[23 April 2014]
In reviewing Alice Waters’s The Art of Simple Food II, I returned to its predecessor, The Art of Simple Food, published in 2007. I’d recently been immersed in multi-step recipes with complex techniques and arcane ingredients. And while flaming cognac, blanching salt pork, and messing around with shrimp paste are all highly diverting, The Art of Simple Food reminded me that all are unnecessary when a delicious meal is desired.
One only needs a basic kitchen: iron skillet, a knife, a heat source, and some food: a vegetable, a protein perhaps a piece of fruit. Et viola: dinner.
In Food 52’s interview, Waters says she hopes The Art of Simple Food and The Art of Simple Food II become the Joy of Cooking for a new generation, people she hopes are enlightened about food sources, farming, ecology, and taste.
This is a tall order, even for Waters, who soon turns 70. But Joy of Cooking is Joy of Cooking, and Waters, who in my personal pantheon sits to the right of God, cannot dislodge Joy of Cooking. Instead, let us make room on our bookshelves for all these invaluable books: the family Becker and Waters. Let us further begin with The Art of Simple Food, and its value to the novice cook.
The Art of Simple Food demands minimal equipment and rudimentary skills, asking only that a cook have gumption and goodwill in the kitchen. Waters writes exceptionally clearly, even disarming instructions certain to ease anxieties one might bring to mayonnaise or tart making.
Like all Alice Waters cookbooks, The Art of Simple Food emphasizes the highest quality produce and proteins, all organic, preferably purchased from your local farmer’s market or plucked from your garden. Certainly it’s impossible to argue with the moral, ethical, or ecological implications of Waters’s stance. Yet the costs of organic food are insurmountably high. At my market last week, two miles from Chez Panisse, organic ground beef cost $7.99 a pound. The first local asparagus cost $3.89 a pound, while green garlic was nearly $5.00 a pound.
As a half of a professional couple with no children, I have more financial freedom than most Americans when it comes to food choices, but I passed by that garlic A friend in Massachusetts told me she no longer buys organic milk for her two daughters. At $8.00 a gallon, it’s just too expensive. Like me, she’s a working professional. If we cannot afford organic food, Alice Waters is preaching to a shrinking choir.
What to do? In the words of the late, great Laurie Colwin, “Provision as much pure and organic food as you can and let the rest go by.”
Your limited ability to eat entirely organic or garden extensively are no reason to overlook The Art of Simple Food. Whatever your level of kitchen proficiency, Waters has something to teach you. There are pantry basics and a helpful chapter on equipment. There’s a chapter devoted to what Anthony Bourdain calls “deep prep”, an essential and often-overlooked part of kitchen expertise: thinking about cooking, from shopping to setting the table to considering meal plans with a eye toward leftovers or meals later in the week.
Reading the recipes themselves is rather like taking a nice stroll through the simpler end of classic French farmhouse cookery, with plenty of Italy, Tuscany, and Morocco in the mix, and with the necessary forays into Asia.
There’s aïoli—would it be an Alice cookbook without aïoli? Vinaigrette, salsa verde. Salad, bien sûr. With persimmons and walnuts and fennel. Rigorously unfancy roasted chicken, poached salmon, pan-seared pork chops. Pot-au-feu, here called boiled dinner. Risotto, pasta, and eggs. A chapter devoted to sauces, another to small bites. A dessert section featuring Chez Panisse dessert chef Lindsay Shere’s fruit desserts, cookies, and cakes.
It isn’t everything in the world you’d want to cook, but it’s certainly a start.
The Simple Art of Cooking II operates on a different premise than its predecessor. All of Waters’s beliefs vehemently hold. Not only does she want you to honor the land, the farmer, and eat politically, she wants to get you into the garden. Taking it further, Waters has been reading Novella Carpenter:
blockquoteYou do not need a large backyard to start a garden. There are many underused locations waiting just for you: balconies and windowsills, rooftops, vacant lots—and schoolyards!blockquote
Indeed, but you might want to read Carpenter’s memoir, Farm City, before attempting to garden on a vacant lot.
Waters dedicates The Simple Art of Cooking II to organic farmer Bob Cannard, whose Green String Farm has furnished Chez Panisse with stellar produce for decades. Cannard relies on what he calls “natural process agriculture” to build soil health, plant cover crop and, most noticeably to lay observers, to allow weeds to grow freely amid crops, cutting them only when they threaten to encroach on sunlight. As David Tanis observes in Heart of the Artichoke, “Bob takes the long view.”
Cannard’s input is everywhere in The Simple Art of Cooking II, which is equal parts cookbook and gardener’s manual. Waters is absolutely effulgent here, for not only can she wax ecstatic about her passions—lettuce, chicories, unusual citrus varieties—she can discuss how you, dear reader, can cultivate these in your own yard, on your roof, or in that disused lot next door.
