6 December 2011
Until the other day, I had never looked at a recipe for garlic bread. It had not occurred to me that garlic bread might be something that I ought to learn how to make. I thought that I already knew. I made it the way they made it at the bar nearest campus on Notre Dame Avenue. Not Louie’s, but somebody-else’s; when I went back to law school, it had been renamed, cynically, The Library. I think. Neither here nor there. That’s where I was first exposed to garlic bread. It was obvious that all you did, to make this garlic bread, was slice a loaf of Italian bread into rounds and then spread garlic butter on one side of each (with, maybe, a dusting of parmesan). A few minutes’ toasting in the oven, and voilà: garlic bread. I didn’t make it often, but I made it for years, despite the fact that it was never really satisfactory.
The other day, I was leafing through Gourmet’s Quick Kitchen, a compendium of recipes for two, for the umpteenth time, looking for inspiration. What I found instead were recipes that I’d tried once, years ago, and not particularly cared for. I ought to know this book, and its equally invaluable companion, In Short Order, by heart, but then cooking is something that I do on the side. Quick Kitchen is the fancier of the two by a hair. It begins with a suite of menus with aspirational titles such as “Lunch By the Fire” and “A Hearty Bachelor’s Dinner” (shouldn’t that be bachelors’?). My eye was drawn to the “Carefree Pasta Lunch.” Because what I wanted to make, the minute I saw it, was carefree. Carefree with a side of pasta sounds like heaven.
But of course pasta is the main event here — Pasta with Prosciutto, Peppers, and Herbs — and what’s on the side is garlic bread. With the idlest curiosity, I looked over the instructions for garlic bread. At some point — it was very quick — idle curiosity was replaced by sense memory. This is how they make garlic bread at Caffè Grazie! The garlic bread that we order the second we sit down, and can never get enough of.
(Caffè Grazie is a pleasant Italian restaurant in a brownstone on East 84th Street, just a few steps from the Museum. Kathleen and I like to eat there after concerts or previews. As long as we’re on the subject, their tiramisù is very much to my taste. They make a veal tortellini dish that is so earthy that I almost gagged the first time I had it, but I couldn’t help myself ordering it again and again. )
Forget slicing the loaf as if you were making sandwiches. Slice the loaf in half the other way, lengthwise, and then cut off six-inch sections. Combine butter, minced garlic, salt and paprika to taste. Spread the butter on the bread and toast it in the oven for about three minutes. Voilà: much better garlic bread.
This is the sort of thing that drives me (quietly) crazy: learning how to do things well at my age. What on earth took so long? A big part of the problem, of course, is that, like the scamps in Molière’s satire, Les Précieuses ridicules, I was born knowing everything that there is to know, and it has taken decades to cure this affliction. But there’s also a social factor. In our world, you’re expected to learn how to do things that will earn income. (There’s really not much to this, if you’re inclined to pay attention and do as you’re told.) If you’re ambitious, you may develop a sought-after expertise in some field or other. But no one expects you to be an expert at living your own life. Beyond table manners and basic hygiene, you’re not taught anything about how to live your life. I’m not talking about higher purposes here, obviously. I’m talking about getting through the day with dispatch and satisfaction.
Daily life has a million moving parts, so getting it right isn’t going to be easy. How do you balance your interest in reading, with a nice glass or two of wine, with the need to be rested? Where do you get the discipline — the courage, even — to do things that feel all wrong, like exercise and diets? Like struggling with Bayes’s Theorem on page 32 of Statistics in a Nutshell? “Don’t sweat the small stuff” is the sort of rule that you can put into practice only if you have a chauffeur. The small stuff — there is no end of it — requires some amount of sweat, or at least concern. How much is too much?
The answer is different for everyone. All the answers are, and all the questions. That’s why self-help books don’t work. A truly useful self-help book would have one, and only one, reader.
For the moment, I’m happy with garlic bread.