I have a dear friend who used to work with me in a bookstore; our shared passion for eating and for reading cookbooks brought us together. We’ve stayed in touch over the years, mostly via Facebook of course, and a few times recently she’s posted things about Ina Garten.
I have a very vivid memory of the first time I heard about Ina Garten, though no one used her name in that conversation. I was working in a shop that sold mostly rare and out of print books, and so I had become pretty well-versed in that kind of thing. One of our specialties was cookbooks. As such, I was thrown, and upset that I was thrown, when someone came in asking for The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook. “The what?” I asked. “There’s a cookbook to do with The Barefoot Contessa?” How had I, a bit of a film buff and a cookbook person, never known that there was such a thing? It took a while before I realized that the person was looking for a cookbook that had nothing whatsoever to do with either Humphrey Bogart or Ava Gardner. Which was a pity: I would buy that book, I said to the would-be customer. The would-be customer had no idea what I was talking about. (Clearly, we were not going to be soulmates.) Furthermore, it turned out this was a new book the person was looking for: by definition, something I wouldn’t be obligated to have in the shop. I dismissed the whole thing pretty much out of hand: anyone who came into our shop looking for a brand new book was basically written off as an idiot. I was especially disgusted once I realized what the Barefoot Contessa Cookbook really was.
The way I felt about it: Not My Scene. Cookbooks with Pretty Pictures: Not My Scene. Cookbooks Written by the Rich Wives of Rich Yale Professors: Not My Scene.
So I stopped thinking about it.
Of course, in the decades since the 1990s, Ina Garten has sort of taken over the food world, or, at least, she’s one of the people who dominates it. People I like are obsessed with her. Liz Lemon on 30 Rock (one of my favorite TV characters in recent memory) is obsessed with her. In the back of my mind, for a while now, I’ve been thinking, “I guess I should read one of these books.”
So today, the first day of summer vacation, my daughter and I are at the public library and there’s a copy of Cooking for Jeffrey (the aforementioned Yale professor, Jeffrey Garten). “Oh, what the hell,” I said to myself, adding it to my pile.
I checked out the book. The lady at the circulation desk, Krista, I think is her name, said, “I think you’ll find this not too interesting. Stuff you either already do or stuff you already COULD do, if you wanted to, which you don’t, if you’re not doing it already. But the pictures are pretty.” “I don’t like cookbooks for their pictures,” I said. “I know,” she said. “But,” I added, “I’ve never read Ina Garten and here it is, so, I’m taking it home.” “Good luck,” Krista said. And we were on our way.
While my daughter and I ate lunch, I flipped through the book. There is not much to it. It’s $35, not cheap, and has alarmingly few recipes, but the photos are indeed gorgeous. They must be the reason this book costs $35, because there is really, seriously, not a lot of actual content here. My daughter ate her sandwich (poached chicken, sliced, on semolina bread with pickle relish and mayonnaise) and I ate mine (poached chicken, sliced, on semolina bread with mayo and sliced fresh figs), and we contemplated the book.
I said nothing as I turned the pages, at first, and then I sighed. “What’s wrong?” my daughter asked me. “Nothing,” I said. “But, I mean, who lives like this? Look at these pictures!”
“Maybe that’s how people feel about the Hausfrau,” my daughter said to me. I gave her a look and thought, “ouch.” “Maybe you’re right,” I said, eating more of my sandwich. It was then that I landed at Ina’s lentil and kielbasa salad, which is, I swear to god, nothing but a highflalutin’ variant of the lentil and chicken salads I’ve been serving my family for the last few days (with great success). Last night I made one, in fact, and I served it on a bed of pea shoots, with semolina bread and brie on the side. Now I want to kill myself for having done something so foofy. (Though it was a really good dinner, especially for a hot summer night.)
A few pages later I landed on a recipe that’s, again, basically something I make all winter long: roast chicken with radishes. “Jesus Christ,” I said, staring at the page. And the next recipe was a brisket. “That looks just like when you make brisket,” my daughter pointed out.
I was, by this point, polishing off my sandwich, and sagging slightly in my chair.
I kept flipping pages.
“I didn’t know that’s how you spell “couscous”, ” my daughter told me. “I thought it was “kooskoos” — with a K.”
“No, that’s how you spell it,” I told her. “Look, kasha varnishes. I used to make those, but I never do anymore. Why do I never make them, they’re good.”
Kept turning pages.
“How come you don’t have a cookbook like this?” my daughter asked me. “Your food looks like this. You’re probably even a better cook than that lady.” I laughed. “I don’t think I’m a better cook than Ina Garten,” I said, “but it’s nice of you to say.”
“Well, your food looks just like all of this food, I don’t see why you can’t have a big fancy cookbook.”
“It helps to be a big fancy well-connected person,” I said to her. I said, “Ina Garten’s not like me at all.” A quick skim of the Wikipedia bio confirms this. My god, the woman’s never even seen The Barefoot Contessa.
We discussed the possibility that we might try to make the chocolate creme brulee. “Of course, I don’t have little creme brulee dishes,” I pointed out.
“No one has little creme brulee dishes,” my daughter said.
“Ina Garten does,” I said.
Then I went into the kitchen and made brownies from a recipe by Ann Hodgman. Much more my speed.
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