Wednesday, February 02, 2005

The Girl can't Cook, and She could Use a Better Editor.

Let me first sing the praises of local libraries and remind myself why they're there; to keep me from acquiring more stuff. So when I spotted The Girl can't Cook by Cinda Chavich, a Canadian food journalist, at the newly-renovated local, I jumped. I'd been eyeballing it at Chapters for months, and now I could give it a thorough testing before it occupied an inch and a half of permanent shelf space in my wee apartment.

The premise is not new: "You want to cook, but you don't know where to begin. Guess what: it's easy!" Here, Cinda either one-ups or one-downs Rachael, depending on your perspective, by going back to basics and telling the Girl what her pantry needs (College Cookbook, anyone?), then springing beyond the 30-minute bell to show her what a classy gourmet broad she can be. It's a delightful read, one I wish had come out a year or two sooner, as its usefulness might have curbed some of my free spending on cookbooks. Yet the author is damn lucky I read past the first page of the preface:

"It's time to come clean. The first cookbook I ever owned was called the I Hate to Cook Cookbook, a skinny little paperback I bought in a small-town drugstore when I moved out to the middle of nowhere with a guy one summer way back when.

Both were a mistake - although the book, with it's [sic] silly anecdotes and 1001 ways to use mushroom soup (also a small-town staple), probably saved me from alternately starving and going insane out there on the bald open prairie."

How can she diss the magnum opus of the great Peg Bracken, which, incidentally, is called simply The I Hate to Cook Book, without Chavich's added redundancy? Indeed, Ms. Bracken made liberal use of canned soups, alas, but Cinda owes her bigtime, as she basically pioneered the idea, 45 years ago, that women could cook something quickly and then return to their real, possibly even fabulous, lives. And the inappropriate "it's" in Chavich's preface reminds us that a good editor is gold. There are a few too many lazily punctuated sentences in her book, i.e., "Real cheese is never processed, it is a natural product." Augh! Furthermore, Peg Bracken's books are much wittier than a collection of mere "silly anecdotes". No other, er, food writer but Bracken could implore us to "light a cigarette and stare sullenly at the sink" or suggest we might rather "fold our big dishwater hands around a dry martini instead of a wet flounder." And let's not forget that Cinda Chavich assumes we like the idea of cooking and wish to cook well, whereas Peg Bracken assumed we hated it altogether. Now, hand me that can of soup.

But wait! I said the book was delightful, and it is. The rest of the book is actually much more readable than the thrown-together preface would suggest. It's actually thoughtfully written, cheerfully laid out, interspersed with very good tips, and each recipe has a happy little introduction. Cinda also redeems herself pretty quickly by extoling the virtues of local produce very passionately. Sing it, prairie girl! I just know that when this baby goes back to the library, it will be replaced with a purchased copy, and The Girl, the "Prosciutto and Melon Thing" (p. 211) and I will become very good friends.

If The Girl leaves Peg alone, that is.


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