Food for thought

I don’t know about you, but whenever I sit down to read I want to have a cup of coffee by my side or, if it’s late in the evening, a glass of wine. With the former, I’ll sometimes also indulge in a few Oreos or a piece of toast, with the latter, a small plate of cheese and crackers is frequently called for. Somehow the pleasure of reading seems to carry over into the pleasures of eating.

I suspect I’m not alone in these associations and no doubt they go back to childhood: my mother would sometimes suddenly appear as I was reading in my room bearing a plate of cookies and hot chocolate for her eldest child and only son. As Freud says, to be a mother’s favorite is to start life with an inestimable advantage.

Do others in the Reading Room like to sip and munch while reading? Or are you afraid of marring your pages with crumbs, greasy fingers, and splashes of wine? I confess to having a secret admiration for Wordsworth who, if I remember correctly, once used a strip of bacon as a bookmark. That sounds more like the kind of thing Coleridge would do, but I’m pretty sure it was his buddy William.

I suppose it’s because of my ongoing gustatory indulgences that I occasionally like to read about food. M.F.K. Fisher has always been my favorite culinary author, given the sensuality of her prose and her fondness for France. But Elizabeth David is also good and even James Beard can be fun. Years ago I acquired the books of Margaret Visser about the rituals of dinner and keep meaning to read them. Same is true of a recent biography of Mrs. Beeton.

Women, and perhaps some men, often collect cookbooks. What makes a great cookbook? In my own case, not being particularly gifted in the kitchen, I pretty much rely on simplest possible recipes. The household does have battered copies of a couple of James Beard titles, Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the Moosewood Cookbook and a few others. But not that many more. My mother—one of the best cooks ever—seemed to rely chiefly on peasant magic for the creation of her dishes. Alas, those skills have atrophied. What cookbooks, I wonder, should the Dirda household acquire? What are we missing out on? Again, please share your thoughts and recommendations.

— Michael Dirda

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