“Last night, I dreamt that Lee Bailey asked me to be his apprentice. So, I was going to travel the world with him and work on his next cookbook. You can’t believe how disappointed I was when I woke up. I have such a culinary crush on that man.” I made that confession to a co-worker in the early 1990s.
The co-worker laughed. “You don’t stand a chance with him, Honey! First of all, he is old enough to be your grandfather. Secondly, he is gay.”
Um, yeah, I said I wanted to cook with him, not marry him. Big difference.
Now, when I mention Lee Bailey to almost anyone, I get one of two responses: They ask, “You mean, F. Lee Bailey?” And I say, “No. Not the attorney. Just Lee Bailey with no F. He was a chef, food journalist, and cookbook author.” Or they tell me he is dead. Yep, I know. He died back in 2003. RIP my wonderful Mr. Bailey.
I have all of his cookbooks. This is a pretty big deal to me because I try not to collect stuff and I can’t think of anything else that I have all of. Furthermore, when I read them—and I have read all of them from cover to cover like other people read novels—I hear his voice in my head. It’s similar to the voice I hear when I read C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, but with a southern accent, not a British one.
He might say, “Now, slowly pour the batter into the pan.” Or he might reminisce about family and friends. “This blueberry pie reminds me of my great aunt Gladys. I have many fond memories of picking blueberries while visiting her and Uncle Alvin. She’d make the sweetest pies, and we would all sit on the front porch enjoying a slice and watching the fireflies come out after dark.” And he was very forgiving. “If you accidently leave this cake in the oven too long, it will be too dry to slice. If that happens, just crumble it and serve it on top of ice cream.” And he understood how we all really live. “If you are too busy to press your own pasta, just use the dried kind and follow the directions on the package.”
His vibe was that cooking for other people should be fun, not stressful—and when you do cook for someone, you create a connection with them. You create memories, not of food but of people. See? If you cook, how can you not have a crush on this guy?
And now, I have my second culinary crush, but it’s less about personality and more about what I might learn: Mark Bittman.
Mark Bittman. Mark Bittman. Mark Bittman. What can I say about Mark Bittman? Very little. I don’t know much about him. I haven’t looked up any bio info on him on Wikipedia and his cookbooks aren’t filled with folksy wisdom or stories of his past. I can’t tell you where Mark Bittman is from, when he was born, or if he has any pets. Because I’m not much of a TV-watcher, I can’t tell you if he has his own cooking show or does interviews.
Here is what I do know: I used to be a member of a mail-order book “club.” Club is in quotes because I don’t want to confuse it with the kind of club that has everyone reading the same book so they can later discuss it. This “club” was really a sales-deal-thingy. I filled out a form telling them my literary interest and every month they would select and send me a book—and the bill for that book—unless I specifically requested that they not send it. Usually, I requested that they not send. Occasionally, I would forget and they would send. I would write “Return to Sender” on the un-opened package. On even rarer occasions, I would keep the book and send a payment.
I’m pretty sure this is how I ended up with a paperback edition of Mark Bittman’s How To Cook Everything. The name intrigued me. Everything? Really? Everything. Almost.
It became my go-to guide for basics. It’s thanks to this one cookbook that I can make the best pizza crust. We almost never order out any more. Pancakes from scratch? Yep. Why, oh, why did I ever use Bisquik? Quiche? I’ve always made quiche, but his recipe made my quiche better. And he is solely responsible for my ability to pan-fry a steak without over-cooking it.
Back in November, I cooked Thanksgiving dinner for my family. So it was my husband, our children, his mom, and my cousin Delaine—and of course, me. I had How To Cook Everything open when Delaine arrived. I was probably checking it to see how long Mark Bittman lets his turkey sit before carving it. I opened a bottle of wine and Delaine hung out in the kitchen while I finished cooking whatever needed finishing. I told her that I checked my own culinary knowledge against How To Cook Everything a lot. At what temperature does he roast a chicken? Does he add milk to his French toast batter? How much olive oil does he use when sautéing green beans? I know how I make all these dishes, but why not ask someone else how he makes his, right?
That’s when Delaine told me she wanted to learn to cook.
Let me tell you about my cousin. She is talented! If it’s broken, she can fix it. When it comes to home-repair, she is the go-to-girl! I let her take a sledgehammer to my bathroom floor with no regrets. That’s how confident I am in her abilities.
She’s also kind, intelligent, and funny. My children love her so much that I tell people that my house doubles as the headquarters for “The Aunt Delaine Fan Club.” But she can’t cook. She’s never really tried. So, hearing her say that she wanted to learn to cook meant one thing—“For Christmas, I must get Delaine her own Mark Bittman How To Cook Everything!”
A week later, I drove to Barnes & Noble and went directly to the cookbook section. I found the up-dated version of How To Cook Everything, and then I realized, if you aren’t already cooking, this book is intimidating. It’s at least two inches thick and no pictures. I imaged handing my six-year-old daughter War and Peace because she is learning to read. Maybe this wasn’t the greatest gift. Maybe I could do better without leaving the cookbook aisle.
Then, I found it! Mark Bittman’s How To Cook Everything: The Basics. It has over a thousand pictures and he starts with how to boil an egg. When I look back on Christmas, this was my favorite gift I gave. I ever-so-gingerly thumbed through it thinking, “I kinda want this for me.”
I found it at the library—for me. I checked it out and renewed it about a dozen times before downloading a Barnes & Noble coupon on Mother’s Day and buying it.
I have a lot of cookbooks, and buying another one seems counter to my clutter-reduction plan. Also, I know how to boil an egg. Why was I so hot for this book?
When I first saw it, it occurred to me that I am a good cook, but if I had The Basics, I could follow the directions of each recipe from cover-to-cover and study how Mark Bittman puts a dish together—his techniques, his know-how. And if I did this over the course of a year or so, I would immerge from the experience a much better cook. And don’t I want to be a better cook? Sure!
So, that’s what I am doing. When I open The Basics, I empty my mind of all that I know or think I know about cooking and I’m following his directions. This is a real departure for me. Whether it is in cooking or any other activity, I tend to treat directions as suggestions. Speed limit. Homework. Evacuation plans. All are mere suggestions. Nothing is mandated. Yeah, you might not want to sit next to me on a plane.
I’ve only followed three recipes so far, and as I suspected, Mark Bittman’s oatmeal, smoothies, and hot-buttered popcorn are all better than mine. See? I am not joking when I said that this is the See-Dick-Run of cookbooks. Is there anything more basic than oatmeal?
I’ve also discovered that there is a certain humility and grace that comes from doing something someone else’s way, instead of always insisting that I know best. I guess I’ve always known this, and what I have found in my current culinary crush is a reminder to let someone else lead—even if it is just around the kitchen.