Picture it: Mount Wolf, PA. December 25, 2000. It's Christmas morning, and I'm sitting in front of the Christmas tree in my parents' living room. My parents, my brother, his wife, and I each have a stack of gifts to open, but there's one present that is serving as quite the distraction (to me anyway). It's a book. A big book. The French Laundry Cookbook. I opened all the other gifts first -- socks, clothing, a Cuisinart, a few CDs and DVDs, but I saved this special one 'til the end of the gift-opening extravaganza, because I'd been pining for it for over a year and knew that once I opened it, I wouldn't really pay much attention to anything else. Why?
In the weeks and months after The French Laundry Cookbook was released, I'd go to Borders and Barnes & Noble, take the only non-shrinkwrapped copy off the shelf, gently open the cover, and slowly turn the pages as I tried to imagine the lucky, lucky people who actually got to own this book. The lucky people who actually got to cook this food. The lucky people who actually got to eat this food.
See, it was 1999 and then 2000, and I was working in the technology sector right smack dab in the middle of the dot-com bust. I was working 16-hour days and although I was making a good salary, I'd just bought my first house, and had to stick to a tight budget because, like most of us working in the tech sector that year, I didn't know if my job would be there the next day. There was no extra money for splurges... and The French Laundry Cookbook was, begrudgingly, a splurge.
So, on that Christmas morning after we'd all opened the rest of our presents, I tore the wrapping paper off the book, curled up in a chair next to the fireplace, removed the plastic shrink wrap, inhaled the new-book smell of my brand new, very own copy of The French Laundry Cookbook, ignored everyone else (that's the Christmas spirit!), and began to read. I don't remember much else about that day. Couldn't tell you what we had for lunch. Don't remember if it snowed. Can't recall which relatives I saw that night. All I can remember is absorbing every word, and wishing I could eat every page. I swear I could smell the Creamy Maine Lobster Broth from just the photo alone.
When I went back home a few days later, I put the book on my coffee table in my cozy, little living room, and it warmed me all winter long. I'd come home from my job, beaten down from handling media calls, trying to reassure a nervous board of directors, and watching our stock price go into the toilet, and just imagine what eating dinner at The French Laundry must be like.
Those nights reading The French Laundry Cookbook and the full-on sensory engagement that ensued oddly enough transported me back to the many afternoons I spent sitting in the hall in second grade. Because I never could quite figure out that I should raise my hand to get called on instead of just shouting out the answer and being sarcastic about how awesome I was with all my knowledge, my teacher, Mrs. Hohenshilt, "punished" me by making me sit in the hall with a book. I almost always chose What's For Lunch, Charley? because there was a section in the book I loved to read over and over again. The book is about an elementary school-aged kid and the crush he has on the new girl, Rosabelle Ruggles. He watches her eat lunch every day, but one day, Rosabelle's lunch stands out in particular -- a thermos of tomato soup, a drumstick of fried chicken, a small jar of fruit salad, and a piece of chocolate layer cake... all spread out on a clean white cloth napkin.
When Charley forgot his lunchbox one day, he decided to slip out of school undetected and eat lunch at the very fancy King Charles Hotel. Charley walked by the hotel and its street-facing dining room every day, and he always wondered what it would be like to eat there. So, he did.
He could ask for a peanut butter sandwich, an apple, a cookie, and some milk. But that didn't seem like the right thing for lunch at the King Charles. Charley drew a breath and said, "Tomato soup, chicken leg, fruit salad, and chocolate cake." Then he added, "Please." He looked up at the waitress, wondering if he had ordered the right things. She nodded and scribbled something on her order pad. Then she winked at Charley and went away.
The book goes on to describe the crisp, white tablecloth, the place setting, his seat by the window, the cold, wet weather outside... and then the food begins to arrive, one course at a time. The tomato soup was piping hot, the chicken crisp and juicy, and I remember smiling and holding my throat when reading the part about how Charley could only eat one bite of the fruit salad until he was "full to the chin." So full, the waitress had to wrap his piece of chocolate cake in foil for him to take home.
When I read that book over and over again in the hallway of Mount Wolf Elementary School in 1975, I could taste the hot, sweet and salty tomato soup on my tongue. I could feel the heavy hotel silverware in my hands. I could imagine eating the crispy, seasoned fried chicken with my fingers and wondering if it was okay to do that in a fancy restaurant. I could taste the cool fruit salad, and I could smell the chocolate cake and feel the crinkled foil around it as I imagined carrying it in my hands.
