Not Martha

The Amateur Gourmet: How to Shop, Chop, and Table Hop Like a Pro (Almost)

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.

· comments [18] · 10-1-2007 · categories:books · food ·

18 responses so far ↓

  • 1 chronicler // Oct 1, 2007 at 6:35 am

    I am glad to hear this is such a success. I have been reading Adam for years and he is so wonderful. To me he’s like the little brother I never had. I will have to get his book. What a great thing to hear from you that you’ve found it inspiring.

  • 2 nadine // Oct 1, 2007 at 7:53 am

    Did you find anything super cool in Portland? I’m going later in November and want to see all the good stuff. ;)

  • 3 megan // Oct 1, 2007 at 8:13 am

    Nadine – We actually didn’t plan on getting into Portland itself. We found ourselves with a free hour and tried to get to Voodoo Donuts but when we arrived we discovered they’d had a kitchen fire.

  • 4 Amye // Oct 1, 2007 at 8:25 am

    Hoping that you write up your trip soonlike, maybe you found something out here that I had no idea about. WW has all sorts of little gems, but very few of them are open on Sunday!

  • 5 Aimee // Oct 1, 2007 at 8:36 am

    Sounds like a great book!

  • 6 Andi // Oct 1, 2007 at 12:03 pm

    added this one to my wishlist – thanks!

  • 7 Okwes // Oct 1, 2007 at 6:17 pm

    I guess I should pick this book up at work. Seems like a good read.

    I was told by a bonsai master “you will kill many trees before one lives.” In a way, what you said in paragraph 4 reminded me of that. It’s all about trial and error.

  • 8 nazila // Oct 1, 2007 at 7:36 pm

    I have this on hold at the library, I can’t wait to read it.


  • 9 splatgirl // Oct 1, 2007 at 8:25 pm

    …:I have no point of normal to work from and I find it all very frustrating.”

    NO ONE has a point of normal to work from. Really.
    Some people may think they do, but they’re deluded…or ignorant. Or both.
    This is the only possible explanation for why Sandra Lee has a show on the Food Network.
    The problem with smart people is they’re stupid enough to question and have doubt.

    OTOH if cooking is the only subject where you feel you have no point of normal, I’d say you’re doing pretty well.

  • 10 jen // Oct 2, 2007 at 11:30 am

    I hereby reject my “point of normal.” Again.

    I didn’t have a fresh pear, kiwi, or cherry until I was 25. Asparagus made a cameo appearance earlier on. My husband introduced me to prosciutto and fresh mozzarella.

    Most of what I eat now scares the crap out of my family. And I’m okay with that.

    Also, Sandra Lee ought to be drug out in the street and shot.

  • 11 wendy // Oct 2, 2007 at 9:50 pm

    I’m not sure I agree with splatgirl, exactly. I think some people grow up in an environment where food was something to savor or experiment with and with an idea that cooking was an effective way to have an exciting relationship with food. Some didn’t. Whether that’s “normal” or not “normal”, I still understand that some people have a culinary past to mine (whether it’s the the proverbial grandparents with their dishes or some other kind of food discovery).

    I feel fortunate to have had a mother who was extremely excited about food and I think it’s made my own experimentations with food richer and less risky.

    I don’t know a whole lot about Sandra Lee so I can’t say what that proves abot points of normal or no, but I can say that anyone who can wax rhapsodic about their annual Thanksgiving meal (whether it’s got greenbean casserole or not) has a point of normal. In my big dumb opinion.

    Kudos about the book. Everyone needs a revelatory experience when it comes to food.

  • 12 oliverinmink // Oct 3, 2007 at 7:59 am

    Good for you for giving cooking a go. I also grew up in a house where there was little (if any) cooking and know how things can be in the kitchen as you get older. Hope it turns out well!

  • 13 ex.libris // Oct 3, 2007 at 2:51 pm

    I am so excited about this book! It sounds perfect.

  • 14 christine // Oct 4, 2007 at 3:35 am

    ahh, megan – don’t forget your roots! the clay oven was clearly better than chi-chi’s…. :)

  • 15 megan // Oct 4, 2007 at 8:31 am

    Christine – That was the other thing, my parents were cheap and we very rarely ate out. It wasn’t until I’d nearly left for college that they short of relaxed about that so I didn’t know about the Clay Oven until high school. Such lost time!

  • 16 lindsay // Oct 4, 2007 at 8:33 am

    amen sister! it’s always nice to hear that you aren’t the only one who’s not perfect, ‘specially when we are drowning with folks (like your antithesis/namesake martha) who seem flawless.

    thanks for this! i’ve been thinking about this book for a while, maybe i’ll stop by the strand and find myself a copy.

    there’s also another great one called “Don’t try this at home” about all the mistakes that the greats (i.e. Batali, Bouley, Bordain, and other’s that don’t have b’s in their names!) have made. fun read.

    happy cooking. can’t wait to read more of your tales.

  • 17 Alison // Oct 4, 2007 at 1:11 pm

    Your childhood sounds a lot like mine. I remember taking a school field trip to Chi Chi’s in second grade! I think I need to pick up this book.

  • 18 Emily Cartier // Oct 16, 2007 at 3:56 am

    I grew up with a food scientist father (yes, that means Dad was paid to cook) and a mom who adores food. They taught me to cook, and encouraged me to practice and try new things. And the low salt of my childhood wasn’t optional… mom has medical problems that mean she’s on a low salt diet, and has been since I was a child.

    They rarely fail so badly at a new idea that it’s inedible. Burned pans don’t happen much in their house. But the first try of a new idea never works as planned. Sometimes it’s a story that lives forever (like mom’s idea to add salmon and broccoli to a frittata). Most of the time, it’s just another not quite right, and the cook who did it tackles the idea again. With improvements. Chances are the second time won’t be right either. Somewhere in between 3 and 10 tries, the person cooking will get technique right and seasoning right, and they’ll have what they wanted.

    I don’t like calling all the not quite right attempts failures. Then I don’t want to cook! It takes practice to cook well, and a lot of it. When you practice, you make mistakes, try new things, and stuff doesn’t work as planned. Then the next day, you practice again.

    It’s exhausting while you’re learning, because it’s all new, all the time. Once you get some things down to “works”, cooking is *much* easier. At least then you have a fallback plan for when you burn something beyond redemption.

Leave a Comment