A person is either a cook or a baker, according to the old saw. Bakers are precise, methodical, and patient. They know what is going to happen next, and they have anticipated every eventuality, unlike cooks — who are emotional, keyed-up, slightly terrified, even. Bakers delight in the process, in knowing how much water a specific type of grain will hold; they love ratios and formulae. Cooks prefer experiments to rules, even at — or because of? — the risk of catastrophe; they like to make something for guests that they’ve never made before. For them, creating a meal is improvisational, dangerous and fun. (I may as well own up and identify myself as a cook right now.)
Elisabeth Prueitt, co-founder of the bakery and restaurant Tartine, a San Francisco institution founded in 2002, and Tartine Manufactory, a massive “culinary playground” that opened last summer in San Francisco — the second is currently set to open in Los Angeles by the end of the year, with more locations likely to follow in cities like New York and Tokyo — is a baker of such skill and greatness that she can get even a reckless cook like me to measure things carefully and slow the hell down. The results are worth it, as her new cookbook, Tartine All Day: Modern Recipes for the Home Cook, amply demonstrates. But every cookbook is a storybook, and while the author won my allegiance as a cook, I didn’t really buy her story.
Prueitt, one of the country’s best-known bakers, is gluten-intolerant, and she has developed magnificent recipes for baked treats using unusual flours and techniques; to my mind, these are the most valuable part of her new book, comprising perhaps a quarter of the total. Her shortbread recipe, for example, calls for almond and rice flours, and requires you to whip the butter and sugar together with a mixer for three whole minutes, until they expand into a mass of soft golden fluff. The resulting cookies pretty much float right off the plate (and into your mouth) as if by their own volition. How come you can’t really taste the cinnamon? I don’t know, and I don’t care. I doubt I will ever bake shortbread any other way again.
There are delicious meals in store, as well. There's a boeuf en daube, made with the classic orange peel and huge amounts of wine, that will make your guests cheer, weep, jump up and down, then send you text messages the next day. (“That beef was bloody delicious,” etc.) Prueitt's pillowy ricotta dumplings are a lovely dish of luscious little clouds adrift in a warm, comfortingly chunky tomato sauce that may lull your whole table, as they did mine, into a blissful, companionable silence.
Prueitt was inspired, she writes, by two towering classics: Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and Irma S. Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking. She sought to write a similarly “steadfast guide” — “an up-to-date, all-purpose cookbook… an inspiring guide to integrating new ingredients and old techniques into the daily tempo of our busy lives.” But Tartine All Day doesn't cut the mustard as an all-purpose cookbook like Joy of Cooking, nor as a handbook of classics like Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
Prueitt has the special gift of creating alchemical recipes — combining ingredients and techniques in such a way that what manifests is light years beyond the sum of their parts. But her genius in no way resembles that of the goofy, nerdy Irma S. Rombauer. Even Julia Child, in many ways a more sophisticated cook and writer than Rombauer, was far more comprehensive and more approachable than is Prueitt. Which is not to knock anybody in the room, only to observe that there are many ways of understanding the “everyday,” and they are all worth thinking about.
The “all-day” restaurant, where you might pop in to have a breakfast meeting, grab a coffee, enjoy a long lunch with friends or dine with your significant other, has steadily increased in cachet over the last twenty-five years. The first ones I remember visiting, Hugo’s and Cafe Latte in Los Angeles, really were quite exciting — the combination of casual friendliness in the service, and punctilious attention to quality, were irresistible. In Los Angeles, this concept was refined with Nancy Silverton and Mark Peel’s La Brea Bakery/Campanile. Now (and I’m sure there are many others) we have Balthazar in New York and Covent Garden, Gjelina and Gjusta in Venice, and the Tartine Manufactory in San Francisco. Come anytime, don’t dress up too much, and be certain of a welcoming, delicious meal. With a very good cup of coffee or a glass of wine, or both, if you like.
This chic notion is increasingly cropping up in cookbooks, too; sophisticated “everyday cooking” is the order of the day. “I want a book that inspires experimentation and delivers gratifying moments of success, a cookbook that is as useful as Joy of Cooking felt to me, decades ago,” Prueitt writes. She goes on to qualify this weird statement (“I cannot claim it is anywhere near as comprehensive as that tome”): Why compare the two at all?