In terms of food and recipes, The Simple Art of Cooking II breaks no new ground. Then again, it is unfair to expect it to. This is not a cookbook meant for an audience searching out the novel meal. And let’s be honest; Waters has never made her name on culinary novelty.
In fact, the opposite is true. To read any Alice Waters cookbook—and often, by extension, the wonderful cadre of chefs who worked for and with her—is to be drilled in French old school classics. Expect, again, aïoli, carefully composed salads, poached fish, duck confit, roasted pork, fruit tart. Look for your vegetables to be lightly pickled or served a Grecque. Expect walnuts and goat cheese. Milk chocolate and cheddar cheese will be tossed out the door by the bouncer.
The book is divided in two: part one, the cooking part, is titled “Flavor As Inspiration”. Here, Waters exhorts readers to grow what they love to eat, then go into the kitchen and cook it up. Thus chapters are not divided into any conventional cookbook rationale related to breakfast, lunch, or tea; nor should you search for appetizer, soup, salad, dinner, dessert. Instead, we get horticultural topics like “Fragrant and Beautiful”, a chapter on herbs, and “Fresh and Dried”, a discussion of peas and beans.
Within each chapter Waters gives plant names, Latin names, information about growth patterns, taste, and cooking instructions, then a few time-honored recipes. For novices wishing to garden, this is a nice introduction to both gardening and cooking, which most often are considered separate spheres. Yet there’s a certain logic in seeing both in action, even if, like me, you do not garden and have no plans to.
It would be disingenuous to pretend that I’m an ace gardener or have plans to cultivate my admittedly neglected yard. Gardening requires three things I currently lack: funds, time, and physical stamina. Notice the word currently. I haven’t given up hope on myself quite yet, though Julia Alvarez’s essay “Briefly, a Gardener” (Something to Declare) never ceases to haunt me.
I don’t view my horticultural shortcomings as an excuse for ignorance. I still wish to be a steward (stewardess?) of the earth (fly high, o Berkeley freak flag!!). And so I read Alice Waters on how to be an organic gardener.
It must be admitted that the recipes in The Simple Art of Cooking II are more demanding than those in the first book. Living in a major metropolitan area, as Waters and I both do, it’s very easy to forget those that do not. Do the denizens of rural areas have access to fruits like Buddha Hand, persimmons, Meyer lemons, kumquats, or citron?
It’s also very easy to forget those that do not have lots of extra cash to spend on pricey items like squash blossoms, Dungeness Crab, or breathtakingly expensive premade duck confit—and it must be added that even home-made duck confit is not cheap—and then there’s the Spinach and Pork Crepinette recipe, calling for caul fat. I searched the internet for caul fat, which is the lacy stomach lining of some animals, most often pigs, used in cooking to make things like patés and sausages. You can order ten pounds from Amazon for $43, or you can go organic and order caul fat made from Berkshire pigs from Marx Foods. Ten pounds of this premium product will set you back $110. For many families, this is an entire week’s worth of groceries.
On a more economic level, part II of The Art of Simple Food II is devoted to cultivating your garden. Entitled “Seed to Seed: Growing the New Kitchen Garden”, it’s an intensive overview on farming. Just as she wants everyone to go organic, Waters now wants everyone to garden, however minimally.
Taking after Cannard, Waters begins with the importance of soil health and how to attain it. She moves from there to composting, garden planning, and the intricacies of soil beds and growing. There’s information on seeds, the evils of hybrids, and seed saving. The perils of fertilizers are discussed, along with the necessity of organic plant foods. There’s a long discussion on composting that made me frankly grateful for my weekly curbside pickup. The book closes with a helpful resource guide for anyone wishing to seriously look further.
So, is The Art of Simple Food II the Joy of Cooking for a new generation? No; but it’s an unreasonable comparison. Joy of Cooking has never proselytized. Waters has and always will: those who read and cook from her books are true believers. To some extent she’s had success. One need only look at some school lunchrooms and the current administration’s White House lawn. Yet Waters’s hopes and dreams still rest in the grocery carts—and charming Provençal baskets—of those who can afford the lifestyle and cuisine she advocates.
Spreading the gospel at a time when basic rights like marital equality and universal healthcare are matters of enraged debate seems cause for despair. However, this is no reason to avoid action or purchase these fine books. Minimally, even the most experienced cooks, gardeners or not, stand to learn a great deal from The Art of Simple Food and The Art of Simple Food II. How we act on that knowledge is a personal choice. Provision as much as you can. But please consider what you allow to go by.