This book made me happy in two and a half pages. No, that’s not quite right, this book made everything right with the world in two and a half pages.
I was supposed to be reading this book while travelling through the sunny growing regions of Washington and Oregon last week, but I forgot to pack it. So instead I had time to contemplate just how unqualified I am when it comes to food. I grew up in a suburb with two working parents who made meals hastily at a time when low fat and low sodium meant healthy, so the food at home was not exactly inspiring. The biggest restaurant event in our town was when an exotic place called Chi-Chi’s opened. I didn’t eat Thai food until I was 23 years old. I have a great fear of undercooked meat. I require extreme hand holding while working from recipes. I have no point of normal to work from and I find it all very frustrating.
I was still thinking about these things when we returned home to find a dark and rainy weekend. The only food we had was frozen, but we couldn’t use our oven because two weeks ago we managed to start a fire in it after a session of making too much brown sugar bacon and we need to scrub it out before it can safely be turned on again. Going to the store felt impossibly difficult. The rain continued to fall. I opened the book even though I figured it would only make me feel more pathetic with how easy everybody else seems to find this food thing.
Adam starts with talking about a few recipes gone wrong in his kitchen and on page three he writes, “This will happen to you. If you cook, I promise, this will happen. You will fail. Over and over again you will fail and then, even when you get better, you will fail some more. For those of us who come late to the kitchen, this is how we begin — we begin as miserable failures.”
And just like that, everything was good again. I think it was fortunate that I left The Amateur Gourmet: How to Shop, Chop, and Table Hop Like a Pro (Almost) behind last week because it is exactly what I needed this weekend, and at this point in my relationship with food. Adam wrote the book about his years learning more about the food world after a similar childhood of chain restaurants and instant foods. He focuses each chapter on specific themes such as shopping for produce, expanding your palate, learning why a good sharp knife is important and tells his story about each. The stories mix autobiography, education, observation and a huge amount of humor and insight. Somehow reading not about how he does it, but how he found out how other people do it was precisely the perspective I needed. For me these stories create that point of normal. The book makes me feel less like I’m the only one flailing around and makes me less fearful of giving whatever it is a shot.
Some chapters talk about himself and his friends, an example being where he attempted to teach his friend Lisa to appreciate coffee and olives, two foods she hates. After reading his chapter on dining alone, in Paris, at a very nice restaurant I feel far less afraid of dining alone myself. Adam manages to do something I’m very impressed by, he plows through and gets advice from the best, he learns about produce shopping from Amanda Hesser and about eating in restaurants by having lunch with Ruth Reichl.
Through the book he talks about recipes he made and but of course the recipes are included. They are from sources like The Babbo Cookbook, The Barefoot Contessa Parties, The Chez Panisse Cookbook and The Gourmet Cookbook. Each recipe is simple and, importantly, not intimidating – Basic Tomato Sauce, Chocolate Mousse, Raw Fennel and Parmesan Salad, Wild Mushroom Risotto, Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic. I’m sudden finding myself ready to brave the first cold rain of the season and buy myself some ingredients that I will spend the rest of the afternoon happily cooking into a much appreciated meal, thank you Adam.
In the chance you didn’t already know, Adam Roberts has a fantastic food blog at The Amateur Gourmet, which I’ve been reading for years. He’s been on a virtual book tour and you find other stops here. My personal favorite is David Lebovitz’s interview of Adam’s mother, I wish I’d thought of that.