The Cook by Harry Kressing

This weekend I finally fulfilled a long-time dream and re-read The Cook by Harry Kressing. For anyone who loves cooking or who is interested in psychology and sinister plots, I highly recommend this book. For anyone who has worked in the service industry, catering for the excessively rich and snobby, this book is a delightful fantasy where the clever and hard-working cook turns the tables and soon has the boss for his butler. All the little details about cooking, the kitchen, the cookbooks (even a cookbook for cats!), the hunting and the shopping give a wonderful glimpse into what running an old manor kitchen might have been like. In this age of gluten-free and allergies for every imaginable food, The Cook also offers a parallel with every character’s special needs being catered to with the ease and flourish of a very accomplished chef. It is one of those books you just can’t put down, but with its 244 pages it is a quick read. You can’t truly call yourself a foodie if you haven’t read The Cook.

The first time I read this book I was just entering culinary school in 1997. Going to the Culinary Institute of America had been a dream of mine for quite some time, and when I actually found myself on my way there I was terribly nervous. In fact, I was so nervous I convinced myself I had malaria and wouldn’t be able to go at all. My folks gave me some hard-core anti-malarial medication and sent me on my way.

After graduating college in and working the summer at a remote Boy Scout camp, I soon discovered having a bachelors degree only worked against me for trying to get a job. A friend in Eugene Oregon let me crash on her couch for a while, but that soon wore thin and before I knew it I was back in LA staying on the couch in some people’s home that I didn’t even know. Fortunately, my folks came through with a ticket back to PNG for a combined birthday-Christmas present before I started Culinary school in January the next year. This was my last long-ish stint in Papua New Guinea–a two month period–and during that time I learned how to make bilums–the indigenous all-purpose market bag, and read a lot of Carl Jung’s work on symbols.

My trip from Papua New Guinea to Hyde Park New York was a 3-4 day mission. Beginning in Mt. Hagen, I got a plane to Port Moresby the capital of Papua New Guinea, from there I had a flight to Cairns, Australia, where I stayed overnight in a Youth Hostel. Or I was meant to. I got completely hammered that night and never made it home–in fact, I nearly didn’t make the flight the next day to New York, and even seriously considered marrying a local guy just to avoid going to culinary school. In retrospect I wish I had listened to my instincts, I could have saved myself a lot of money and a lot of grief as I found the Culinary Institute of America not to match up to it’s reputation in the slightest. I should have just done an apprenticeship, I would have learned a lot more! But some lessons you have to learn the hard way, so I can’t say I really regret any of it.

Arriving in New York, I was fortunate to have a good friend (my current partner-who would have guessed at the time!) come and pick me up from JFK with his dad. His dad was amazing (his Mom was in Holland at the time so I didn’t meet her until much later), I stayed a couple days with them in the suburbs of New York and then they drove me all the way up to Hyde Park to drop me off at the CIA. I guess my friend’s dad must have realised how nervous I was to be starting culinary school in the middle of a harsh New York winter–being brought up 5 degrees from the equator this was a huge change for me–and gave me his copy of The Cook by Harry Kressing. This book got me through the first couple of days of the terror of a new school. I promptly loaned it to a friend and never saw it again until this last weekend.

Well all of this to say if ever anyone wanted to read only one book about cooking, I would say this one would be the one I would recommend. I also think that this book also highlights again my favorite quote from the Shaker Manifesto:

No doubt but some of our bad legislation may be attributed to indigestible hotel breakfasts, and the burdens of sorrow produced by social disturbances have no more prolific contributor than the disordered stomach which produces disordered minds.

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