In Omnivore’s Dilemna, Pollan writes about the “supermarket pastoral”, in which the marketers use a lot of words about pasture and free-range and whatnot to get you to buy stuff and feel good about it.
I’ve been thinking a lot this past holiday week about what I think of as “cookbook pastoral.” It’s not just limited to cookbooks, though. TV shows have just as much to answer for, if not more. But I read more cookbooks than I watch TV so….
But you know what I’m talking about, right? The text that talks about the dough gently rising in a yellow stoneware bowl, covered over with a linen tea towel. The photos of Martha’s beautifully lit, all-white kitchen with a perfectly turned out pie crust, just barely dusted by flour, waiting on a pristine sheet tray to be baked in a $40,000 Viking. The TV hostess (I’m looking at you, Ina) who scoops her sugar out of a rustic mason jar. Or even Nigella’s lushly prosy narration in that seductive British voice, talking about flecks of herbs and streaks of chocolate and plump morsels of dough.
Why, I wonder, is my kitchen never like that? My dough rises in the mixing bowl where I kneaded it, with a piece of plastic wrap over it because, no matter how much you dampen it, a tea towel always results in a dried-out crust on top of the dough. My sugar comes out of that $2 white plastic cannister with white lid that I got on the day I moved into my first apartment. My pie crust is never round and my kitchen is never clean after I’ve mixed up pie crust and my sheet trays are never clean, period.
And, sadly, I have never looked or sounded anything like Nigella.
I know it’s marketing, I know it’s there to sell the dream. But it’s also so much false bunk and that irritates me. I love Cook’s Illustrated, it’s my first source for almost any recipe, but Christopher Kimball’s pseudo-rustic ruminations on country life that open each issue just make me angry. And those handful of times I’ve ever watched Rachel Ray, I always wonder, “Why does she wash her hands that often without pushing up her sleeves?! Doesn’t she get the hems of her sleeves wet?“
The loud and clear implication of all of this is that if you can’t cook this beautifully, with this picturesque simplicity, without making a mess, without getting flour on your black cashmere sweater, then you shouldn’t be doing it at all.
I think of myself as messier cook than normal people. This is possibly true, but I don’t know. Most other people I know don’t cook, so it’s not really a fair comparison. Those that do are usually about as messy as I am. They have pantries that are cluttered and crowded, stoves that need a good wiping, and slightly sticky floors. (This is also a factor of having a small child in the house.)
And project cooking exacerbates this. A fermenting crock of sauerkraut is probably lovely as hell when it’s in a beautiful white crock, glowing against the black stone of a cold counter inside a root cellar/storage pantry. In my kitchen, though, it’s fermenting inside a 1/2 gallon mason jar, wedged on my crowded counter between half-empty bags of Bob’s Red Mill oats and a box of Sunmaid Raisins. You;d never get half-empty plastic bags in Chris Kimball’s pantry.
It’s not cookbook pastoral, but it’s real.