I like to eat. Most of you do, too, I’m fairly sure, because I’ve seen you all doing it out at restaurants and in front of, behind, or under food trucks, and I daresay you looked quite pleased with yourselves. But due to the finite geometry of intestines and other guts, as well as the unwelcome but omnipresent consideration of “not running out of money,” it is unwise for most of us to spend an inordinate amount of time dining out or ordering in.
Therefore, we have no choice but to cook. I like to cook. But unless you are gifted with a preternatural skill for the combination and proportioning and preparation of a wide range of ingredients, you are, like the scholars of old, forced to turn to the texts for counsel. The texts?!
[Shuddering.] Cookbooks. Ugh.
Unfortunately, I have found that cookbooks are, like most other books, unabashedly boring and tedious. For one thing, few things on Earth are less authentic than a collection of recipes. Attaching a narrative to a prescription for the number of eggs I am to procure at my local mega mart is a functionally DOA concept that publishers inexplicably continue to endorse. I do not find it fascinating that Trisha Yearwood’s grandmother loved brownies in the 1920s. I didn’t know the woman; her favorite meals from the time before Hitler are no concern of mine.
While the advent of the internet has surely spared us some of the more transparent money-grabs that could have been (Glenn Beck’s Common-Sense Cooking, anyone?), still each year we are inundated with 250 More Recipes You Just Have to Try Before Your Untimely Demise and A Very Not Racist Cookbook and so forth. But a longstanding beacon of truth still shines through the thick fog of all that discount-rack junk.
That wonderful, irreplaceable exception is (The) Joy of Cooking, by Irma Rombauer and, increasingly, her descendants and their families. I won’t rehash the history of the book here, though that tale is very much worth your time. That this book is still in print is endorsement enough. That it’s kept alive not as a historical curiosity, but as a relevant manual that belongs in contemporary kitchens, is an overwhelming testament to the inspirational nature of its conception, the admirable and persistent efforts of its authors, and its transcendent value.
But a lot of it sucks. Most of it, in fact, is bad.
That’s really more an indictment of our modern diet than it is the Rombauers’ taste. While my copy is not the beautiful original you see here, it is nevertheless very old, meaning there are more than a few dishes I’ve never encountered in the wild. Some of them you probably couldn’t dream up with a tab of acid, they’re so unfamiliar to contemporary tastes. For every Beef Bourguignon, there’s at least one New England Boiled Dinner or Figpecker—something so archaic or unpleasant-sounding that it’s impossible to imagine sourcing the proper ingredients, much less serving the resulting concoction to (the incredulous) people you ostensibly love. But it doesn’t detract in any way from the classic recipes and how-tos that litter Joy’s pages; if anything, it enhances them. Many times, it’s the quirks and idiosyncrasies we love most about the people in our lives, and this cookbook is no different. My wife’s compulsive nature can drive me up the wall, but I wouldn’t change her for the world; Irma Rombauer insists that I should be eating Chicken Forcemeat and, gosh darn it, I love her for it.
So I’m going to start preparing the weirdest, least appetizing recipes in Joy of Cooking in as faithful and genuine a way as possible. Some of these will no doubt be surprisingly tasty; others, I suspect, will be about as enjoyable as hitting your ass on the bottom of the pool. But with an open mind and an empty stomach, we cannot fail. Unless we fall into the oven or something.
With that in mind, here is what you will need to create our first dish, Quick Fish Loaf.
A quick note about reprinting these recipes: We will do so when practical. For some of them, it will be impossible to present the ingredient list without also capturing the entirety of the cooking instruction, which, despite the fact that the author and her publishing company are both dead, followed to the grave by any sensible interpretation of U.S. intellectual-property law, seems at least to violate the spirit of the institution of bookmaking. In those cases, and in general, I encourage you to support your local independent bookseller by spending $0.74 on a copy that looks like it came over on the Mayflower, or to patronize the Rombauers themselves by ordering a new one, and/or downloading the accompanying app. I can’t vouch for how many of the recipes from 1973 have been included in subsequent versions, so if you boot up your iPad to find that Parboiled Shad Roe (we’ll get there) has not made the digital leap, consider that you are using a paper-thin, wireless computer in your air-conditioned kitchen, and the creator of the recipe you’re dying to read likely was accustomed to bathing in a big bucket outdoors.
