In learning to cook over the last five years, I’ve come to think of cookbook authors as living presences, personalities residing between the covers of the books stacked at one end of my kitchen counter. Long periods pass when I’m faithful to one and only one: to Alice Waters, for example, as I cooked my way through her first few books. I started with Chez Panisse Vegetables, as good an education in food as I can imagine: Every weekend, at the farmers’ markets, I had a list of vegetables to find, and specific instructions on what to look for. When I got home, and planned my week, I had a well-drawn map to a new series of lessons. But I didn’t feel that I met Alice herself—an actual personality, present in the text of every single recipe—until I’d cooked each dish in Vegetables and started in with the Chez Panisse Café Cookbook. Of all of her texts, except perhaps the most recent one, called The Art of Simple Food, the Café book expresses a fully blossomed and highly personal vision of what California-French-Italian food ought to be. It positively radiates personality and, to my mind, is the essential Waters text—the way On the Road is the essential Kerouac (although The Dharma Bums is the better novel, the more satisfying work of art). But as I flipped through the Café book last night, looking for a recipe I repeat often—garlicky kale—I was struck by another analogy. The Chez Panisse Café Cookbook offers very much the same niche in contemporary West Coast cuisine that the Jimi Hendrix Experience occupies in rock-and-roll. Both are so foundational, and laid out so many gestures that have since become threads in the very fabric of our culture, that they can seem unsurprising upon a backward glance. With Hendrix, all you have to do to put things in perspective is play “Purple Haze” against some early Beach Boys; I am a huge Brian Wilson fan, but the contrast is so profound that you feel immediately how much Hendrix was a voice of the future. Ditto for Alice: “Do I really need a recipe for Baked Goat Cheese with Garden Lettuces?” one might reasonably ask oneself. Well, depends on when you’re asking the question.

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