By the time of the 1951 edition (the fourth and best, I think), the enormous, hilarious, truly all-purpose Joy of Cooking contained more than 4,000 recipes. The inside cover of Tartine All Day claims 200 recipes; I counted 151 in the table of contents, many of them containing ingredients that are relatively expensive or uncommon even in big cities, like rice flour, teff, champagne grapes, Marcona almonds, Job’s tears, fresh fava beans, and so on. My 1953 copy of Joy of Cooking has not one single photograph inside; instead there are clever little drawings illustrating cuts of beef, or how to pipe icing flowers, or how to skin a rabbit. Tartine All Day has impossibly beautiful glossy photographs of immaculate interiors, and glorious, perfect food, and one photo of the author, tying on a (tellingly) spotless linen apron.
The story told by Irma S. Rombauer in Joy of Cooking is that anybody with a home and a kitchen can learn how to make an almost unlimited number of nice things, using very ordinary ingredients, to feed her (at the time, I mean, it was alllll “her”) family and friends. Even today, this is the best message a cookbook can contain in order to appeal to the largest possible audience. Hence, perhaps, all these wildly expensive copper pans and their equally pricey contents photographed within an inch of their lives for “everyday” purposes.
Which leads us to the paradox at the heart of the Northern California ethos of cooking and eating developed in the seventies by Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower of Chez Panisse, favoring high quality, locally sourced ingredients, and showing a certain haute-European attitude and attention to detail in the cooking. Prueitt and her husband and business partner in Tartine, Chad Robertson, met in culinary school, and may be considered as Waters’s direct descendants — Waters thought so too, and said so, in her foreword to the first Tartine cookbook in 2006. “Liz and Chad,” she wrote, “hauled their bread to the Berkeley farmers’ market in big, eye-catching vintage wooden crates, and before long Berkeley shoppers were queuing up for bread before the market had even opened. The bread was that good. It had that remarkable village-bakery quality that comes from stone-ground organically grown flour, native yeasts, coarse gray sea salt, a wood fire, and loving hands. Call it authenticity.”
I guess you could call that “authenticity.” What is “authentic,” though, really, about “coarse gray sea salt”? It’s not the easiest thing to find, and it’s very expensive. If this is “authentic,” what do you call the bread millions of people eat eat every day, like the (really decent) “rustic baguette” loaf from Vons?
Waters went on:
I went to see the bakery soon after. It was in a little Victorian cottage, and the brick oven was in a fifteen-foot-square kitchen in the back of the house… At the time… I was reading a wonderful memoir, Life a la Henri, by the French chef Henri Charpentier… I couldn’t help drawing negative comparisons between the food of then and now. But I made an immediate exception for Liz and Chad’s bakery.
This is a hoot, for all sorts of reasons. Henri Charpentier, though an immensely charming raconteur whose books I enjoy very much, was something of a fabulist. And more than we know, probably. Take for example his fantastical tale of having invented Crêpes Suzette at the age of fourteen in honor of the Prince of Wales in 1895. The story was later disputed in the Larousse Gastronomique, and Alan Davidson in the Oxford Companion to Food pretty unequivocally calls it a fib. A flaming (hoho) whopper! The more credible origin story is that the dish was named after Suzette — stage name of actress Suzanne Reichenberg of the Comédie-Française — who in 1897 played a maid who prepared pancakes onstage, and these pancakes were supplied by one Monsieur Joseph of the Restaurant Marivaux. And yet you'll find Charpentier's sweet, pretty story repeated all over the place unchallenged, even though it was pure PR, or BS, depending on how you view such things. He was a great storyteller.
I digress, but only kind of. Because cookbooks are works of art and artifice, just like any other writing. They’re the fruit of an effort to create certain effects, to make a certain impression. It’s that impression we are after when we read and make use of a cookbook — its romance, its ethos and its way of thinking about not just cooking, but living.
