Category Archives: Classic Fridays

Classic Fridays: HWJC (How Would Jacques Cook It?)

Have you heard of Jacques Pépin’s La Technique? Or La Methode? If you are as serious about French cooking as Julia Child, you have been sleeping with them beneath your pillow since they were first published in the late 1970s. If you are like me, you have learned of Jacques Pépin considerably later with the resurging interest in French cuisine thanks to the works of Anthony Bourdain and books like Julie and Julia. I confess with shame that I have owned Complete Techniques for more than five years but haven’t bothered to look at it until recently; my cooking aspirations are exceeded only by my inertia when it comes to improving skills that I think I already possess in passable measure. But let me assure you: it is worth taking the time to look at Complete Techniques closely. Yes, it is informative and astoundingly well-illustrated with step-by-step black-and-white photographs, yes, the instructions are clear and easy to follow, and yes, you will learn many (309!) very valuable cooking techniques and basic recipes from a culinary authority. But the real pleasure in this book is its ability to take you away, like its contemporary Calgon, from the harried nature of the North American kitchen. Farewell meals made from three cans and a package of instant noodles whose only virtue resides dubiously in its ability to be ‘thrown together’ and eaten out of an old yogurt container over the sink! Retreat into the pages of Complete Techniques, a place where food is meant to be delicious and beautiful, cooking enjoyable and creative.

It is true that at first glance Complete Techniques does not strike as a book about creative cooking. It instead strikes as the instruction manual that it is. Take Technique One, for example, ‘Holding a Knife’. It turns out that, according to Jacques Pépin, I have been holding a knife incorrectly all of these years. Would Jacques Pépin praise me for my freestyle chopping? Unlikely. This is because Complete Techniques approaches food the way that great musicians approach music: in order to be creative, one must first understand – really know – the elemental components and the traditional arrangements; only then can one emulate, respond, and innovate. Complete Techniques is therefore devoted to inculcating the basic skills necessary to prepare ingredients well so that they may be arranged into pleasing constellations of flavour and texture.

The book is divided into seven chapters ‘The Basics’, ‘Shellfish and Fish’, ‘Vegetables’, ‘Poultry and Meat’, ‘Carving’, ‘Breads’, and ‘Pastry and Dessert’. Each section contains numerous instructions on preparation of ingredients – seeding a tomato, skinning and filleting fish, filling a pastry bag, that sort of thing – and a variety of foundational recipes ranging from timeless onion soup and chicken pie to the probably less timeless salmon molded in aspic. Yet what Jacques Pépin considers ‘basics’ are themselves telling of a more gracious cuisine than the food that slouches upon many a modern table. Some inclusions, say, Technique Thirty-Two, ‘Scrambled Eggs’, are expected and almost superfluous (until you read them: I have been scrambling eggs improperly too, it turns out), but others will chasten those of us who want to post to Facebook when we manage to pull off a garnish of minced chives. Take Technique Forty, ‘Mushroom Fish’, that is, mushrooms that are made to look like fish, or Technique Forty-Four, ‘Flower Vases with Squash’ which are exactly what you think they are. When was the last time I put flowers on the table, even in a vase that has not been hand-carved from a butternut? I can’t even think. Why have I not been making use of Technique Forty-Two, ‘Cucumber Turtles’? I realize that my cooking has been positively grumpy in its utilitarianism. Perhaps my picky-eater children would regard dinner less as a punitive event and more as a pleasure – and so would I – if I were to appeal to at least four of the five senses with food instead of doggedly pursuing just the one, flavour, whose presence yields too often to concern over fibre or fat anyway. But limited time demands no-nonsense austerity, my inertia counters. Where will the time to put together ‘Olive Rabbits’, Technique Forty-Five, come from? From practice, Jacques Pépin would respond. Instilling proficiency is one of the stated aims of Complete Techniques (pp. vii-viii): you learn and rehearse the techniques and they become second nature, quick. Culinary sophistication and visual appeal are not sacrificed on the altar of efficiency.

It will perhaps be clear that reading through Complete Techniques can be a personal journey. This is in spite of the fact that the book is entirely about the food and not about the cook’s ego. Far be it from me to blame you for feeling proud of yourself if you manage to create sugar ‘Angel Hair’, Technique Two Hundred Forty-Eight, which involves waving hot sugar over a wooden spoon handle suspended over a newspaper-covered floor while standing on a stool for extra height. But Complete Techniques is not about fostering the cook’s self-esteem or smugness, it is about training a food lover to make food worth eating. Take chicken, for example. Jacques Pépin will not wheedle you into using a whole chicken instead of a package of boneless skinless breasts because recent studies demonstrate such-and-such health benefit of eating meat with bones. Instead, he provides directions on how prepare a whole chicken for different methods of cooking. The point is the chicken and how you are going to treat it, not the other way around.

