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large, beige box
may 20, 2000
A few weeks ago, coming home from work, Mary and I found a large, beige box waiting for us on our green welcome mat.
The box was heavy, its weight contained as much by a plaid pattern of masking tape as by its cardboard.
In our kitchen, uncapping beers, we slit the top open, cats jumping off counters and appliances to stroll over, tails up, to see what we were looking at.
Joe, Mary's dad, had sent us a boxful of the cookbooks his late wife Joan, Mary's mother, had used over the decades of their marriage.
We lifted out, with two hands, a 1966 edition of Larousse Gastronomique, compiled by the legendary A. Escoffier, "the king of cooks and the cook of kings", who compiled his encyclopedia of cooking with such a disdainful briefness of description that the recipe for Fennel in Gravy, for example, in its entirety consists only of, "Braise in fat. Simmer for a few minutes in concentrated brown veal stock." After that, almost as heavily, came out Mastering the Art of French Cooking, by Simone Beck, Louisette Bertholle and Julia Child. Third in authorship, first in fame. Who would have thought?
Cookbook after cookbook, each just as evocative of its time and culture, each filled with page after page of recipes calling for cream, butter, truffles, thick pinches of salt and large slices of hot, juicy meat. Forty years of the best writings in gourmet cooking.
Going through the box was going into the past.
I remember looking at these books over the years when Mary and I would visit with Joe and Joan, first at their home in Sacramento, where they grew most of their own vegetables, and later, after Joe's retirement, in Milwaukee, where the supermarkets still carry twenty different types of liverwurst. Any cookbook, but especially these, created when the purpose of food was pleasure rather than health, evokes a world which does not exist but fleetingly, a perfect world in which by following a formula, and measuring right, you and the people you love can sit down at evening, windows open, around a hot meal full of surprise, delight and chin-dripping sensuality, cold bottles passed back and forth, mouths fanned with a hand, laughter and shrieks and smiles in the flickerings. Joan created quite a few of those meals, and we were privileged to be able to pull up chairs to them.
In one of the books, pagemarked with clippings from Sunset, Sunday newspaper food supplements and other sources, were three typewritten pages scotch-taped together lengthwise to form one long sheet. I started reading the recipe, and after the first few paragraphs, like in a dark hallway glancing at a window that turns out to be a mirror, realized it was my recipe for a special meatloaf I prepared for Joe and Joan on their wedding anniversary, almost fifteen years ago. I was flattered when she asked for the recipe; I can't tell you how touched I was to see she had kept it all these years.
Joe stayed with us for a week recently, and it was a wonderful visit, perfect in every way. Each night we prepared a different favorite, each delicious, but with each, this time, we found ourselves, full, leaving something on our plates. It didn't occur to us at the time, but we were still cooking for four.
During Joe's stay, the three of us worked on launching his website, The Photography of Joseph Meier. If you'd like, please take a look. As always, Joe took a lot of pictures while he was here. To see one of Mary, my wife, taken about two weeks ago, please click here .