ON HOW A MODEST CLAY POT-and a good woman converted a bachelor from the delights of dining out to the joy of home cooking:
Our first year together, Georgia kept saying "I can't understand why you never learned to cook. If you had your way, there'd be some wild new dish every night-hippopotamus lips under glass, kumquats jubilee. You love music, wine, the theater-it all goes together. How come you never cooked for yourself?"
As a longtime bachelor, the notion of cooking, even breakfast bacon and eggs, rarely intrigued me once I happened upon the joys of dining out. In the late Thirties I moved to Boston from my native Louisville, whose cuisine, aside from the superb aged beef of the Bourbon Stockyards, was an endless round of grits, molasses, and biscuits, and for Sunday dinner a boiled chicken, canned green peas, and mashed potatoes. Don't ever let anyone con you about "good old Southern home cooking"; except for New Orleans, which is more French-Creole than South, it's a laughable myth. My flight from Dixie may have been due to a subliminal urge to get away from that cooking. Also, there was little "live" jazz in Kentucky, and I had gone bug-eyed out of my mind over Benny Goodman.
My first week in Boston, I gravitated toward the local jazz crowd, all much older and wiser. They taught me that good food and wine go with music you love. After a Duke Ellington dance date, they took me to my first Chinese restaurant, Ruby Foo's near Symphony Hall, where a dozen of us shared scores of dishes. I was hooked. Next week they introduced me to the Old Union Oyster House, wallowing in soft-shell crab, fried clams, and huge-clawed lobsters. I then determined to erase the memory of a deprived culinary past by tasting everything God meant us to.
Then came the war (what Lenny Bruce called "the good War-the War Against Hitler"). Four years of army haute cuisine: unmentionable guck from massive kitchens that never saw wine, garlic, or olive oil. Daily I fantasized myself as a jaded voluptuary gorging on squab with wild rice under glass, washed down with a slightly chilled Auslese. I tortured myself reading of Ludwig Bemelmans' gustatory bouts in Parisian hotels.
The closest I ever came to civilized dining during the four terrible army years was in Dibrugarh, a Himalayan foothill town in Assam. Fleeing from an army mess (appropriate name) of uncommon squalor even by army standards, I flirted with a general court-martial nearly every night, AWOL-ing it to Kwan Yin's, a remote village restaurant run by twelve Chinese brothers. All the money saved for postwar college was lavished on steamed duck smothered in crisp hot greens, suckling pig with spiced baked apples encrusted in delicate cinnamon pastry, doused in an orange and brandy sauce. "When I get out of Uncle Whiskers," I thought, "it'll be this way every night."
The education guiltily squandered at Kwan Yin's was paid for by the G.l. Bill at a small college in Portland, Oregon. The fare at the common dining hall was so debased that I took to bringing a box of condiments to the table. The campus nutritionist warned me: "You're going to eat away the lining of your innards with all those hot spices," following a luncheon of boiled whitefish, watery cauliflower, macaroni salad and a dollop of lemon Jell-O for exotic color. The government's forty-eight dollars a month didn't allow for much dining out-especially in Portland, once described by Herb Caen as "a town where, if you go into a restaurant and order wine, they think you're a fruit."
So dining out stayed a dream deferred until I moved to San Francisco in the late Forties, when the City still boasted of countless nontourist down-home eateries-Chinese, German, French, Greek, and mainly Italian family-style, with groaning seven-course spreads including a carafe of gusty Grignolino and dark, pungent espresso with a twist of lemon peel-all for little more than the price of a first-run movie, in those days about $1.25. With this kind of dining out, who needed to cook?
Then restaurant prices began their Korean War climb, and the hunt for honest out-of-the-way havens was on. Once you found one, so did Herb Caen (in San Francisco, everybody reads him). Within weeks the owners of a once-convivial unknown spot would redecorate, expand, boost the prices, water the wine, skimp on the food. I started to cook, with less than Cordon Bleu results.
Then I met Georgia, who asked me why I didn't cook. To all the foregoing I could only add, "Why should I cook when you do it so well? It would be inhibiting to cook with you around." Georgia's a studying cook with an awesome library of James Beard, Louis deGouy and ten years' back issues of Gourmet that don't just sit there, she reads them. Couldn't see struggling my way through a sauce bearnaise with a jewel like Georgia in the kitchen.
Christmas shopping changed all this. I was seeking some kitchen marvel Georgia might not own and came across this rough-hewn, unglazed terra-cotta pot. "I never used one," said the clerk, "but one customer tells me it makes the juiciest chicken she ever tasted."