Yet Jacques Pépin is careful to encourage his reader-student and is in fact endearingly supportive and understanding. He sympathizes with the difficulty of finding good cooking vessels that are both affordable and won’t discolour food (pp. 1-2). ‘Cooks often get confused when they hear names such as “brown sauce,” glace de viande (meat glaze)…jus, “broth,” “bouillon”, and so forth. In fact, it is confusing,’ he empathizes, and then launches into twenty pages of instruction on meat stocks to disentangle their mysteries. He worries about his readers damaging their skillet handles in the oven (p. 331: ‘be sure to cover it with several layers of aluminum foil,’) while making potatoes in the shapes of small soaps. He allows you a shortcut when things really might get frustrating or emotional, assuring the reader-student that ‘[t]hough we show you how to skin a rabbit, your butcher will do it for you if you prefer.’ And lest you feel like a failure if your first attempts at French bread are disappointing, he points out that ‘[v]ery simple recipes are often the most deceptive because they are the hardest to make well…Yet these ultra-simple recipes demand years of practice to achieve perfection.’ By the time you get to Technique Two Hundred Thirty-One, ‘Multilayered Mocha Cake’, and you read ‘[while h]olding the cake flat on one hand, ice all around. Turn the cake on your hand against the direction of the spatula,’ you know he will forgive you for the many cakes that will plummet to the floor as you work to conquer this technique. And if it is possible with patient practice to master icing a cake by using your own hand as a turntable, what recipe could ever again seem too demanding to try?

Most cookbooks expand your repertoire of individual recipes. Jacques Pépin will inspire you to be a better cook. Do yourself a favour and let him.

Pauline Ripat teaches Classics (when not practising cucumber turtles) in Winnipeg, where she lives with her husband and two sons.

Sell your books to Powell's

Shop Indie Bookstores

Leave a comment

Filed under Classic Fridays, Food

Classic Fridays: American Gods on American Television, brought to you by a Brit

Editor’s Note: For the next several weeks we’re going to use Fridays to highlight a book that really, honestly, you should have read by now. The idea will be to find those books that may have just slipped under your radar, but which you really should read (yeah, I’m looking at you slacker, in the back of the class). Occasionally we’ll also highlight a book that someone has been crass enough to put back into the popular spotlight by making a film or a television series based on it. American Gods fits both of these criteria.

Sometimes you find one of those books that plows through your life as you know it. You read it deep into the night, think about it all day, and when you finish, you find that you look at the world a little differently. American Gods is just such a book. The novel is over a decade old, but is finally being made into a TV series by Starz. TV series based on books have gotten better in quality, but often stray to one degree or another from the original inspiration, enough to often make them a unique experience from their source. I would encourage you to pick up a copy of the novel and read it beforehand. The novel has a premise that only a master storyteller like Neil Gaiman (The Sandman graphic novels, Neverwhere, The Graveyard Book) could dream up.

The plot opens solidly in the real world: the main character, Shadow, has just finished a three-year prison term – for what, we don’t know – and has done his time in earnest, waiting to return to his loving wife and determined never to get into trouble again. But mere days before his release, he learns his wife has died in a car accident with her lover, and everything he’s lived for collapses. On the plane flight home, Shadow meets Wednesday, an enigmatic scoundrel who offers him a job. Shadow knows that Wednesday is a con artist, but he has nothing to lose and accepts the offer. Thus he, and we alongside him, begin our voyage into the world of American Gods. Wednesday, and most of the supporting cast in this book, are gods in the twilight of their existence. Wednesday, blind in one eye and taking his name after “his day,” is an incarnation of Odin. All Gods walk the earth, given power by the worship of humans. However, pantheons come and go as time moves on. This leaves the world populated with the remnants of Norse, Roman, Native American, Aboriginal and Egyptian pantheons trying to scrape by on what scraps of worship they can find. For instance, the Queen of Sheba works as a prostitute, making her clients worship her with quite – ahem – memorable results. Meanwhile, the new “American” gods – the gods of Computers, Highways and other modern amenities Americans worship these days – are young upstarts with more power than they can handle. The book chronicles the imminent clash between these old and new Gods on Earth.

 Reid's RoadWho, me? Yeah. You’re driving on a GOD here, pal.

Flat-out, this book is terrifying, fascinating, gothic and imaginative. Once you start reading, you won’t quit until you’re done. Gaiman’s world is complete and real and will keep you in it until he lets you go. And when he finally relinquishes his hold on you, you wish there was more. The only downside is that there are countless gods running around. You want to know who they are and what they represent, but it’s impossible to do. You just have to accept that there’s no way for you to understand everything, and enjoy what you do. At first, Shadow seems like a slow, muscle-bound ex-con with a brain not up to the task of dealing with the situation he’s in. For the first few chapters I worried about his value as the reader’s eyes and ears in the story. But it turns out that doesn’t give him nearly enough credit. Shadow is intelligent in a common-sense way, and is a fascinating character to follow. His personal dilemmas with his life, past crimes and love for his dead wife are poignant, and give him a great deal of dimension. (Hopefully this won’t give away too much, but his issues with his dead wife continue for the entire novel, literally from the grave, and is one of the more fascinating elements of the story.)

Most of all, this book wouldn’t be what it is without Gaiman’s skill at the craft. His writing is seamless, vivid and engaging, with plenty of action and great characters. In many ways his writing is invisible; his prose won’t amaze you like McCarthy or Chabon. Yet every word conjures the exact tone and pacing that Gaiman wants for the story. He keeps the final plot twists so close to his vest that you don’t see them coming, even though all the clues are out there for you to see. (This comes from someone who is notorious for guessing the ending of books halfway through.) Aspiring writers: If there is one author you want to emulate, Gaiman should be it.

William Reid Schmadeka is a freelance writer, editor and stay-at-home father of three. When not writing, editing or reading sci-fi and fantasy (or changing diapers and cleaning up after a toddler), he loves cooking and playing board games.Sell your books to Powell's

Leave a comment

Filed under Classic Fridays, Sci-Fi/Horror/Fantasy