How natural it is to move on from guest books to cook books. I love cookbooks and have since I can remember. I love the look of the photographs of the mouth watering recipes on the glossy pages. I love reading the lists of ingredients, then about what happens when the ingredients come together. When I go home to Newport I still take out my mother's cookbooks and read them cover to cover. I used to do this when I visited my grandmother as well.
It really seems fitting that I should be working on the cookbook project with Chef Peter. My grandmother had hoped that we would collaborate on a cookbook. She planned on writing the recipes and she wanted me to handle the illustrations. (This was long before I fell in love with photography.) We were going to do this. Only it never happened. Seven years ago La Jolie Grandmere passed away in Beverly Hills, far, far away from the manor house, her home of more than 20 years in the bucolic Oxford suburb of Great Haseley. Sadly this was one of her dreams that never came true. As much as I miss her to this day... as painful as her loss still is... I know that I am so blessed to have so much of what she left behind. I look around and my home is filled with so many of her wonderful possessions. In the living room I have her Steinway grand piano. The piano that Leonard Bernstein danced on (after too much drink) when he performed with the Rochester Philharmonic... In the dining room I have her silver place settings and her silver tea and coffee service. In the front entry way I have some of the old home decorating magazines, in which her homes were featured, proudly on display. I have photos and artwork still in moving boxes in the basement. (I know! I know... we've been here nearly 2 years!) I have a large framed photograph of her home in Umbria framed in the office. In my bedroom I have letters and the wonderful stories she wrote for me that are being incorporated into the memoir. In the family room I have her cookbooks neatly sitting upon the shelves next to the armoire. My cookbooks are on one side and hers are on the other.
She was a fabulous cook. Despite the fact that she ate like a bird she truly loved to eat and appreciated great, high quality food. Her cookbooks lived on her kitchen shelves. I say they lived as opposed to rested, because her cookbooks never rested. They were pulled off and put back on. Off and on. The pages of these books are well worn. Notes line the sides and, scribbled handwritten notes cover some of the original recipes. Like me she was a tinkerer. Most often she changed and doctored many recipes. I love the fact that she covered all he cookbooks so that they would look better on the shelves. They were all covered in white paper, and the names written in green across the spines. I've had fun perusing all the recipes. Some are dated, like tomato aspic, and some, like the Iceberg Wedge with Stilton, are making a come-back. She cooked many things. Her recipes and interests reflected where her homes were. In Cannes, her cooking was traditional French. In England she encouraged her guests to try the country's traditional dishes, "Spotted Dick," "Bubble and Squeak" and "Steak and Kidney Pie." In Italy, when we were not dining out, the produce all came from her gardens. We had plenty of pasta and plenty of fish. This is how I ate as a child. I ate what my grandparents ate when I was with them, and when at home I ate what my parents ate. When I went out to dinner my grandmother would always comment on the large chef. "He must make wonderful food," she would explain. "A good chef is a fat chef. You want a chef who loves what he creates." She had a point. These days this may not be so true. Many top chefs are also television celebrities and hit the gym to maintain their fit physiques.
Because La Jolie Grandmere lived across the Pond and because we could not see each other as often as we would like, we wrote many letters. She was a much better letter writer than I. The light blue Air Mail envelopes were always a delight to receive. As I grew older the subject matter changed as well. Often she would write about a party she had hosted or been to. And this would always be followed by an elegant description of the food she had sampled. She could have been a food writer. The way she described these meals was nothing less than inspiring... and often left you feeling very hungry!
There was no such thing as "kid food" in my family. This is not to say I never had peanut butter and jelly. (I often did for breakfast!) But my meals were more grown up and I suppose my tastes were too. I ate foods from many countries throughout my childhood. I was no stranger to Indian, Asian, and Middle Eastern cuisine. My parents often brought me out to dinner to wonderful French restaurants such as Cafe Un, Deux, Trois and La Grenouille. I would never think of ordering a hamburger or macaroni and cheese or such. I loved mussels, clams and escargot! I really did think that frogs legs tasted like chicken! I was not afraid to try anything. The only thing I disliked about dining in French restaurants was the fact that I had to order my food in French, s'il vous plait. And let me tell you I thought this to be tellement embarrassant!
At home, we had family dinners every night. If I was in play clothes (having changed out of my uniform after school) I had to put on something "presentable." We ate meat on occasion but not terribly often. My mother cooked a lot of chicken and fish. She also made a lot of casseroles that she could store in the freezer and pull out as needed. As a busy career woman she often did her cooking on the weekends so she could come home and play with me a little bit after school. We were not a meat and potatoes family. We had couscous, long grain rice, whole wheat French bread. We followed a healthy diet without realizing it. My mother too was a fabulous cook.
The only thing I did not like about mealtime was that I had to drink a glass of milk every night. I hated milk. Hated it. I still do unless it is in cereal or coffee. We had this charcoal grey shag rug in the dining room. It was a gorgeous room with a high ceiling painted in a light shade of grey, lavender walls, and this shaggy rug that tied the room together. One day, completely unable to swallow the icky white stuff in my glass I thought of ways in which I could make it disappear. I thought about tossing it into the plants but worried that the milk would somehow kill them. I needed someplace, someplace... So I started tossing it right into the rug. I did this one night. No one ever suspected. And then I did it over and over again. How was I able to do this? Well, I was not permitted to leave the table unless I had finished my milk. I certainly was not about to drink it at dinner so I had to make sure my parents were out of eye-shot. There was a long, narrow pantry with shelves, cabinets, and a wet bar that separated the dining room from the kitchen. As soon as I knew they were safely in the kitchen, I had certain auditory cues, I emptied my glass on to the floor. I have no idea how long I was able to pull this off. I want to say a year, maybe even more. Eventually I was found out. The rug was later tossed. And the good news, I was no longer required to drink milk with my dinner!
When my older two were much younger I swore to myself that they would not live on a diet of happy meals and hot dogs. As soon as they were able to eat they ate what we did. Junk food was almost non-existent. (I remember being absolutely appalled at babies 6 and 9 and 12 months old nibbling on French fries in restaurants. I remember saying I will never do this.) The first rule I will tell you about parenting is to never say never. However, in this case I stuck to my guns. People used to ask me in amazement how I got my kids to eat that? Truth was it was easy. That, what they were eating was the norm in my house. I pushed the healthy foods, not the junk. Sure my kids like French fries, and yes they get hot dogs on occasion and McDonald's is a treat. They eat fish, and many things most people would say are mature for their palates. My kids love salad. Unfortunately, thanks to peer pressure, they would rather snack on chips than veggie and dip. I try to be creative and serve them foods that are fun, and nutritious. I have never had to sneak vegetables or beans in to brownies or such. I disagree with the cookbooks that suggest this. I think it is important that kids learn about what is good for them and what is not. Vegetables should be seen, not hidden. There are ways to cook them, with garlic, olive oil, salt, etc that can really enhance their flavors. Children like flavor as much as we do.
So when the school brought Peter on board and changed their eating habits, I could not have been happier. And when Peter and I decided to work on a cookbook together I knew this was the right thing for me to do.
But I mustn't lose sight of my current project. I must not get distracted. I will finish this project before starting another one. Of course my memoirs ought to have some of her recipes weaved in, since food and cooking was such an important part of our family. So posthumously, I guess she is working on this project with me.