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OBSERVATIONS

FOOD : Simply Good : 'Ordinary' Food Can Be Very Special--in a Caring Cook's Hands

October 25, 1987|JOHN THORNE | "Simple Cooking," by John Thorne, from which this is excerpted, has just been published

MORE THAN MEN, I think, women share important memories as tokens of their love. One recollection so given me was of a small girl watching her father making macaroni and cheese. His method was a loving ritual of sustenance. The ingredients were prepared and mixed in a large, heat-proof mixing bowl, which was then set directly in the oven and periodically removed during cooking for further incorporation of a precisely gauged amount of additional cheese. By the time the dish was ready, the elbow macaroni sported in it like dolphins in a savory orange-yellow sea.

The strong fatherly arm stirring the bubbling ingredients with a sauce-coated wooden spoon, the fragrant heat wafting out the open oven door, the gold and glistening mound of freshly grated cheese waiting on the counter, the hungry little girl whose fascination and ardent appetite was to the cook a special seasoning--these are powerful images.

But their power is also of a special kind and shows the difference between two very different kinds of culinary experience, that of the eater and that of the cook.

As it happens, I'm very fond of macaroni and cheese and keep a special spot in my heart for cooks who genuinely love it: They are not that many. But I've been thinking of it lately as a kind of familiar food that seems especially vulnerable to commercial corruption--like homemade marinara sauce, vegetable soup, baked beans--dishes less out of style than no longer possessing any style at all.

And so we have turned away from them, thinking them too ordinary to interest us. But the truth is that we no longer know how to be interested in them, which is a very different thing. For although these things cannot command interest, like many good things whose character has been dimmed by time and use, they can richly reward us should we choose to give them anyway.

If we don't see this, it may be because we have become more accustomed to think about food as eaters, rathers than as cooks. Eaters think in terms of taste. Reaching for the jar of Progresso marinara sauce or Campbell's chunky vegetable soup, they regard it simply as something about as good as they could make themselves. And they may well be right: If most homemade chicken broth was as different from the canned version as some like to claim, College Inn would have been out of business long ago. The difference is there, but it is up to the eater to decide to notice it.

For the cook, however, the story is not quite the same. One important dimension of kitchen experience is what I have previously called--for lack of a better term--resonance, a palpable depth to the things out of which we make our meals. In their way, these things speak, and it is our ability to hear, to enter into a kind of conversation with them that marks our crossing over from kitchen worker, however skilled, to true cook.

Making macaroni and cheese, this resonance starts with the familiar heft of the cooking pot as I pull it from under the counter. Cast iron and coated with orange enamel, scoured and stained through years of use, it has been a companion through my entire life as a cook. As I fill it with water, the handle presses against my hand with the firm assurance of a friend.

From the refrigerator, a chunk of Wisconsin Cheddar, richly pale as clotted cream. The grater set over my largest mixing bowl, the cheese slips into shreds, heaps into a generous pile, a whole pound of it--minus the slivers that break away and tumble to the side, appetizers for the cook. The water boils. I take down the noodles, in this instance, a box of rotini, one of the more playful shapes of the pasta tribe and not at all the best choice for this dish, since the thick sauce may refuse to adhere to their spirals. But it's all I've got, so in it goes anyway, handful after handful, into the boiling water.

Butter is cut to bits, the can of evaporated milk rooted out from its hiding place and spiced with a fat scarlet drop of Tabasco, two eggs taken from the fridge and beaten to a frothy mass. One of the rotini must be speared and tasted. The pasta must be caught at just the right moment, still with a tiny bit of "spine" or crunch, so it can finish its cooking while absorbing the taste and savor of the sauce.

After a quick shake in the colander, they are tumbled into the mixing bowl, tossed with butter, mixed with everything else, the cheese stirred in bit by bit to keep it from clumping into lumps, some of it--and some of the evaporated milk--held back for later. The bowl is slid onto the oven shelf with a glance at the clock--and the rest you already know.

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