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  • Ruth Ann Angus

A Cooking Book is not a Novel

By Ruth Ann Angus

It is New Year’s Day, and I am stashing away the Christmas gifts, socks in the sock drawer, cat treats on the shelf, gift cards in the purse. What on earth do I do with a cooking book?


Eyeing the book “Cooking in a Small Kitchen,” I realized that my niece, the gift giver, was trying to be helpful. That I have a small kitchen is true. However, cooking is not exactly what I do in it. No, no, nothing kinky. What I mean is I am not exactly any kind of a cook. The title “chef” will never be bestowed on me. I mean I have not even been able to conquer the correct way to slice an onion, no matter that my friend Nanette, who is a world class cook, has shown me numerous times. My solution for onion slicing is simple. Don’t use onions.


The book, which is a Picador Cookstr Classic written by Arthur Schwartz in 1979, does have some interesting things in it. It seems Schwartz is something of a cooking celebrity although this tome was his first cookbook. Apparently, he has gone on from this to cookbook fame with six more books, some of which earned awards and he became an executive food editor, columnist, restaurant critic, and an award-winning host of a daily food talk program. He now broadcasts a podcast on National Public Radio affiliate Robin Hood Radio. Radio hosting, being one of my talents whereas cooking is not, caused me not to place the book in the box for next year’s white elephant gifts at the Women’s Guild December event.


What did intrigue me was how a book of recipes would help me in any way with my small kitchen notwithstanding the title of the book. It is touted on one of the flyleaves as “A four-star cooking guide that shows you how to cut loose like a cordon bleu chef in a kitchen the size of a closet.” Uh Huh.


On the one hand the book could be the incentive to write my very own cookbook. It has made this guy an enormous success. What did he know that I do not know?


Writing sites online that offer memberships that are supposed to make you into the Pulitzer Prize Winner of the year often suggest that a writer start out with writing a cookbook. You do not have to be a chef or even a good cook. You just need to write well, have some recipes – maybe Grandma’s finest Pirogues – some colorful food photos, and Kaboom, instant success. These sites also suggest you begin by writing online pieces that I call, “How Tos” for sums so small they would not even allow you to do a load of washing at the local laundromat. Do not give in to that.


So, I pondered. I should read this book.


Now, cooking was once a skill I thought I should learn, small kitchen or not, and since I had the friendship of a world class chef, why not get some lessons? I figured not only would I learn to cook, but I might actually be able to write that cookbook. It could be something Camp, or tongue in cheek humorous. At the time I was employed writing for a publisher of a quarterly visitor’s guide and because the area I live in is a wine growing region there are many wineries and tasting rooms for people to visit. The wineries often put on special events that require food being served and that is where my friend came into the picture. Nanette was hired to create the meals that would be paired with the wines. I was hired to photograph the preparation of the food and the resulting event promoting the wines. Nanette would give a little talk to the crowd just before everyone sat down for the meal describing her selections of foods that match the accompanying wine selection. I got to not only eat and drink well but had the opportunity to interview the attendees as well as the winery owner.


During food preparation I was cautioned not to interrupt any of the assistant chefs or my friend so I paid special attention to each food area, taking notes on what I was seeing, and photographs so I would be able to interview Nanette after the event. I developed lots of questions and my questions led me to realize that I knew next to nothing about cooking a five-star meal nor what wine to pair with the food.


Nanette suggested she give me a few basic lessons in her kitchen at her home. The lesson consisted of preparing a chocolate confection from scratch. No cake mixes here!

I doubt Arthur Schwartz would give his blessing to Nanette’s small kitchen. It was a galley style with sink and refrigerator along a back wall and stove, small counter space and cutting board area, on a long island across from the sink. It did, however, live up to his requirement that a person could do prep work on the counter, turn around to the sink and then back around to the stove. For him, the fridge could have been closer.


Schwartz would hate my present kitchen, also a galley style although wider than most. It does not live up to his stated standards for easy food preparation. For one thing, there is absolutely no counter space. I remedied that by buying a cart on wheels with top counter space and storage below. I was able to fit this in between the refrigerator and the stove and it fit perfectly giving me the opportunity to move food ready to cook from the cart to the stove in one small movement.