Wherefore, I wondered, is this different from all other pots? A pamphlet explained that, unlike the usual glazed casseroles, this pot, both top and bottom, was totally submerged in water for 10 minutes before cooking. The highly fired porous clay soaked up water like a sponge. When baked at high temperatures, 450 to 480 degrees, the steam commingled with the natural juices of the pot's contents to penetrate the innermost fibers of meats, fish, and vegetables. Weight watchers could cook without fat, oil, or butter. Fowl and beef cooked in this way had a unique texture, different from boiling, roasting, pressure cooking, rotisserie or microwave. They said it did wonders for seafood and corn on the cob. Best of all, the wet-clay pot manufactured its own sauce. When archeologists unearthed ancient Etruscan cities, this was the sort of cookware they found.
Intrigued, I bore my first unglazed pot home to Georgia. Having lived through my passions for photography and hi-fi with Le Sacre du Printemps at concert hall levels, she viewed my new enthusiasm with tolerant disdain.
"Honey-don't we have enough pots around here?"
"But this is different-you soak the pot in water ..."
"I know. You told me four times."
"But you always said I should cook. I want to try it."
That night I cooked my first chicken, laboring over the beast like some sweaty midwife, massaging her with salt and pepper, painting her with a brilliant mixture of paprika, oil, crushed garlic, and minced fresh rosemary. I added little white onions, chopped parsley, tiny new potatoes, carrots, mushrooms, grated Monterey Jack and white wine. Popping the water-soaked pot into a cold oven, I turned the thermostat to 480 degrees-and waited.
Soon the most delectable odor filled the house. Georgia's youngest, Grant, came bounding in from school: "What's for dinner? Smelled it all the way down the block!"
Ninety minutes later I grabbed asbestos gloves, removed the pot, opened the lid and poured the bubbling orange sauce into a hot pan. Georgia showed me how to thicken it with arrowroot. It was a smash. The bird had a plump, running-over succulence, the skin was golden brown, the carrots could have doubled as dessert. Even the mundane little new potatoes took on an exotic cast. But it was the sauce that did it. The juices that came pouring out of that pot-an intoxicating fusion of bird, wine, herbs, and roots-was something to serve at Maxim's in a Cellini bowl. Georgia became rhapsodic: "You were right! It is different-and absolutely marvelous!"
We cooked with the wet-clay pot every night, always experimenting and making new discoveries. Cheap, tough cuts of beef came out buttery tender as filet. Boneless rolled shoulder of lamb, one of the least costly of meats, was made to order for the pot. A miniature New England clambake with steaming shellfish, fresh corn, and potatoes lent itself to endless variations. And what happened to pork loin roast with little green apples was something of a miracle.
We bought two larger size pots to accommodate dinner guests who begged for seconds, gasping between gulps, "Grover-when did you learn to cook?"
Soon I was cooking every night-me, the confirmed eaterouter. It was so easy. No books to read, no mountains of pans to juggle. Just half an hour to fill the watered pot, stash it in the oven, walk the dogs, linger over a six-o'clock vermouth, and it was ready to serve from the pot.
Georgia adapted twenty years of creative cooking and recipe hunting to the new method, tempering my wilder caprices with gentle restraint: "I really don't think it's a good idea to mix green chartreuse in with the shallots." Some of my impulses she resisted with surprising vigor; it took six months to get her to try corned beef: "You have to simmer it gently for hours, or it'll be tough. Everything won't work in the pot and corned beef happens to be one of them." When the corned beef turned out great after two hours, Georgia was sold. She even suggested baking, inspired by Julian Street's essay on French bread: "There must be steam in the oven . . . . The following recipe will produce as good a loaf as it is possible to make in the ordinary American household range, with heat coming not evenly from all sides but from the bottom only." Of course it made perfect sense. The wet-clay pot was a natural French oven that turned out magnificent bread, moist, yet firm, plump and gorgeously browned. We started making everything in the pot but ice cream.
Writing a cookbook seemed as remote to me as dashing off an oratorio in the style of Handel, until we combed bookstores for new recipes-only to find a remarkable lack of guides to ancient Etruscan cooking. Aside from Romertopf's helpful though brief booklet, Cook in Clay, there was little in print.
Our gourmet friends proved no help. They had never even heard of this style of cooking. One couple gifted with a Romertopf pot for Christmas never took it out of the box: "We didn't know what to do with it." Georgia and I fed them our San Francisco clambake and they've cooked this way ever since. Friends began phoning for recipes. Georgia started nudging: "You're a writer, I'm a cook. When do we start?"
So this happy discovery of an experienced cook and an absolute beginner was something we wanted to share with others, whether master chefs like Georgia, or fumbling amateurs like me.
© 1974 All rights reserved. Published by Echo Point.