I don't know if I ever thanked Mrs. Hohenshilt for her awesome form of punishment, but it opened my eyes to so many stories and dreams and ideas. And, best of all, just like we all have distinct food memories from our past, I feel so lucky to have a really significant food literature memory in What's For Lunch, Charley?, and had no idea how prominent and permanent it was until that Christmas morning in 2000 when I sat in my parents' living room, reading The French Laundry Cookbook. As I write this, both books are now sitting side-by-side (a few books down from Michael Ruhlman's Soul of a Chef) on the bookshelf in my office here at home. Seems fitting somehow.
So, fast-forward to today, at the end of what has been a most amazing ride. There's so much to say, much of which I've already said in private to those I've needed to say it to. But there are some things I think I want to say out loud.
While anyone who has ever read this blog knows I'm not exactly the most earnest and mushy of food writers (oh, for the bliss and the cheese and my soul and our love, and YOU HAVE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME WITH THAT), I fully appreciate the role great love letters have played in our literary and social history. Declarations of adoration written by hand, preserved on paper, shared, held, saved, remembered. When I was growing up, these kinds of notes were written with a blue Bic pen (with teeth marks on the cap) on blue-lined white notebook paper with the reddish-pink margin lines, sometimes with drawings in the margins, folded five or six times into a rectangle, and then slid through the vents of a locker in the school hallway. I imagine nearly everyone has or has had a secret stash. Some are tear-stained and looked at every few years. Others are shoved in a box in an attic. Others burned or thrown away when things went wrong. But the one thing they all had in common was that someone took the time to say some things they needed to say in as permanent a way as they knew how.
I appreciate love letters, I really do. But I've never really written one before. Well, maybe in high school, but I'm not sure "Holy crap, trigonometry is so boring and I have marching band practice tonight [nerd!] and I cannot WAIT to go to the prom with you!" is quite the same as what I want to say here, and now, in this very public place.
There's no paper, no ink, no drawings in the margins, no folding... just my fingers typing, and these words appearing for everyone to see. And, it's more of a thank-you note, I suppose, than a love letter, but the need to say it comes from the heart.
First, to Chef Keller:
Thank you for this book, and for your grace and kindness throughout this project.
Thank you for your leadership and your inspiration.
Thank you for your sense of humor, and for letting me express mine.
Thank you for providing a smart, focused, hard-driving example to those of us who want more out of life, and who want to better ourselves, push ourselves, in whatever way we can.
You didn't know you were doing this when you and your team at The French Laundry along with Michael Ruhlman and Susie Heller, and the wonderful people at Workman/Artisan developed, wrote, and released this book, but you published something I clicked with on a level I still find hard to describe. The stories, the order, the instruction, the complexities, the techniques, and the challenges were all things I felt in my bones every time I turned a page to start yet another dish. It was almost as if cooking finally made sense. You provided something that nearly ten years later enabled me to experience the most incredible, and often indescribable, sense of satisfaction and fulfillment. And after all these years of writing for other people, you allowed me a platform from which to speak in my own voice.
To all of you:
I started this blog because I was bored and unchallenged, a little annoyed, and maybe just a tad crazy. I honestly wasn't sure when I started it that I was going to stick with it, but I was hooked from the get-go and felt this strange yet familiar surge of adrenaline kick in when faced with something a little voice tells you you probably can't do.
Sure, there were more than a few bumps along the way, but I am so incredibly proud of what I was able to accomplish. I had no idea I could do this, and I'm so thankful for everyone who, when I met or corresponded with you over these past two years, were so supportive and gracious and kind and funny. It makes me hopeful to know that there are so many of you out there who appreciate good food and are willing to make the effort to try something outside your comfort zone every now and then.
I've been incredibly lucky these past two years. I've been able to meet some people I've admired from afar, and I've been given some amazing opportunities that continue to open doors I never could've imagined.
In addition to all that, what I honestly and truly love are the emails I get every day from people who write to say, "I called in sick to work because I wanted to make veal stock -- am I nuts?" [no] or "I didn't think I could do anything from this book, but I just tried the duck and it's amazing!" [I KNOW] or "You know what? I think I'm gonna try the salmon cornets!" [enjoy!] or "Hey, did you hear Bloomberg is going after a third term?!?" [swoony swoon swoon]
It makes me happy to know there are so many busy, hardworking people out there -- home cooks just like me -- who want to stretch their wings and spend all day cooking something special, and who don't want their food dumbed down. I love that we've been able to connect through this and other blogs. I also love that when you hear news about Michael Bloomberg, I'm the first person you think of. That's awesome.
While I am sad that this specific blog has come to an end, I am surprised at how good it feels to be able to say, "I cooked every dish in The French Laundry Cookbook."
So, thank you. All of you.
All my best,
p.s. Here's my forwarding address. I'm moving in next week.
Music to Say "Thank You" To: Sly and the Family Stone, of course.