Monday, 25 February 2013

On Pineapples, The Cook's Companion and Letting Go

I came to cooking young, but it was only as an adult, barely out of my teens, that I began to blossom. To put aside cooking as a practical, functional act and truly enjoy the pleasure and creativity involved. 

I soon moved past the collection of Women's Weekly cookbooks I'd "inherited" from my mother (by which I mean "borrowed and never returned") but I needed a stepping stone into that culinary world that I could sense was just past my gaze.  In my third year of university, Stephanie Alexander's The Cook's Companion was published and that stone materialised before my eyes.

The Cook's Companion at The Essential Ingredient

But it was almost a mirage, there was no way an impecunious uni student was going to be able to afford the hefty sum required to buy it. I simply kept sifting through old issues of Gourmet Traveller and Vogue Entertaining that I'd pick up at op-shops. And then, some months later, four of my friends clubbed together and bought me my very own copy of The Cook's Companion. Distinctive on my shelf, clad in orange, it contained their signatures and scribblings on the inside page. This would soon be followed by my own jottings in margins and notes on recipe variations.

When I began shopping at the Prahran Market 14 years ago, I would often pick up interesting produce and ingredients that I had no idea about. Literally none. Apart from the fact that (possibly) you could eat it. Too shy to ask stallholders, I'd announce to my roommate "Let's see what Stephanie says". And we'd come home with a bag of flounder or bunches of chervil and celeriac and indeed, Stephanie would tell us what to do, how to select it, store it, serve it. Usually successfully.

Fresh horseradish at MJ Mow Gourmet Potatoes

It has been my most treasured, most used cookbook (in a collection that borders on a thousand). But when the revised edition was released in 2004, I was stand-offish. Suspicious. This wasn't my book. Oh yes, there was talk of correction and re-testing, 12 new chapters and over 300 new recipes. But I didn't want to know. Even the divine new striped cover didn't tempt me. 

Someone gave me a copy for Christmas that year and it went onto the shelf. But I barely opened it, turning back to the familiar charms of my worn orange copy. What could this upstart contain that would bring me to turn my back on the 1996 edition?

Organic pineapples at Ripe the Organic Grocer
And then, one day last month, I needed some information about pineapples. And as I took the new edition off the shelf, pages stiffly clinging together, I found the reason to let go. There, on page 734 were the words
A revolution has taken place in the pineapple industry since this book was originally written. Until 1997 the overwhelming majority of pineapples produced in Australia were not sold fresh but were canned. The major varieties available were the golden-fleshed but rather dry rough leaf or "roughie" and in winter ... the smooth leaf or smooth cayenne ... All this changed in 1997, when the wonderfully sweet and juicy bethonga pineapple arrived in markets to the delight of consumers.

It was, I realised, time to let go. To love and appreciate my original copy for all it had taught me and for the affection behind its purchase but to move on, in the direction of new knowledge, new food and new friends. I am no longer a student, but on this market floor, I need to know about food revolutions, be they pineapple or otherwise.

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