Dear readers, as you recall, I am not only a fake doctor, I am a non-chef who reads cookbooks, and I am in the process of breaking down cookbooks for you. In this column, the second of three, I will explore cookbooks for daydreamers, which stand in stark contrast to cookbooks for information freaks, which I explored last time.
Whereas cookbooks for information freaks are often paperback and generally full of facts, charts, and graphs, cookbooks for daydreamers are usually hardcover, and contain lots of colorful pictures of pretty people at pretty tables with pretty food. These people are not you and me, of course. But through the miracle of reading—that is, the magical trick we learned as children of ingesting with our minds—we can enter these fantasy landscapes. The dark side of this activity is that it can be startling to bring your head up out of your cookbook to spy your very own, hungry child standing there, wanting a snack. As my dear mother always used to say: Go away, kid, you bother me.
Cookbooks for daydreamers can be broken down into two sub-categories. The first is what may be simply called food porn, i.e., cookbooks that contain many, fabulous, mouth-watering pictures of food. If you like this kind of book, here is my advice: go to your local bookstore (if you have one of those, lucky you), find the shadowy aisle where these books are shelved, and enjoy yourself. (For further consumption, with a sexy twist, try The New InterCourses: An Aphrodisiac Cookbook by Martha Hopkins).
The second sub-category encourages daydreams that are less corporeal. These books feature food, yes, but also involve other aspects of the meal: the atmosphere, the setting, the people, and most importantly, the love that will flow in and around you (read: not really you, the fantasy you) as you dine. I learned this from Sally Fallon, whose fact-filled tome, Nourishing Wisdom, I broke down in my previous column: “To make us healthy, our food must taste good, it must be digestible, and it must be eaten in peace.” Do you like daydreaming about peace, and maybe, love, at your dinner table? Well, I have a book for you. It’s not Fallon’s.
It’s The Family Dinner by Laurie David. In case you have haven’t read a parenting article in the last five years, let me tell you: family dinner is this thing we are supposed to be making every night. We are supposed to make it out of non-poisonous ingredients (see Fallon’s book) and after we make it and serve it, we are supposed to sit down and eat it with our children, and while we do this, we are supposed to have meaningful and not-angsty conversation with them. If we do this, our kids will (probably) turn out great. David backs this up by pointing at a bunch of research but I am not into research right now, I’m daydreaming.
David’s book is interesting, as far as cookbooks go, because it is not actually about food all that much, although it certainly has its portion of recipes. The subtitle of the book is “Great ways to connect with your kids one meal at a time,” and in addressing the anxiety around the issue of family connection, and providing fantasy-worthy material about it, David expands on what a cookbook can do. The Family Dinner reframes the meal as a sort of secular church service; the ills that dining together can heal are myriad, “from drugs to alcohol to smoking to promiscuity.”
Eating dinner with your family regularly is not a new concept, of course. What is new is David’s attention to detail in constructing the fantasy that dinner is the time and place of our super-exuberant connecting with each other, a connecting that includes, in her portrayal of it, heirloom crockery, poetry recitals, and drop-in guests.
What’s remarkable about David’s book is that she’s a cookbook author who is not a food zealot so much as a fantasy-meaningful-family-connection zealot. This is interesting cookbook territory. (I am daydreaming now about how another cookbook author could riff on this: by writing Recipes for Alienation? A cookbook for dysfunctional families called Simmering Rage?)
I am not much of a cook, my friends, but I am a fake doctor, and as such, I do have a fake medical opinion on connecting with people, and it is as follows: it can be hard. Even if the people you are trying to connect with are—hold on now, this may be shocking—members of your own family.
Why should it be hard for us parents to connect with our own children? Hell if I know. Don’t our children love and appreciate this incredible landscape of childhood we have carefully crafted for them? The one that includes longer school days, more homework, and more testing, against a backdrop of diminished job prospects and environmental disasters? Of course it was only a little over a hundred years ago that we were sending our children off to work in the mines, so there’s that.
And not that I would know from my own family, of course, because my children are all perfect, and eat widely, and love their perfect lives, because we all know that eating widely is a sign of a child’s vital spirit, and not eating widely is a parental failure as well as a symptom of children who are depressive and strange. But I have heard about some other children, in other families, who do not eat widely and reportedly also hold some or all of the following opinions about their young lives: homework sucks, school is boring, and there aren’t nearly enough flying cars around this place.
For children who have one, some, or even all of these complaints—and surely there are only one or two such unfortunates, but still—the world is perhaps a place to get used to in little bites of the same, few things, over and over, ideally while not having Meaningful Conversation with adults, but while reading something comforting, something fantastical, perhaps with talking animals: Calvin and Hobbes, say.
Listen, I would be the last person to promote the notion that books that stoke daydreams are dumb. Fantasies are hugely important; perhaps just as important, I would venture to say, as food. (For further consumption in this category, try Dinner: A Love Story by Jenny Rosenstrach).
Taking that notion to its logical conclusion, I will spend the third and final installment of “The Great Cookbook Breakdown” looking at what I believe is the crowning achievement of the cookbook genre: Cookbooks for LARP-ers.
Until then, try not to cook too much. But keep reading!
xo Doc Fuss