Headmaster’s Thoughts – November 2009

Like many others, I like to read something when I eat alone.  Recently, I had a very early morning meeting and was having breakfast at home beforehand.  The newspapers had not yet arrived, and I was in the kitchen with nothing to read but cookbooks. So I started thumbing through the pages of Joy of Cooking, which was the nearest of the cookbooks on the counter.  I immediately wondered (because I think that way) why the authors did not use the definite article before Joy.  SurelyThe Joy of Cooking would sound better.  However, since this book has been a huge commercial success, I have to assume that the authors, Irma Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker, knew perfectly well what they were doing.  It is an indication of my family’s rare use of cookbooks that the edition we have is the third printing dating from February, 1976.  Our book is over thirty years old and virtually in mint condition.  I have subsequently learned that this year is the 75th anniversary of the original printing of Joy and that the “The” did, in fact, come and go in different editions of the book. Apparently, the first edition now sells for about $5000.

Idly, I turned the pages and was immediately impressed by the encyclopedic knowledge of the authors.  I have written before about my general lack of interest in eating, so I ignored the menus; but I did read the historical, philosophical, and scientific information contained within the book, along with fascinating social commentary and jokes. Yes, jokes on Food. (Page 310: In answer to the question “Do you have any truffles?” the shopkeeper replied, “Who doesn’t?”)  If Joy of Cooking were placed in a time capsule, it would give our great, great, great (and repeat the word by any number you can think of) grandchildren  more details about the way we live our lives than most books I have read.

There are a lot of quotes in the book. On page 402, they quote Lao-Tzu, the father of Taoism, as saying: “Ruling a large kingdom is like eating a small fish.”  At that point, I wondered if they were making the quotes up as they went along.  I mean, how is ruling a large kingdom like eating a small fish?  Sure, you eat a small fish carefully, and you should not overdo it, but if that is the philosophical basis of the analogy, then we are in analogy heaven and we can all join in.  I can make up them endlessly. “Courting a woman is like eating cotton candy.” After all, the whole process can get sticky and one has to be careful about the mess.  How about “Voting in an election is like planting vegetables; you never know how they are going to taste.”  Very defensible!  In fact, I am just getting started.  “Fighting for peace is like eating to get slim.” Sounds good to me! “Raising children is like juggling hot potatoes.”  You get the picture.

I found the book to be a virtual Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.  I counted over thirty in the first five minutes I began to look for them. Some of them are—I have to admit—famous, like Voltaire’s remark (page 336) that France was a land of forty-two sauces and one religion, while Britain was a land of one sauce and forty-two religions.   I had heard that one before and today, of course, with British cooking as improved as it is , Voltaire is definitely now wrong.  And I knew (page 422) that Ben Franklin regretted that the Bald Eagle was chosen as America’s national symbol instead of the turkey. But, frankly, most of the quotes were obscure.  Did Balzac really write (page 584) that “even the cook should be rubbed in garlic”?  There are no references made, so I suppose you have to take that one on faith.

I like quotes, but I recognize that they quickly become platitudes because they are repeated so often.  And even Joy of Cooking plays parody word games with famous lines.  On page 502, they paraphrase Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dreamwith “what foods these morsels be.”  Clever!  When I was at college, there was a popular small book called The Prophet by the Arab mystic Kahlil Gibran. The chapter headings should indicate the sort of stuff that was in it: “Pain,” “Self-Knowledge,” “Time.” It was full of definitions for “he who walked with the wind.”  Gibran (no humor) obviously did not recognize any possible allusion to flatulence.  One of my friends thought it was a book of deep insight; I thought it was claptrap. I was, therefore, delighted to find a very clever parody of the book called The Profit by Kehlog Albran, which is genuinely funny in its ludicrous platitudes. “Thus they asked the master, ‘Speak to me of paper,’ and he replied, ‘It is very thin!’”  I feel privileged to have a copy.

The English are particularly fond of broad definitions which are absurd when analyzed.  I was taught, in deadly earnest by a deadly earnest history teacher, that the Bishop of Sheffield’s remark, “All governments are like wheelbarrows–useful instruments but they must be pushed,” was a brilliant statement. Again, for me, claptrap!  Or Robert Louis Stevenson: “The first duty of a man is to speak; that is his chief business in the world.”  I could go on for a long (and boring) time.

Americans are less in awe of definitions and quotes, perhaps because they started later at it than the British.  There is a wonderful dark side to American humor, and particularly American cartoonists like Charles Addams. I have a favorite “Far Side” cartoon by Gary Larson which shows a polar bear pointing to an igloo and saying to another polar bear: “I love these; crunchy on the outside and chewy in the middle.”

Before I finish on Joy of Cooking, I want to defend the book against the criticism thrown in the recent (and, I thought, delightful) film “Julie and Julia,” in which it was suggested that the Rombauers had not tried all their recipes.  Almost certainly true, but understandable given the truly encyclopedic nature of their work. They covered everything.  Page 515: “If possible, trap the possum and feed it on milk and cereals for ten days before killing.” Page 516: “Beaver. Use young animals only.”  Best of all, page 819: “Kill and gut a medium-sized walrus. Net several small migrating birds, and remove one specific small feather from each wing.  Store birds whole in interior of walrus. Sew up walrus. Two years or so later… partially thaw walrus. Slice and serve.” I want to see Julia do that one!

I suppose the moral of all this is that reading can be surprising.  It was just breakfast alone and I idly picked up the nearest cooking book, never expecting to be so engaged and amused. One just has to be willing to open that first page.  Furthermore, I never dreamt Joy of Cooking would be the subject of my “Headmaster’s Thoughts” for the month of November, the month of Thanksgiving.  I think, bearing in mind I have poor taste in food, we should serve armadillo at our family Thanksgiving dinner. I never knew (page 516) that “under its shell this small scaly creature has a light meat, pork-like in flavor.” One lives and learns!

Ronald P. Stewart, Headmaster
E-mail: rstewart@yorkprep.org

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