There is still such a thing as a real “everyday” celebrity cook: Mark Bittman is a fine example. Take, for instance, his Fastest Pasta with Spinach Sauce: Start with a bag of pre-washed baby spinach (so you won’t have to trim off the stems), and you really can have this perfectly tasty dish on the table in under half an hour. It’s real food, too, containing nothing processed or gross. The proportions are ridiculously forgiving. It doesn’t matter what kind of olives you use. You could sub in broccoli rabe or shaved asparagus or radicchio or whatever, just by altering the blanching time. You could grate some Parmesan on at the end or tear up some burrata and throw it in, or toss in some toasted walnuts and lemon zest. Bittman’s recipes are basic ideas, sketches. Any ordinary cook can read them and see a hundred possible roads telescoping out from the original instructions. That ain’t the Tartine way.
The Niagara of wealth that has poured onto Northern California in the last fifteen years has only honed the truth of a familiar observation to needle sharpness: The philosophy of locally-sourced, heartbreakingly beautiful, grass-fed, wild-caught, first-quality organic food is manifestly, irremediably elitist, just like Anthony Bourdain said back in 2009 (though later he readily owned Waters’s incalculably significant contributions to American cuisine, and he was right on both counts). That Northern California exclusivity isn’t owed only to the obvious expense and time involved in using only the very best and finest tools and ingredients. It’s a way of thinking about our culture and about the world that ultimately says: it’s okay for lesser souls to eat lesser food, but that isn’t good enough for me or mine. Or to put it another way: if the choice is between a $5 peach and a 99-cent hamburger, “they” (or rather, we) should simply eat less.
Here is a question of “lifestyle” branding that is worth analyzing in some detail. “Behold, this is the way I like to live,” these books are saying, with their deliriously beautiful photographs of large, fine kitchens, richly colorful dishes, pretty spoons and containers, of beautifully-dressed children munching the finest organic snacks. The gentle disorderliness of piled-up baby greens, of the big preserving pan scraped not-quite-clean of jam the color of rubies, crisp bacon draining on a brown bag on an immaculate counter alongside a stoneware crock and a full-tang paring knife with a pale wooden handle. This is meant to show us not an “everyday” kind of life, but a highly art-directed “perfect” way of life that is affecting to be something it is not. “Raising the bar” of “excellence” — or stoking desires that are inherently impossible to satisfy for the average working person?
Complexity disguised as simplicity. Difficulty disguised as ease. Exclusivity disguised as inclusivity. When utter elitism masquerades as “everyday” and “simple” and “ordinary,” no rational homemaker can help flinching a little bit. To be clear, I care a lot about quality ingredients but there is literally zero way I am making food as rich, complex, and expensive as what constitutes Prueitt’s notion of “all day.” Reality is that I am going to rush into the Fastest Pasta, or a stir-fried improvisation of one kind or another. A simple soup, whizzed in the pan with the immersion blender. Maybe once or twice a week I’ll make a complicated casserole or stew, or a big pot of minestrone to last a few days. Is Elisabeth Prueitt trying to tell me that I’m falling short, somehow? That’s okay if she is: I’ll still be cooking from her excellent book. Once in a while.
I asked a friend who has lived in San Francisco off and on for many years what he thought about the Tartine bakery. He told me that it made a splash right when it first opened at 18th and Guerrero in 2002, “in a block that already had the upscale Bi-Rite Grocery… and the upscale restaurant Delfina.” The pain au chocolat was good, he said, but huge and very rich — rich enough that eating one would necessarily mean foregoing a meal. There were (and still are) long lines just about always, he says. One can still wait a very long time for the bread, he said, which comes out sometime after 4pm, or one can phone in three days in advance to place an order. “I did that once, but I still had to cut through a mob scene to find someone to get me my order.”
“Still,” he said, “the bread is quite good, probably the best in town.”
Maria Bustillos is a writer and critic living in Los Angeles.
Edited by Matt Buchanan
All photos copyright Paige Green. Reprinted with permission from Tartine All Day: Modern Recipes for the Home Cook by Elisabeth Prueitt, copyright © 2017. Published by Lorena Jones Books/Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.