How does a native Washingtonian -- who never took an art class, doesn't have an agent and isn't a self promoter -- go from being a waitress in a diner to the illustrator of five new American cuisine cookbooks? In the case of 26-year-old Amy Pertschuk, it started with earthquakes.
Like a rash of East Coast teen-agers a decade before her, Pertschuk, daughter of ex-Federal Trade Commission chairman Michael Pertschuk, headed west after graduating from Georgetown Day School. Waiting tables at a Berkeley omelet shop, she became friendly with the regulars -- three of whom worked in the earthquake engineering department at the University of California's Berkeley campus.
One afternoon, the three stopped by the diner to have farewell coffee together; the technical illustrator was leaving her job. Pertschuk's curiousity was piqued; drawing was her hobby.
One thing led to another, and Pertschuk ended up drawing reinforced concrete walls, bridges, charts and graphs for more than two years. It was the beginning of a career in technical illustration that would later translate into the bumps on pickling cucumbers or the intricacies between Hawaiian and Fiji gingers -- "pseudo-scientific" drawing, as Pertschuk refers to her cookbook work.
But, there had to be a bridge between earthquakes and food before she would illustrate "The California Seafood Cookbook" by Jay Harlow, Paul Johnson and Isaac Cronin (Aris, $12.95), "Ginger East to West" by Bruce Cost (Aris, $9.95), "The New American Vegetable Cookbook" by Georgeanne Brennan, Isaac Cronin & Charlotte Glenn (Aris, $14.95), "American Charcuterie" by Victoria Wise (Viking, $20) and "Chef Wolfe's New American Turkey Cookery" by Ken Wolfe and Olga Bier (Aris, $8.95).
Pertschuk would make this connection with her next job, as a scientific illustrator with the California Academy of Sciences. She drew fish. Lots of them. And lots of old, smelly ones -- 30- or 40-year-old specimens preserved in alcohol.
It was through a friend of a friend that Pertschuk was referred to cookbook author Isaac Cronin. That meant fresh fish ("The California Seafood Cookbook") and the realization that cookbook illustrations were far more fun and lyrical than technical drawings. "Nobody counted the scales," she said.
Cronin said he was attracted to Pertschuk's drawings because of their realism, but that she was quite capable of altering her technical style to make the fish look appetizing as well. He said he was willing to work with Pertschuk, then a 22-year-old novice, because she was "incredibly serious," "very conscientious" and "professional, without trying to bluff her way through."
Her subsequent books were commissioned via word of mouth. "Bruce Cost is a friend of Isaac's Cronin , Isaac is a friend of Victoria's Wise ," Pertschuk said, adding that "everyone knows everyone" in the California food scene.
Pertschuk uses a technique called stippling, a form of drawing with many little dots of ink that creates a three-dimensional effect. It is also a style that is rather conservative and classical, which ironically appealed to the California chefs, Pertschuk said. New American cuisine may be exciting to those on the West Coast, but would Midwesterners go for it? The idea was to present it in a traditional manner that would appeal to a whole range of cooks, Pertschuk said.
When working on a book, Pertschuk's typical day begins with a trip to the supermarket. A shopping list provided by the authors determines her drawings of the day. (It also determines what she will eat that night for dinner, as after the drawings are finished, she eats the subjects.) But it is a shopping expedition with an eye for detail.
She looks for the pepper with the perfect stem or the rabe leaves with the nice symmetry, or agonizes over just which squid to buy (the cashier thought she was "nuts" buying one squid for 13 cents.)
For the charcuterie book, which involved how-to drawings, Pertschuk often watched the procedure (such as sausage tying), did it herself and then drew from photos taken of each step. Along the way, she also learned how to skin a turkey, bone a fish and cut up a chicken.
Realism aside for the sake of readers, Pertschuk had to edit out the "blood and guts" in the charcuterie book. Things got rather difficult for her, however, when she had to purchase and draw a rabbit for one of the recipes. Her pet rabbit, Wayne, had only recently departed after a run-in with the neighborhood cat.
Another recipe for Wise's book called for snails, so after purchasing a batch of mollusks, Pertschuk put them in a bag with some zucchini. Unfortunately (at least for the zucchini), the snails ate them. In keeping with her committment to realism, in the resulting drawing, the snails are "fat and happy," Pertschuk said.
Here are a few recipes from some of the cookbooks Pertschuk has illustrated. ZUCCHINI WITH CARROTS AND GINGER SHREDS (4 to 6 servings)
A simply made vegetable dish that may be stir-fried and served warm, or made ahead of time and served room temperature as a salad.
