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The joy of cooking
By Christopher Corbett
e began to suspect that some-
thing vas wrong with the boeuf
bourguignon about midafter-
noon of the evening it was to be served. It
smelled good, simmering away in its juices
and a couple of bottles of red wine. The
house was filled with its rich aroma. Em-
phasis on rich.
"Don't use cheap wine," the experts had
cautioned. "This dish cries out for your best
Burgundy— the better the wine, the better
the stew!" Thus spake The New Basics Cook-
Our fete was like many an ill-fated fete—
largely an obligation. A remembrance of
fetes past and past due. We didn't want
to appear cheap. So a couple of insane-
ly marked-up bottles of Gamay went into
the pot. No boeuf bourguignon of ours
was going to stew with Ernest and Julio.
No, no, no.
Planning for our little fete had begun
many days ahead. NIy wife does not cook
very often, but when she does ... Brillat-
Savarin meet Cecil B. DeMille. Her ef-
forts are of a scope and complexity
normally reserved for state dinners. A pe-
riod of intense study like Grad Rec review
takes place. (If there were a Stanley J. Ka-
plan cooking refresher course, she would
have enrolled.) The complete works of Ju-
lia Child, M.F.K. Fisher, Louisette
Bertholle, Simone Beck and Alice B. Tok-
las are perused.
I am dispatched to exotic victualries and
remote gourmet shops to procure the
essence of rare herbs and spices, an extra,
extra, extra, extra virgin olive oil from the
Peloponnesus or a root of a plant indigenous
only to the Maldive Islands. Extra miles on
the car and price are no object.
As actual cooking time draws near, my
r ife dons a white chef's smock and swathes
her head in a bandanna— a sartorial style
combining Jacques Pepin and Aunt Jemi-
ma. Home entertaining triggers a complete
personality change, as well. Normally, my
wife is Ann Taylor. Home entertaining
transforms her into Lucille Ball on Ben-
The problem is, she seeks perfection.
(Personally, I prefer the imperfect. The ones
who fill a chipped children's cereal bowl
with hummus or salsa and set it on the cof-
The metaphysical side of home enter-
taining is that it forces one to examine one's
life in a terrible way. And a dark night of the
soul it is. Do I have the right things? Will
anyone notice that I have the right things?
What are the right things? Have I become
my aunt Francelia? Why didn't I paint over
that ceiling stain? ...
Meanwhile, back to our boeuf, which we
discovered could not be penetrated with
knife or fork or sharpened implements.
We extracted the boeuf from the pot and
placed it on the cutting board. I placed it in
a modified half-nelson, a useful wrestling
hold, while my wife made repeated attempts
to saw into it with a variety of cutlery. She
was largely unsuccessful, but that may have
been because she was weeping hysterically.
"Maybe it's crying out for another bottle
of our best Burgundy," I suggested.
We threw it back into the pot. And
doused it with another flagon. An hour lat-
er, we hauled the boeuf out again and at-
tempted to cut into it. It seemed actually
Plan B. The hour was drawing late, as the
French say. We were operating in a state
of culinary triage, a netherworld between
Uncle Lee's Szechuan takeout and Piz-
It vas decided that our boeuf had to
be humanely destroyed and replaced by
an alternative entrée. There was no
choice, no time to waste. My wife en-
tered into frantic telephone consultations
with other soignée hostesses. The scene
in our kitchen, was, alas, now closer to
Martha Raye than Martha Stewart. Such
things do not happen to Lee Bailey, or
Lucky Pierre Franey. Or to those glow-
ing gals on the cover of The Silver Palate.
With less than 60 minutes remaining
on the clock, we purchased the most ex-
pensive beef tenderloin available. By my
calculations, we had now spent a sum which
would have easily fed our dozen diners at
the Whitney and tipped the staff grandly.
But at least we had paid back our guests.
And that is, after all, the raison d'etre for
home entertaining. Settling the score. Hold-
ing up your end of things. Yes, the real plea-
sure in completing the culinary equivalent
of the Bataan Death March is not the joy of
cooking but the joy of knowing that now,
it's someone else's turn. I
Christopher Corbett teaches jounialism at the University of
illagland Baltimore County.