The Old Booksmith


You mustn't think it odd that a website dedicated to books and the things one finds in books should also have a section on the subject of comestibles. Some interests simply parallel other interests. Maybe they share the same sector of the brain. It's a well-known fact, for instance, that most serious book collectors are also serious students of wine. And the majority of the librarians and archivists I have worked with over the years have turned out to be talented amateur cooks and dedicated explorers of new restaurants.

When I travel, whether to a professional conference or just on a vacation, if I'm in a city with a notable library, I make a point of finding the time for a visit. (Virtually all librarians I have ever known do this.) And I discovered long ago that if you ask a colleague with whom you've been talking shop at the reference desk where one might find the best, say, Northern Italian cuisine in town — or reliable Tex-Mex, or whatever — said colleague will think for a moment and then rattle off two or three possibilities, with caveats and qualifiers and menu recommendations.

So I'm convinced that good food — not expensive, just good — is a subject of interest to most people who also are interested in books, reading, and writing. (I'm not so sure about genealogy. I know a lot of genealogists who simply make do with the McDonald's nearest the cemetery. . . .)

I'm the first to admit I'm not a natural cook. My mother was an excellent cook of the "Indiana country home cooking" variety — having learned from her mother, who was even more skilled in the kitchen — so I never had to think twice about anything that was served. And when we were stationed in Europe during the 1950s (my father was a career army officer), she quickly learned about garlic and olive oil and filo and pesto and various other topics which, at that time, were still pretty exotic in Indiana.

However, my father had a sort of list of "life skills" that he expected us kids to learn before we graduated from the family. These included driving a stick-shift, changing a tire, firing a revolver without blowing a hole in yourself, and being able to cook sufficiently that you wouldn't starve — or embarrass yourself with a date, either. In reality, this meant being able to fry or scramble an egg, cook spaghetti sauce with ground meat or sausage, make a tossed salad, fry or grill a steak, and bake a potato.

So off I went into the world, and I married a woman who also was a very good cook, this time of the "Texas country home cooking" variety. I still didn't do much cooking, except when I wanted something she wasn't a fan of and hence didn't care to fix, like chili. I learned to do a pretty good lasagna, too.

Regretably, however, she and I parted company after several decades and I lived alone in an apartment for a few years. And you can't eat out all the time, even if you can afford to. So I took a deep breath, opened the Betty Crocker cookbook I had inherited from my mother (with all her notes and magazine clippings attached with paperclips), and began learning to feed myself.

I've remarried, and my present wife, while a good enough cook, is a professional with a career, not a full-time homemaker. Besides, she went through all that when her own kids were young. In the past decade and a half, I've learned to break eggs without having to pick out bits of shell, to disassemble a chicken, and to make pasta e fagiole and baked beans and a lot of other things. With my regular dishes, I no longer measure out ingredients, I just eyeball it.

But, being a librarian, I still write down recipes. What you will find here aren't in any particular order, though I have divided them into rough categories. (You'll notice I didn't bother with Dewey Decimal numbers. . . .) When I don't know what what I feel like fixing, I open my recipe box and browse until something lights up my salivary glands. That's what I recommend you do here. Most of these recipes started out in a more basic form, taken from my mother's note cards, or from a book (I read a lot of cookbooks), or from a friend, or found online, or whatever. I've modified many of them, however, and I've included comments along with the ingredients and instructions. Bon apetit!

I've also been mulling recently on the subject of "comfort food," a term that means different things to different people. So I've written an Essay on Comfort Food, with annotated recipes, describing what my stomach finds comforting and why.

I'm also an inveterate restaurant explorer. I love to try new eating places (a trait I inherited from my mother), especially ethnic restaurants. And I enjoy working my way through the menus at my regular spots. I'm not a snob about dining, though. I'm as likely to eat at Chili's (which is actually pretty good — no, really) or Jack-in-the-Box (curly fries!) as I am at one of the many good seafood places in Baton Rouge. It depends on whether I'm alone or with my wife, whether it's for a quick lunch or a leisurely evening out — and simply whatever I'm in the mood for.

I love Italian and Mexican. I like German and Viennese, too, but they're hard to find in this part of the country. (For some reason, Baton Rouge seems to be full of Lebanese restaurants, but my taste buds just don't bend that way.) And, of course, I enjoy Cajun and some Creole — which are not at all the same thing, you understand. Except that I have never liked shellfish other than shrimp, so I stick to fish and shrimp and chicken and pork. No mudbugs for me, thank you. (And oysters and clams are quite beyond discussion.) And, just as I almost always write reviews of the books I read, I write highly personal reviews of the restaurants I eat at.

And here they are.

These reviews are the result not only of my explorations in south Louisiana, but also of my eating adventures back in Dallas, and in San Antonio, where I grew up, and on my regular travels around the country. Which means they aren't organized or terribly systematic, they're just the places I happen to have visited — often only once or twice, but I have to base my opinion on my own experience when I was there.

You know, I wonder if restauranteurs really understand that a single bad night, when the chef has dyspepsia and your waitress had a fight with her boyfriend, can linger in a diner's memory for years: "Well, I'll certainly never eat there again!"

As I say, I think about food a lot — in a good way, that is — and I watch how they do things in my favorite eating places. As a partial result, here are my Short Order Thoughts.