Feast for a Voyeur

In the spirit of giving thanks, breaking bread with friends and family, and cooking for the masses, library staff recently gathered around the table for a most delicious feast: a meal of literary delights.

What started out as a seasonal celebration for our Facebook page turned out to be one of the most creative and enjoyable projects I’ve worked on in recent memory.

All of this feasting, got me to thinking…

You may recall a post I did a couple of years back called Voyeuristic Literature. If you enjoyed peeking into the lives of others through their personal writings and forgotten grocery lists, you’ll really like what I have in store for you today. With my mind turning towards holiday parties and, inevitably, food, I give to you a plentiful peeper’s cornucopia, a feast for a voyeur.

Handwritten Recipes: a Bookseller’s Collection of Curious and Wonderful Recipes Forgotten Between the Pages by Michael Popek is exactly what it says it is in the title. Popek has found hundreds of handwritten recipes on cards, scraps of paper, even the backs of restaurant checks.

I feel like there are two great treasures preserved here. First, of course, are the handwritten recipes themselves. Both the penmanship and content of the recipes harken back to olden times, where my Grandmother worked full-time and still came home and put dinner on the table for her family. Recipes like eggs in a basket, sour milk biscuits, and orange kiss-me cake take me back to her kitchen where I first learned how to use a gas stove and the simple joy of eating raw almonds while stirring, kneading, or basting. 

On the other hand, there are definitely unrecognizable recipes as well. Dishes like rinktum tiddy, rice dainty, and chocolate porcupine make me think of someone getting into the rum before making the rum balls and waving a culinary wand to create such unrecognizable dishes. If urban foraging is considered culinary wizardry using only found ingredients, I propose we all start trying these old-fashioned, WTF recipes and call it wizardry using only found recipes.

But not to be overlooked are the books into which these recipes were actually wedged. The juxtaposing  of a recipe for pasta with artichokes, capers, and tomatoes found inside a 1969 edition of Dune: Messiah by Frank Herbert or a recipe for red pepper quiche inside a 1986 edition of It Came From Schenectady by Barry B. Longyear is, to me, the whole reason to become a fan of literary voyeurism.

Mainstream media has, for years, portrayed the cooks and chefs of America as somewhat plain individuals who are more concerned with proper garlic mincing techniques than the possibility of a Godzilla-like creature overtaking the Earth in the near future. Everyone is capable of pursuing whatever hobbies they like, even if these hobbies aren’t necessarily thought of as being complimentary. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that reading Science Fiction isn’t that far off from working with me in my kitchen. You just never know what the ending will ultimately be.

Come In, We’re Closed: an Invitation to Staff Meals at the World’s Best Restaurants by Christine Carroll and Jody Eddy is a different sort of window into someone else’s kitchen. Each chapter features a different restaurant and the meals the staff create for themselves after hours. Staff photos and pictures of the meal are interspersed with the recipes and stories from the staff and owners.

I was salivating to see what the people who spend their work shifts cooking for others would cook for themselves after closing time. It turns out that different restaurants cook different things—this didn’t surprise me. But what did surprise me is how easy to replicate some of these recipes truly are. That’s not to say all are simple, basic recipes—this is far from the truth. But if you’re looking to give yourself and your family a taste of haute cuisine you’re sure to find some gems in this tome.

Local restaurant The Herbfarm in Woodinville is featured in the middle of the book:

Fittingly, The Herbfarm’s family meal starts—and often ends—amidst the herbs. In fact, few staff meals here are ever created without the cooks first foraging in the quarter-acre of raised beds outside their back door. It is a time-worn tradition. Decades before the term “local” became a trendy restaurant catchphrase, The Herbfarm’s founders, Ron Zimmerman and Carrie Van Dyck, used the Seattle seasons to craft their menus and educate their customers. With a near fanatical devotion to the harvest—some have even referred to The Herbfarm’s style as “micro-seasonal”—the menus change bimonthly to accommodate local crops. Along with fruits and vegetables from their nearby four-acre farm, all the meals here are literally built from the ground up.

So, we know the restaurant changes its menu all the time. But we still get a sample after hours menu from the day the authors interviewed the staff on location. How does this sound to you? Whole herb vinaigrette with mixed greens, Iowa-style fried chicken, strawberry cake with orange and thyme biscuits, homemade tarragon and cherry soda. My stomach is rumbling and I just ate breakfast—sign me up.

While the joys of reading this book lie in the peek behind the scenes and after hours of some of the world’s most renowned restaurants, I am delighted to earn a bonus: learning about an amazing local restaurant. I can’t wait to try it out in person.

No matter how you spend your holidays, I truly hope you are fortunate enough to spend your time with people who appreciate you and your cooking. While I have plans to enjoy a wonderful evening with friends and their new baby at Thanksgiving and head home to family in St. Louis at Christmastime, I will always enjoy metaphorically (and sometimes literally) peeking through the window into the world of other people’s’ cooking. So keep your curtains closed!