Accessing the refrigerator, however, is a chore as it opens opposite to where the movable counter space cart and stove are located. It is necessary for me to move to the left of the fridge, pull open the door and take out my ingredients. Then I have the choice of trying to squeeze back to the other side of the refrigerator while closing that door to place the items on the cart or to lean over the top of the open door to place them on the cart. The latter is my choice. Not ideal.


The sink is located across from the movable counter space cart on the outer wall. Minimal counter space to the right holds the microwave that is plugged into the only electric outlet on that wall. Space to the left of the sink holds small boxes of tea and an assortment of prescription medicines.


Removing something from the microwave, which also opens to the opposite side nor with any easy access to the movable counter space cart, is a delicate maneuver. To remove something hot from the microwave, I open the door and grab the edge of the plate with a towel and then shimmy my body around the open door, while holding the plate up high. I then knock the microwave door closed with the side of my right arm as I move to place the hot plate on the cart. I do this while also trying not to step on the food bowl for Sami the cat located at the base of the cabinets upon which the microwave sits. Avoiding Sami while he is eating at his bowl and removing hot dishes from the microwave should be an Olympic sport eligible for a gold medal. All goes well unless I accidentally bump into the cat which can unbalance my grip on the hot plate while trying to close the microwave door. Stepping on his swishing tail is also a no-no as then there is an ear-splitting screech that rattles me and the possibility of a fall.


Obviously, the solution for both the refrigerator and the microwave is to roll the movable counter space cart to the other side of the refrigerator and microwave. But I never do that.


In the book there is a lengthy list of items to equip the kitchen that Schwartz says are required for a successful small (or any other size) kitchen. Fortunately, I have many of them except for a “slotted metal kitchen spoon” whatever that is, and a “jelly roll pan.” Why would I ever be making jelly rolls when I can purchase them at Dolly’s Donuts? I also do not have a food processor but do have a blender. Schwartz says blenders are not as good as food processors, but they are cheaper to buy. He also says a microwave is useless. Not in my kitchen. He mentions a “plastic Mouli nut and cheese grater.” Uh huh. I don’t know what a “Mouli” is, and I can purchase grated cheese in the deli section of Spencer’s Market.


Many of these items do reside in cabinets that require a step stool to gain access or the ability to kneel and peer into lower cabinets. I am not allowed on a step stool, although there is no one to enforce this, nor can I kneel on the knees I possess. Doing so would result in a high-pitched scream worse than stepping on the cat’s tail.


 I believe that as far as good operation of an organized kitchen goes, Schwartz would give me an “F.”


I did not do too badly with the cooking lessons except for cutting an onion. Nanette awarded me with a large chef’s knife which does come in handy for slicing small pieces of hot pizza into edible slices. I am sure it would dice vegetables, cut meat, and do almost anything else if I were to use it for those things.


I spent a little bit of time reading the rest of the section on “Equipment and Logistics” and was intrigued by the titles of his other books: “Arthur Schwartz’s Jewish Home Cooking.” My Grandma Jimmy was an expert in Jewish dishes, “Arthur Schwartz’s New York City Food.” I can’t say I recall anything special about the food in New York when I lived there and God help us, they even have a MacDonalds in Greenwich Village now.  “What to Cook When You Think There’s Nothing in the House to Eat.” I could write that book. The answer of course is scrambled eggs.


After reading my way through the first section of recipes of Soups, I stopped at “Bread and Any Allium Soup.” That is a fancy way of saying onion soup and mushed up bread until dissolved. Since it requires cutting an onion, I knew there was no hope for me and decided not to wait until next year’s white elephant event but to place the book in one of the tiny neighborhood libraries around town. Let someone else learn how to cook in a small kitchen.


The first rule of writing is to write about what you know. I have decided to abandon any idea of writing my own cookbook. I think I might try a book on deep sea exploration instead.


Me doing my best Julia Child imitation:

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