“Dear James, we’re hoping you’ll be a judge for our Piglet Tournament of Cookbooks. Gwyneth Paltrow was a judge. You’ve heard of her, right? And Goop. Don’t you want to be like Gwyneth???”
“Hi, James, we’re so glad you’re a judge this year. You’ve been awfully quiet so we just wanted to check in and see how it’s going. You seem like a Freddie Prinze Jr. fan… I Know What You Did Last Summer… She’s All That… Summer Catch… yes, that Freddie Prinze Jr. He was a Piglet judge. Punctual, too. Should have been called HE’S All That because Freddie really is...all that. Anyway...please let us know how it’s going.”
“James, Tim Gunn never kept us waiting when he was a Piglet judge. “
“Give us your judgment in 24 hours or we’ll be forced to send former Piglet judge Sarah Michelle Gellar. She slayed vampires, James…get it together.”
And so it was: 24 hours, two cookbooks, three recipes from each. In my left hand, Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Rose’s Baking Basics and in my right, Von Diaz’s Coconuts & Collards. Mornings are when I like to bake, so I tossed Coconuts & Collards on the couch and headed into the kitchen. I’m not one to judge a book by its cover, but judging Rose’s book by its cover, I knew this morning’s baking was going to be painless: As Rose’s book notes, she is the author of The Cake Bible. She also penned The Baking Bible and The Bread Bible, both of which I own. That’s a lot of bibles, and Rose is one of the few people I think expert enough to get biblical.
I quickly flipped through Rose’s Baking Basics, briefly rummaged through my fridge and pantry to see what ingredients I had on hand, and decided to make three things: Carrot muffins that I hoped would satisfy my lachanophobic three-year-old son; a basic yellow layer cake with which to reward him for hopefully having eaten the carrot muffins; and some chocolate chip cookies for me to guiltily eat while contemplating what part my parenting plays in my son’s fear of vegetables.
A few hours later and my kitchen was as neat and tidy as ever. The only signs of the effort were the results, and so on my counter cooled a cake, some muffins, and a plate of cookies. As always, Rose’s recipes worked for me. I especially appreciated the countless step-by-step photos and her “Baking Pearls,” the easily digestible bites of baking wisdom that Rose has acquired over the years, and which she has generously scattered throughout the book. (Forgive me, Rose, I foolishly ignored your advice to use bleached flour in the muffins to avoid a rubbery texture. Despite being a little springy, they were still delicious and my son loved them).
The cake turned out great, too, if overly domed—a symptom that I learned from one of Rose’s Pearls can be due to leaving the batter sitting for too much time, during which the baking powder activates. In the chocolate-chip cookies, I left out the suggested walnuts, added some extra chocolate chips for kicks, and followed Rose’s suggestion to brown the butter and add some golden syrup, both for some extra complexity of flavor. I ate more than I should have of the finished product, not out of guilt but because they were so good.
All hopped up on sugar, I skipped back to my couch and opened Von Diaz’s Coconuts & Collards to random pages, looking for the three recipes I would sample. The first recipe I encountered was for PR Antipasto, a snack plate including salami, chorizo, olives, cheese, and bread. A few pages back… Anticuado, or a rum old-fashioned. Flicking forward… Camarones a la Vinagretta, or shrimp in citrus vinaigrette, that, aside from the addition of culantro and thyme, seemed a bit like shrimp tossed in pico de gallo. Tasty, but not the technical, challenging sort of cooking I thought I would be undertaking. I was, if I’m being honest, underwhelmed. But, still needing to burn off my sugar jitters, I made a quick trip to my local supermarket to buy everything for the aforementioned shrimp, as well as Von’s Costillas de Cerde con Salsa BBQ de Guayaba (pork ribs with guava BBQ sauce), a sticky, sweet, messy-fingered dish I was sure my kids would love.
That night, my wife, kids, and I ate the shrimp and ribs, followed by a light dessert of muffins, cake, and cookies. Von’s dishes had been easy to make, and while the recipes contain specific measurements, the rustic nature of food allowed me to bang out the shrimp and ribs without dirtying measuring cups or spoons.
After a struggle to put my kids to bed (for some reason, they seemed particularly hyper), I fixed myself one of Von’s Rum Old-Fashioned cocktails and settled back in on my couch. I picked up Coconuts & Collards and scanned the pages. To be fair, some of the recipes seemed more exciting than the ones I had initially selected. But, also to be fair, Von had included these simple recipes in her book and I wasn’t entirely sure why. Looking again at her PR Antipasto, I still didn’t get it. In the recipe’s headnote, I learned that “Tata” made it for her guests. Well, isn’t that nice? Flicking forwards a few pages, a word jumped out at me: “Alzheimer’s.” Other words followed: “heart attack,” “coma,” and again, “Tata.” Well, now I’d gone and done it. I went back to page one and started to read. And before I knew it, I was fixing myself another Anticuado and reading more.
Paraphrasing Von, Coconuts & Collards is about the strong, loving women in her family, and the roles food has played in their history. Lying on my couch, I learned about Von’s journey and her grandmother Tata’s from the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico via Biloxi, Mississippi. And then, something happened: everything vanished.
And then, I’m six, telling my Nan in England that I “smell a sandwich,” my code for wanting a snack.
And then, I’m nine and in London, my head resting on my dog Sheba’s stomach, watching my mother dance as she cooks a Sunday roast in our green Aga.
And then, I’m eleven, nervous and scared as the security agent at Heathrow airport holds a plastic bag of powder he found in my carry-on and looks at me skeptically as I truthfully tell him it’s my secret spice mix, my mother proudly smiling nearby.
And then, I’m twenty, working in a New York restaurant kitchen, when my father calls to tell me my mother has had a major stroke.
And then I’m back, forty-two years old, on my couch. My kids are asleep, my wife is near me, and I’m crying...and hungry.
I have many cookbooks. A few of them, like Rose’s, make it into my kitchen. I follow the recipes (usually, for baking) and things turn out as they should. Rose’s book is pleasantly precise. Step-by-step photos, multiple systems of measurement, and Rose’s Baking Pearls help make sure that everything goes according to plan. Her book inspires kitchen confidence. I need a book like Rose’s on my shelf.
But most of my books are for inspiration: a quick glance before I head to the kitchen and come up with my own creations. Von’s book, it would seem, is a time machine disguised as cookbook. And while I don’t know that I’ll ever cook the food in Coconuts & Collards, I would love for Von to cook it for me and tell me her stories, as we eat salami and bread and drink one too many old-fashioneds. Von inspires me to cook the food that I would want to be in my cookbook, if I were to write one: not only my food, but my mother’s food and my grandmother’s food.
So while my book might not have a recipe for PR Antipasto, it would probably have an equally simple bacon sandwich: bread, a few rashers of bacon, butter, optional ketchup or brown sauce. And someone might read it and initially dismiss it as pointless. But then, hopefully, like I did, they’ll think about not just what to cook, but why. For reminding me why I cook, I’m picking Von’s Coconuts & Collards to advance to the next round.