Shopper Chef No. 1
Professor, Father of Two, and Cookbook Collector
July 25, 2012
I started learning to cook when I discovered that despite all of those hours helping my mother prepare dinner, I really had not done much more then stir the pot and turn down the flame. After I served a chicken dish to my roommates that still had some of its squawk and most of its blood, they found excuses to miss my next meal. I needed some assistance.
The revelation that I could follow a recipe, directions on how to cook, was a breakthrough moment. I did what it said, and it worked. Shortly after I found out that there were whole books of recipes. My collection now has well over 500 titles. I know that I will never come close to trying all the recipes I have, but that for me is not the point. My enjoyment comes from understanding and analyzing the history, or the construction, or the intent of a recipe. I want to know why it works, what it aims to achieve, or how the various ingredients meld or remain distinct.
In my collection are some cookbooks that do this very well. The recipes are reliable, the instructions are clear, and the author takes the time to explain a technique, warn against pitfalls, or has achieved something with the collection that makes the entire book a culinary landmark.
I had my cookbooks in mind earlier this month when I visited Loyola’s Govanstowne Farmers’ Market. I found some wonderful produce that I took home. I roasted a few beets with olive oil along with some garlic scapes (the wonderfully mellow green top of the plant that farmers cut off early in the season to make the bulbs grow larger). The leafy tops of the beets can be steamed like any green and served with a little salt, olive oil, and lemon. In fact, you could put the whole thing together as one dish.
The fresh carrots caught my eye right after the beets. I was reminded of one of the first cookbooks in my collection, Gene Hovis’s Uptown Down Home Cookbook. Hovis was a caterer, an editor for HG magazine, and the creative food director for Macy’s East department stores. He achieved that success by exploring, retrieving, and reconstructing the food of his Southern childhood.
The title is a nod to that past—Sunday after church servings of deviled eggs fierce with paprika and served cold and outside on the lawn. The splash of vermouth probably points to his migration from North Carolina to the Upper East Side. Be that as it may, this recipe works (all right, the stick of butter has something to do with it), because the mustard, dill, and Tabasco join up to produce “I want another serving” flavor. It is easy to make, and you probably have everything at home already. (You can cut down on the butter, substitute dried dill for fresh, and white vinegar for vermouth.)
Culturally, the recipe is significant because when Hovis published this recipe in 1987, it was only about six years into the “foodie” era. A whole revolution has taken place since then. Today the same basic idea of pairing a vegetable from the Apiaceae family (carrots, celery, fennel, parsnips) with a hot and sweet sauce would likely call for some type of chili; Mark Bittman, currently the most important food writer in my view, suggests ancho. You will also find variant recipes that want an alternative sweetener; some call for maple syrup.
However you play with the recipe, the key is to retain the simplicity and the “from my Aunt’s kitchen” quality that Hovis achieves. The book is out of print but you can probably track it down through the usual sources.
Arthur Sutherland, Ph.D., is an associate professor of theology and director of the national fellowships office.
Hovis, Gene, and Sylvia D. Rosenthal. Gene Hovis’s Uptown Down Home Cookbook. Boston: Little, Brown, 1987.