The best part about studying for the bar exam (and that’s not a sentence-starter you hear very frequently) was reading Amanda Hesser’s “Cooking For Mr. Latte.” The Starbucks where I study at is located near a Chapter 11 book store and one day, during an over-extended break, I ambled over there and perused (as I usually do) the food book section. I was happy to see that “Cooking For Mr. Latte” came out in paperback and since I’d enjoyed Amanda Hesser’s interim reviews at the New York Times I decided to scoop up a copy to read in between practice tests and flashcards.
At first, the chapters were so short as to feel insubstantial. Here I was memorizing the elements of defamation and looking forward to my food book break and when it finally came it only lasted 8 minutes. Hesser’s chapters are extraordinarily short. And compared to the other major food authors–Jeffrey Steingarten, Calvin Trillin–they seem at first glance to be mere trifles, like mini-quiches on a passing waiter’s tray. That’s all very well, but I came for dinner.
Dinner comes in the aggragate. The book builds steam as it progresses. For those not in the know, it tells the tale of Hesser’s courtship with New Yorker writer Tad Friend. They met on a blind date and Friend takes Hesser to the equivalent of a TGI Fridays. He drinks a latte after dinner. This will not do.
What I admired most about this book was Hesser’s fearlessness in portraying herself truthfully. By that I mean she doesn’t always come across as–well–likeable. There are parts where she chastizes her grandmother’s eating habits in Italy or fights with Tad over silly food minutiae. But in the end you feel like you know her intimately, even though the thrust of the book is food. Sounds familiar, no? That’s the basic premise of this website.
The ultimate selling-point, though, is that each chapter ends with recipes and the recipes pertain to what you just read. So when Amanda meets Tad’s mother and his mother cooks a fabulous feast of Ginger Duck (which truly sounds terrific) there’s the recipe greeeting you when the chapter’s over. There are many great recipes in this book that I will attempt for you in the near future.
One of my favorite chapters deals with dining alone. This concept still terrifies me. Sure I’ll eat a bagel or a burrito accompanied only by a New Yorker magazine, but I’ve yet to go out to a nice dinner all alone. Apparently that’s a fine dining right of passage. What I like about Amanda’s take is that she starts out declaring as much–“In the same way that you should get massages and take naps or meditate, you should, everyone should, make a point to eat out by yourself from time to time”–and then falters. Well, her primary destination is closed and then the next spot, Pastis, is “too packed with loud, beautiful people.” Eventually she winds up at Pearl Oyster Bar and has a blissful meal; but I enjoyed the process. Here was an accomplished food writer going through the same bouts of self-awareness we mortals go through. It’s like Michael Jackson singing “You Are Not Alone,” except less creepy.
Like Fox News, I must be fair and balanced. There were parts of this book I didn’t like. I didn’t like some of the food snobbery, like when she goes to Craft with friends and dreads sharing food: “When I go to a restaurant, I do not like feeling as if I’m at a buffet. I like to construct my meal thoughtfully and then eat it. I don’t want to pass plates and I don’t want someone plopping a slab of his skate in my lamb jus.” My reaction? Why not! Amanda’s answer? “It’s disrespectful to the chef, who tries to create dishes that entertain your palate from the first bite to the last.” I don’t agree, though—doesn’t it tell the chef that all his food is so great and you want to try it all? “And it’s greedy. If you must taste other things on the menu, come back another time.” Well then!
Oh but back to the positives—Amanda is great at the closing zinger. All her chapters end on a perfect note. Like for example, when she starts feeling unhappy in the relationship–like she’s becoming her mother because Tad abandons her all day while she cooks and cleans and runs errands, her anger grows and culminates after a dinner party when Tad leaves the dishes greasy. Before the party she asks Tad to put a special bottle of Champagne in the freezer to chill quickly; the chapter’s closing paragraph reads: “The next morning, the dishes were clean but Tad was barricaded in his study. I opened the freezer to find the bottle of Champagne–a Bruno Paillard that I had saved for several years–shattered. It was just how I felt.”
That last example perfectly illustrates Hesser’s gift: she fuses the personal, the emotional and the visceral in short, deft brushstrokes. “Cooking For Mr. Latte” may seem like a light read, but by the end you’ve been to a 37 course banquet. And there’s still room for more.