How I Learned to Cook

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in: Cooking

I grew up with people who liked to eat but didn’t have fancy palates and weren’t interested in acquiring them. Meals were delicious but predictable. Baked stuffed haddock was Friday’s dinner of choice, and an appetizing meat loaf appeared regularly. My mother and father came from long lines of Maine families, so, except during summer’s heat, baked beans were expected on Saturday night.

The closest we came to Italian food was something called American chop suey, a mixture of elbow macaroni, hamburger, and canned tomato sauce; Chinese was represented by an ancient bottle of soy sauce and tins of crispy chow mein noodles which were scattered over the top of a tuna fish casserole. But Indian? Mexican? Greek? Out of the question! French? A bottle of “French” dressing — who knows what gave it that curious cherry-orange color — was sometimes used to dress salads. Olive oil lived in the medicine cabinet. Garlic was indigestible. Mushrooms were toadstools and poisonous. Cheese was a pungent cheddar called rat cheese, delicious but unvarying. And wine was usually sweet and old — not an old vintage but a vintage in a bottle that had been opened a long time ago and kept for the occasional visiting relative who drank the stuff in preference to more customary whisky and rum.

Inspirational hot and sour soup and moules

I owe my early gastronomic education to a Cleveland lawyer who provided a generous allowance for his Harvard undergraduate son, with which the son and I explored Boston’s wealth of ethnic and fancy restaurants from Joyce Chen’s Chinese place in Fresh Pond where I had a first revelatory taste of hot-and-sour soup, to La Duchesse Anne where I sat next to the future Aga Khan (who knew?) and dined on moules, which back in Maine were scorned as mussels. We frequented the Athens Olympia where the belly dancer who entertained on Fridays spent the rest of the week serving up Greek stuffed vine leaves and moussaka, and the Ritz-Carlton’s handsome dining room, its tall windows overlooking the greenery of the Public Garden, where we breakfasted on beautifully poached eggs atop roast beef hash — not, you will note, corned beef hash, much too Irish for the Ritz.

After the lawyer’s son, there were other beaux — an Englishman who had spent time in India showed me how to make a proper curry by first clarifying an entire pound of butter; a Greek writer introduced me to rice pilaf with onions and black pepper and chicken stock from a can; a Belgian poet stuffed raw button mushrooms with cream cheese and chopped watercress (don’t laugh — try it: it’s like eating the green lawn after a spring rain!); a run-of-the-mill New York film producer rose to heights of glory when he marinated steaks in mustard and honey, then grilled them in the fireplace of his penthouse apartment, certainly not something you would expect to treasure from a film producer.

But I really learned to cook from Elizabeth David. As it happened, I was working for Harper’s, the American publisher of “French Provincial Cooking,” David’s first cookbook launched in the United States. That was in 1962 and Mr. Canfield, the head of the firm, had picked up the book on his annual tour of British publishing houses. Uncertain what to make of it, he passed it around among his junior staff, all of whom were female and most of whom liked to cook. Or occasionally make chocolate chip cookies when warranted.

Turning a corner with Elizabeth David

I was enthralled from the very first page. Raised like my mother before me on “The Boston Cooking School Cookbook,” aka Fannie Farmer, I had not known that one could think about food like this, let alone write about it. I opened “French Provincial Cooking” to almost any page and was immediately and utterly smitten. Here is Mrs. David on “Soupe de Poissons de Marseille,” which is, she says:

 … made from all sorts of the little shining red, pink, brown, yellow and silver-striped fish which one can buy by the basketful from the market stalls in the Vieux Port … I don’t think it is possible to make the soup without all these odd little Mediterranean fish … and I have not attempted to cook it since I lived on the Mediterranean shores, but still the method, which was shouted above the hubbub of the market to me many years ago by the fishwife at a market stall, is worth recording.

Reading that in a tiny Brooklyn kitchen, I was filled with longing. I wanted to buy those fish, to smell those smells, to taste that soupe, I wanted to be that person. And short of that, I would make that soupe de poissons, even with the meager supply of fish available in New York markets in the 1960s.

Mrs. David was little known in the U.S. at that time. Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” published a year earlier, had failed to interest me with its precise and doubtless foolproof instructions that smacked of Fannie-Farmer-goes-to-France. No, I wanted that fishwife shouting at me above the hubbub of a Marseilles market stall. I could almost be there as the fragrance of leeks, onions and tomatoes, of parsley, fennel, garlic and saffron, of olive oil such as it was back in 1962, enveloped the fish in my cooking pot. I strained it all as directed, “pound[ing] the fish a little with a wooden pestle so that the very essence gets through into the broth.” The very essence! Magical! Then I added a handful of pasta fragments to the savory orange broth and served it up with grated gruyere to spoon on top.

“The soup should be rather highly spiced,” my idol wrote. Indeed it was, spiced above all with my own longing for the world she had opened to me.


Nancy Harmon Jenkins is the author of several books, the latest of which is her newly revised “The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.”  Her other food books include, “Cucina del Sole: A Celebration of the Cuisines of Southern Italy” and “The Essential Mediterranean,” which looks at a dozen foods key to understanding Mediterranean cuisines.  She also wrote “Flavors of Tuscany,” “Flavors of Puglia” and “The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.”  She is working on a book on Atlantic salmon.  A former staff writer with The New York Times, Nancy continues to contribute to the Times in addition to writing for The Washington Post, Saveur, Food & Wine and other national publications.  She currently divides her time between a Tuscan farmhouse and a home on the coast of Maine where she was born and raised.  She has lived and worked throughout the countries of the Mediterranean, at various times making a home in Spain, France, Italy, Lebanon, and Cyprus as well as in Hong Kong and England. You can read more of her food writing on her site, NancyHarmonJenkins.com.

Photo: Fish market in Catania, Italy. Credit: Nancy Harmon Jenkins


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Zester Daily contributor Nancy Harmon Jenkins is the author of many books about Italy and the Mediterranean. Her next, "Virgin Territory: Exploring the World of Olive Oil," will be published by Houghton Mifflin in February 2015.

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