive–is precious to all of us. Some time I shall have to write about the glories of matzo ball soup or Hanukkah’s latkes or Kol Nidre’s honey cake or the special dishes of Pesach (the bitterness [horseradish] or sweetness [charoset] on “mortar” [matzo]). I shall explain that serving chicken on Friday night was a custom among Jews at one time because it was the only meat they could afford, and they wanted to do something festive for Shabbat Eve. Or rather, I will explain more.
Yet for tonight I will leave my reader with this paltry recipe of asparagus rolls.