Anyway, here is what you will do to (quickly) craft a fish loaf. First, buy all that crap up there, with money. Some notes: Canned fish is for tuna casserole, so get whichever domestic or wild-caught white fish filet is on sale. That will likely be tilapia, but it could be haddock or, hell, maybe trout. I used cod, which is probably on the drier side for this preparation, but it is unlikely to matter much. I also went with Worcestershire over lemon juice and onion over the other throw-ins because it’s what I had on hand, and because olives are the devil’s turds. This last point will not be readdressed.
Now, while your cackling child throws an entire uneaten apple into the trash, prepare some stuff. Grab your parsley, taking entirely too much time to make sure you are separating enough stem from the leaf that the result will not be akin to chewing on grass clippings. Mince your onion. Here is the method I use to prepare onions for virtually all applications, and I endorse its use here, with the caveat that a mince is one step beyond a dice, so don’t stop when Alton does.
Pan-fry your fish. Lightly salt and pepper the filets, then add them to a hot pan. Leave them sitting for a couple of minutes on each side, remove, and flake (chop, kinda). I added some red wine to the pan because I thought the fish looked dry, and although I wished I had used beer instead, neither is likely to be necessary with a fattier fish. This part of the recipe is fairly hard to screw up, as long as you’ve got the right tools.
As for that, a confession: I generally use nonstick pans in these situations. Quite frankly, the combination of an imprecise electric cooktop and my own impatience make stainless steel a rather risky option when it comes to tender and delicate fish meat. That said, if you’re afraid of some chemical leaking into your brain that makes you think Steely Dan is good—or if you have a fancy new All-Clad you simply must justify—then go with God. Make sure the fish is dry, the pan is hot, and there’s enough oil to coat the bottom.
Once the fish is done, add it to the other ingredients and toss the mixture into a greased baking dish for about a half-hour at 400 degrees. Joy does not specify the type of dish to use, but I opted for an 8-by-8 Pyrex, which was perfectly cromulent. You may also wish to use a metal loaf pan, which would increase the cooking time. Just be careful not to overcook the top, or the loaf’ll come out like a dimensional roof shingle, instead of like my fine specimen shown here.
Should you make that dastardly error of baking your freaky minced fish bread for too long, please don’t panic! A liberal application of sauce will get those helpings down your throat faster than a greased-up Advil. Our recipe calls for one of a variety of sauces, but I think tomato pairs best for obvious reasons. My advice would be to go a little sweeter than you normally would for pasta, since you are basically reimagining meatloaf here, and the fish is rather savory. You may also apparently serve the loaf cold, with mayonnaise, for reasons that are lost to time.
I chose to do both, because fortune favors the bold, and intact arteries are just holding me back. The result was a pleasantly crisp and savory dish that compares favorably to most crab cakes. And surprisingly, gathering up enough of a slice made for a decent sandwich in the po’ boy mold.
I have to admit, this Quick Fish Loaf cleans up pretty nice. It looks at home on a plate in a way its name could never convey, and it’s very little trouble to put together in a pinch. I’d even serve it on a date, if my children hadn’t long since withered the section of my brain responsible for romance.
So, loaves and fishes make a nice combo, who’d have guessed? Unfortunately for those of you hoping for a disaster, ol’ Irma knew what she was doing with this one. But don’t fret—do you realize how much people used to love gelatin? Non-fruit jellies somehow weren’t around for a billion years, then were insanely popular for about four decades, then became insanely unpopular. The chart of gelatin’s popularity looks like a fuckin’ Yao Ming class picture. Their tastebuds were all whompyjawed. It was a pathetic era for cuisine.
The following are true facts:
- If someone said you were acting “bitter,” you hugged them like a brother, because your favorite treat was licorice soda.
- What passed for a cocktail in those days was a damn nightmare. Your grandparents used to drink egg whites like they thought they could cure polio.
- The food was so bad, people jumped for joy when they invented TV dinners. Back then, people would eat Swanson’s Steak Pudding Jumble, with their families, on purpose—not blitzed off of Seagram’s, in a room lit only by the uncaring glow of an Aqua Teen Hunger Force marathon, with barely enough brain power available to push the wrong buttons on a microwave—but happily. With their families. Think about that.
And imagine what we’ll try to cook next.
Art by Tara Jacoby.
Adequate Man is Deadspin’s new self-improvement blog, dedicated to making you just good enough at everything. Suggestions for future topics are welcome below.