Danville's Rakestraw to host talk by Chez Panisse's
renowned chef Peternell
By Lou Fancher
Especially during the winter holidays, food is an expression of love.
Bursting from pickled herring in cream sauce or chocolate crinkle cookies dusted with confectioners sugar; melted in thickish garlic toast sprinkled with salted tomatoes or chanterelle mushrooms sauteed with parsley; brightly expressed in a shaved salad of colorful root vegetables made exotic with a spritz of lime and ginger -- love speaks. We toss out our inner cynicism (and our diets) and eat joyfully.
Must we cut that cross-generational, cross-cultural bond -- the urge to nurture family, friends and ourselves with food -- simply because the calendar turns to a new year or a child returns to college after winter break?
Chez Panisse chef Cal Peternell's memoir-turned-cookbook, "Twelve Recipes," grabs the most intimate culinary moments -- parent and child cooking together -- and answers, "Never." Cooking and sharing family meals isn't seasonal, and it's easy, the Berkeley-based father of three sons posits. Food bridges wide geographic divides, solidifies our ancestral roots, and, if nothing else, it sustains connections.
Peternell is scheduled to speak and answer questions about "Twelve Recipes" at Rakestraw Books in Danville at 7 p.m. Thursday.
"I think so many of us who love to cook find it creative and relaxing and a language in which we can communicate our love for our family and friends," Rakestraw owner Michael Barnardsaid. "When trying to spread that joy, it's a great help to have a book and a writer that start with that premise."
Barnard said food talks are the store's most popular events; so much so that Rakestraw's is considering a community cookbook of it's own.
"We will solicit recipes from customers, authors and chefs who've visited the shop," Barnard said.
Peternell began writing his book at a definitely not-fun, pressure-filled moment. Minutes from opening the restaurant for the day, his eldest son, Henderson, called with a question about which meat to use in a favorite recipe. Peternell realized something all parents learn: we've told our kids "x, y, z," but we've never written it down. What if Henderson, or his brothers, Milo and Liam, called for an emergency recipe strategy when Peternell or his wife, Kathleen Henderson, were unavailable?
It's a chef's prerogative to have such worries, and so, Peternell began writing about toast, eggs, beans, soup, pasta, sauces, starches, meat, vegetables and cake, the simple foods featured in his 304-page book. Originally planning that the collection of recipes would be like a private, family love letter, Peternell discovered a glorious connection to his childhood and an impulse to share on a broader scale.
"I loved the fact that Henderson was reaching out to me," Peternell said. "But as it spun out into a larger project, I had the space to use food to access my memories. I think of what a gift that was -- the (narrative) framework was natural."
Thinking about cauliflower reminded him of funny mashed potatoes stories his father-in-law had told him; pondering chanterelle mushrooms left him grateful for his family's treasured foraging expeditions; contemplating toast stirred memories of the scent of his grandmother's potato bread; poultry provoked images of the turkeys he once cared for on his parent's small New Jersey farm.
"They were a chore at the time," Peternell said, "but it gave me background in the work it took to raise animals and potential conflicts in eating them."
The Peternell-Henderson family are visual artists, and the book features watercolor paintings by his sons and exquisite line art by Henderson. Peternell said the illustrations are an extension of a family tradition beyond cooking together.
"When we wait at restaurants with table paper, we grab the crayons and draw the food on the table, the glasses, olives, fruit," he said.
At home, there are no screens allowed at family meals, just savory food -- often a dish they've prepared countless times, the best way to learn and improve as a cook, according to Peternell.
From Brooklyn, where he lives while attending art school, Henderson said he learned to pay attention and have intention while cooking with his dad. Meals are "as important as a dinner party" and he thinks of his days as time "divided beautifully between meals." His father won't call cooking spiritual, but Henderson insists that cooking his own food is a deep, emotional, fulfilling, and ultimately, easy activity.
"Eating is culture, it's what we all do, and it should be good, really good," he said.