I go through a terrifying number of cookbooks.
I don’t know when this started, because I remember a time not too long ago, when I used to think of non-fiction as That Section Of The Library Which Takes Up Too Much Potential Fiction And Graphic Novels Space. Yet if I browse through my library account’s “recently returned” widget, I find that non-fiction is pretty much all I’ve been borrowing for well over a year now. Not all of it is cookbooks, I admit, but pretty much all of it relates to food: growing it, cooking it, canning it, the politics of it. A lot of these I check out because of suggestions by blogs. Some I happen on while looking for something else on the shelves. Other times — and I realize this is a little shameful but I do endeavour to be truthful — I borrow the books purely out of spite.
Gwyneth Paltrow’s My Father’s Daughter falls into that last category. I have a strong dislike for Ms Paltrow that I do not understand in the least. (She plays Pepper Potts! She’s appeared on Glee! She likes cooking, real food, and seems to dabble in pretty much everything, just for fun!) I’m not going to pretend to have a good reason; let’s just chalk it up to jealousy or something, and move on. I’m not a Gwyneth fan.
Naturally, when her cookbook came out, there was all this hype around it, with many a food-blogger gushing over how they were afraid her book would suck, but zOMG, people, it totally doesn’t!, and insert a lot of eye-rolling on my part here. I ignored the posts, and the book faded into the background, out-shinied by the myriad new cookbooks that some of those very same food bloggers were themselves publishing. (I’m not trying to be disparaging: I think it’s awesome that people who clearly love food so much create books that express that passion. I just get a little overwhelmed sometimes by how many are out there. How can anyone keep up?)
At some point, I decided that I should give it an honest shot. Possibly I was hoping (finally!) for a concrete reason to dislike The Gwyneth. I’m not sure. My motivation there remains murky. What I can tell you is that when I test-drove her book, I found her recipes for the most part to be a) Stuff I would actually cook, and b) Reasonably reliable. The food bloggers don’t lie: her book doesn’t suck. And yet… something still irked me. What could it be? Not the recipes themselves, right?
The first one I tried was the chicken and dumplings, and let me tell you: it reminded me (yet again!) how much I hate frying chicken. Oh, I know: I’m not supposed to fry the chicken! But the recipe says to “brown them thoroughly”. In my world, that = frying. Seriously, is it even possible to do that without covering the entire stovetop and adjacent counter with spattered grease? I wasn’t frying on a griddle here; this was going on in a fairly deep Dutch oven. Ugh. I can feel myself developing acne just thinking about it. Yuck.
Anyway, the bitching aside, it was totally delicious. A mite salty (although I blame my overzealous seasoning for that), but wicked tasty. Definitely a “make again”, once I give myself some time to get over the whole chicken-frying thing.
Next, because I felt the need to try something a little lighter, the corn chowder. As soups go, this was completely straight-forward and again delicious. I found myself irritated by the end of the recipe, however, by Gwyneth’s incessant pseudo-veggie over-specifications. And here, I think, is where we get to the crux of what bothers me about this book.
Early on in the book, Gwyneth explains where she stands on the homemade meal, feeding her family and how she went from a hardcore macrobiotic diet to her current balance (which includes poultry and seafood, but no red meat). Now, I am not about to tell anyone how they should or should not eat; there’s nothing that pisses me off more than someone else expecting me to subscribe to their dogma about [anything], so it follows that I don’t foist my own dogma on others. What and why you eat the way you do is your business (and you can feel free to tell me so if I forget). Gwyneth, however, seems to feel the need to justify her eating choices which, given how hotly-debated the question of meat-eating can be and what with her being a celebrity and all, I guess I can understand. What I can’t understand, however, is the logic she chooses to back up her choice. She argues that although she now eats poultry, she always makes sure to source only organic, pasture-raised birds to ensure that the animals were treated as well as possible. She goes on to explain that in her youth she’d toured a meat processing plant (I think it was cows, but I can’t remember) and since then, will never eat red meat again.
If you can source a chicken that’s been raised to your standards for dinner, what’s stopping you from sourcing organic, pasture-raised beef? (Or lamb, or pork, or… you get the idea.) This is such a minor thing — just one page in the introductory spiel to her book — but it’s something that nagged at me through every recipe. After that intro, Gwyneth goes on to discuss a couple recurring ingredients in the book, highlighting that for bacon she uses turkey bacon, for sausage, she prefers chicken-apple (or similar), for mayonnaise, she actually prefers vegenaise (whatever that is), and on and on.
That’s fine. If I were similarly inclined to avoid red meats, I would really appreciate the section on common substitutes. What drove me up the wall was that in every recipe she continued to spell out her substitutions (“2 slices of turkey bacon”) in the ingredient lists, but also offering the helpful note that if desired, we could “feel free to use pork bacon” too. You think?! Believe it or not, I am well aware that “turkey bacon” is, in fact, merely a substitute for the real-red-meat-deal. If you’ve already explained all your substitutions in an earlier chapter, please spare us the pedantic listing of tablespoons of vegenaise or “100% Pure Vermont maple syrup”. (That last one just made me roll my eyes. You really want to talk maple syrup Gwyneth? Tell Vermont to bring its A-game.)
Basically, I felt that every recipe’s ingredient list was talking down to me, the way a fussy spinster aunt might. It’s a shame, really, because for the most part, the recipes were good: fresh, clean mixes of flavours that let one or two star ingredients really shine. (The garlic potato strata thing was fantastic!) Gwyneth covers the basics (how to make various stocks, how to steam rice, a whole host of mains, sides and desserts*) and I would actually consider this a great book for someone who wasn’t really sure where to get started with cooking. Well, I would if I didn’t enrage me every time I read through a recipe, that is.
* I have to put in a caveat here for the desserts. Gwyneth, in an effort to bake healthful treats for her children, kind of misses the boat on the dessert front, in my opinion. They’re not terrible, but they’re nothing special. They definitely taste “healthy”, despite what she writes. So while I do recommend all her savoury stuff without reservation, approach the desserts with more skepticism.
So what have we learned?
- All in all, My Father’s Daughter is a pretty good cookbook. If you can get past the preachy ingredients and the mehn desserts, it is page after page of tasty, sensible, (mostly) healthy food.
- I finally have a reason to dislike Gwyneth. Girlfriend just can’t leave well enough alone on the justifications. Just let us cook, already.