1 pound small zucchinis
3 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
3/4 cup shredded carrots
1/4 cup shredded red bell pepper
1 1/2 tablespoons finely shredded fresh ginger
Salt to taste
Dash of white pepper
Few drops of sesame oil
Cut the zucchini in half lengthwise, then place the cut side down on the cutting board and cut lengthwise into thin slices. Cut the slices into 2-inch lengths.
Heat the oil in a wok or skillet until nearly smoking. Add the zucchini and cook, stirring 30 seconds. Add the carrot shreds, the pepper shreds, and the ginger and stir for another 15 seconds or so. Add the salt and pepper and continue to stir until the vegetables are slightly softened but crunchy. Turn off the heat, sprinkle with the sesame oil, and remove to a serving platter.
From "Ginger East and West," by Bruce Cost (Aris, $9.95) BELGIAN ENDIVE, APPLE, AND ALMOND SALAD (4 first course servings)
This flavorful salad is full of clean contrasting tastes that stimulate the appetite. You can serve it as a summer refresher or before a roast of pork or lamb.
1 tart green apple, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 endives, thinly sliced crosswise
1/3 cup peeled and slivered blanched almonds
FOR THE DRESSING:
2 tablespoons walnut or almond oil
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon minced garlic
Salt and white pepper to taste
Parsley sprigs for garnish
Mix the apple, endives, and almonds together in a bowl. Mix the dressing ingredients, pour over the salad, and toss thoroughly. Serve mounded on a plate garnished with parsley.
From "The New American Vegetable Cookbook," by Georgeanne Brennan, Isaac Cronin & Charlotte Glenn (Aris, $14.95) PATE OF LEAFY GREENS (6 servings as main course, 8 as a first course)
You can make this pa te' the day before you plan to serve it. Accompanied with a little cre me fra herbs and salt.
Soak the bread in the half-and-half for 15 minutes. Squeeze the liquid out of the bread with your hands. Cut the bread into small pieces. Mix with the greens.
Crumble the sausage and cook until it loses its pink color. Drain off any oil. Add the sausage to the greens. Pour the eggs into the greens-sausage mixture. Mix until well blended.
Butter the sides of a heavy mold 3 inches deep and 8 inches in diameter. Pour in the mixture and bake for 1 1/4 hours at 350 degrees. Cool on a wire rack for 30 minutes. Refrigerate for 2 hours. Run a knife around the circumference of the mold. Place in a bowl of just-boiled water for 30 seconds. Turn upside down over a serving plate lined with lettuce and tap gently.
From "The New American Vegetable Cookbook," by Georgeanne Brennan, Isaac Cronin & Charlotte Glenn (Aris, $14.95) GIGOT D'AGNEAU (Serves 8 for dinner or a picnic or 16 as a buffet dish)
Leg of lamb, boldly seasoned and roasted to medium rare, makes an excellent cold meat for a medium-size buffet or picnic.
1 leg of lamb, 8 to 9 pounds, trimmed and without pelvic bone
FOR THE STUFFING:
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves or 1/4 teaspoon dried
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary leaves or 1/8 teaspoon dried
1 teaspoon fresh lavender leaves or 1/8 teaspoon dried (optional)
4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil plus 1 tablespoon to rub on outside of meat
FOR THE FRESH MINT SAUCE:
1 cup white vinegar
2 tablespoons white sugar
1 tablespoon black peppercorns, cracked
1 shallot, peeled and minced
1 cup fresh mint leaves, cut crosswise into thin strips
Have butcher remove pelvic, leg and shank bones from lamb. Trim some but not all fat from the outside and remove the large chunk of fat from inside center.
In a small bowl, mix together the ingredients for stuffing. Place lamb open side up and spread stuffing over surface. Fold shank meat flap into center, then fold opening together and tie across center with string. Tie neatly and securely in several more places in whatever direction forms a neat round roast. Rub outside with 1 tablespoon olive oil.
To cook, place open side down on a baking sheet and roast 10 minutes at 475 degrees. Reduce oven heat to 350 degrees and roast 1 hour and 5 minutes, or until an instant reading meat thermometer registers 140 degrees. Remove from oven and let rest 10 to 15 minutes so juices settle.
To prepare fresh mint sauce, in a small nonreactive saucepan, heat vinegar and sugar to boiling. Add peppercorns and shallot and remove from heat. Pour over mint leaves in a small bowl and let steep 10 minutes before serving. Will keep refrigerated one week.
To serve lamb warm, slice 1/4 inch thick, removing strings as you go. Accompany with fresh mint sauce. To serve cold, let cool completely, wrap and refrigerate overnight, up to five days. Remove strings and slice 1/8 inch thick. Accompany with fresh mint sauce.
Adapted from "American Charcuterie," by Victoria Wise (Viking, $20)