Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Little Black Book

I’ll bet you have one of these tucked away somewhere safe; in your bag, by the nightstand, or perhaps if it’s small (and you’re busy enough?) in your back pocket…

So, whatcha got? Deep thoughts, song lyrics, sordid details of steamy encounters annotated with a star rating system? Lucky. Me, I’ve got grocery lists and doodles of dishes I daydream about…oh, and ancient Chinese secrets. (More on that in a bit.)

I’ve been lucky (or crazy?) enough to have spent a little bit of time working in a kitchen, and almost every cook I’ve met so far has had one of these squirreled away close by, ready to bust out at any moment for quick reference and inspiration. Filled with notes, recipes and prep lists, often the poor things (the book, that is, but then again…) are sad looking creatures, a bit yellowed and dog-eared, perhaps with a few pages stuck together with miscellaneous food bits.

mmm, crunchy green curry…

So, um, what's all the fuss about? If you’re one of the brave (or again, crazy) working in a kitchen, I guess it’s all a matter of perspective.

Number of hours a day spent smelling like fryer oil and onions…ooh, lost count…is it after midnight already?

Amount of humiliation and friendly heckling tolerated in the name of producing a killer glaze/puff dough/(insert particular food nemesis here)…I’d say just a hair under the exact amount necessary to bring on a full hippy freak out.

The number of pounds shed (or gained, stupid pastry/cheese station) worrying that today’s gonna be
your special day where no amount of hustling seems to help, and you’re doomed to be in the weeds and therefore the focus of chef’s increasingly hairy eyeball…oh boy, I can’t even answer that without first scarfing back a chocolate tart.

Which leads us to: The value of a(n often secret) recipe, gleaned from the toil of your labours, honourably bestowed upon you by your mentors and peers as they saw fit, bequeathed, as it were, by the very grace of the kitchen gods…

I am a thief. I “borrowed” this recipe from a fellow cook and never gave it back. (Sorry, M!)

Ok, so that was a tad melodramatic, but seriously, we do love us a good notebook. Oh, the stories they tell.

I’ve gone through a few, but my trusty moleskin is by far my favourite. Not only does it have a super romantic history behind it - Matisse, Hemingway and the lovely, if fictional, character of Amelie are just a few of its patrons - but it comes with a pocket in the back! I love pockets, especially since I am the queen of collecting recipes/lists/bus transfers, in that order.

And they’re good for stashing away dessert menus too.

Just thought I’d share some of my more legible scribblings…otherwise known as the result of nagging my mom
for an entire month for those tasty and totally elusive Chinese soup recipes she so casually busts out now and again.

It’s a comical, if difficult, situation really. I’ve grown up slurping back secret tonics – “good for hair”… "to make skin smooth”… "for immortality”, you know – and until quite recently, haven’t been able to describe them with any justice. Somehow “the one that smells like sweet porky-ness, with the white bark bits and red raisin things” does not a delicious description make.

So I finally got the scoop and drew everything out, with really poor phonetic translations to boot. Thanks mom!

And that is what’s in my little black book. Now the
red one, on the other hand…


  1. brilliant!
    oh my flo-erlah...how i've missed you...reading your piece on the mystic and elusive moleskin brought a genuine smile to my heart that i so greatly needed today. (Thank you).
    I knew i've missed the kitchen, but reading this reminded me just how much, even the garlic/onion fryer grime hides, lingering, showers after..hehe...
    Reading your blog brought back memories...that tight hearted excitement of finishing our first night, week, month in the alleyway...our first beers to show for it all...i lived my life with no regrets that year, and i'm still so honoured to have done it with you at my side.
    love you!
    your (next) biggest fan.

  2. Gosh, Dagger, you've got me blushing! Remember when we found out we finally got a day off and I was so excited that I dropped/trashed the big scale (oops!)? Hee hee, we were such frantic nuts then! Thanks so much for your lovely note; you're the bestest!
    xo, f :)

  3. i'm inspired!

    i have a soft spot for moleskines and have been taking class notes in them exclusively for the last few years...

    and my mum has her share of secret chinese soups etc, so i should go pick her brain now.

    thanks for sharing!

  4. Yes, it's very frustrating how elusive Chinese moms are when teaching you how to cook. A pinch here, a dash there...I've tried transcribing notes whenever my mom teaches me something new, but I can never get correct measurements. Glad to know I'm not alone!

  5. that's great! mum hasn't shared any 'secrets', in fact, i'm quite an idiot when it comes to Chinese cuisine which is v sad. intend to change that. thanks for sharing. love that black book of yours x

  6. What a treat to have all of your wonderful comments! (I have to admit, I'm still in shock that anyone other than my mom knows about this newbie little site...)

    lindsay: I too have quite the collection at home; they seem to get better with age, I think.

    appetiteforchina: And isn't it funny how some cooking words just don't translate into english? It's a great laugh to read in my notes, cook until "sook"...what does that even mean, really? :)

    diva: Yes, I figured it was about time to ask the useful questions, lest I'm faced with a bag of wolfberries/wood ear mushrooms/dried oysters and have no idea what to do with them! It's a slow but steady process... :)

    Thanks again for your comments; I'd love to hear if anyone else has some "secret" mom recipes to share!

  7. ha ha! funny you should mention Ancient Chinese Secret recipes. I thought I had better organize my maternal grandmother's recipes so I put them all on my blog for posterity! They're my legacy for my kids! On the blog, I was able to sometimes get pictures attached to the recipes. I just love your little drawings and your moleskin notebook. Too bad I don't draw as well as you do because that's way more tactile!

  8. cakebrain: Thanks...the doodles were the best way I could think of to help me remember all the ingredients. I'm so happy to see your recipes; the "family soups" are definitely a legacy to preserve and cherish!