***WARNING: Long, personal anecdote ahead. For the review, skip ahead to the noted section.***
When I was in my early twenties, we had a Secret Santa gift exchange at my church. We were supposed to give our recipient a small gift every Sunday in December until the big reveal and the final, big gift at the Christmas party.
Week One went by, and I got nothing. During Week Two, I stood about empty-handed and smiling wanly as my friends squealed over their stocking stuffers, guessing who their Santas were. By the time Week Three hit, I finally received something: one of those 99¢ plastic canes filled with M&Ms. With gritted teeth behind a forced smile, I swore that I would have vengeance if the final gift didn’t make up for the winter of my discontent.
The party finally rolled around, and everyone started revealing themselves to their recipients. I stood forlornly in the corner, fuming as the festive air of the room was punctuated with shouts of joy and surprise.
Then, my friend H revealed himself. He approached me sheepishly. “Merry Christmas, I’m your Secret Santa, hope you like it,” he rattled nervously. He handed me a hastily-wrapped package.
I carefully undid the paper (I’m not a tearer) to reveal a big, paperback book. Mexican Cooking for Dummies, the cover read.
I was furious.
I didn’t know how to cook; didn’t really care much about it, and was he trying to say he thought I was stupid? Still, I didn’t want to cause a scene or seem ungracious.
“Thanks, it’s great,” I managed between bared teeth.
When I got home, I tossed the book onto a bookshelf and forgot about it.
But, months later, guilt began to set in. He was still fairly new to our church, and my reception to his gift hadn’t been very gracious. And he didn’t really have to participate at all.
I thought I’d show him that I really was grateful by putting his gift to good use. It was almost May, and I thought Cinco de Mayo would be the perfect opportunity to put a Mexican cookbook to good use. But I already had plans for the fifth, so I planned a Doce de Mayo celebration instead, and invited H and a bunch of our friends.
I planned my first-ever meal, complete with appetizers, drinks, soup, main courses, sides, and a dessert. I bought all of the ingredients. I started cooking.
The party was a hit (despite the fact that lunch was served about two hours late), and I was hooked on cooking. And I have H to thank for it. What I thought was a lame gift turned out to be a life-changer.
And, ten years later, H strikes again. He and his girlfriend (also an H) got me How to Cook Like a Top Chef for Christmas.
I’ve never before read a cookbook cover to cover, and certainly not in two sittings. But I am a huge “Top Chef” fan, and this book has it all. It’s the latest “Top Chef” cookbook, and it’s filled with recipes, information, technique tips, interviews with chef’testants, and mouth-wateringly beautiful color photos on every page.
It’s beautiful and glossy, and has recipes that are simple to make for the novice home chef as well as more challenging recipes for the self-made culinary artist.
My only tiny, tiny nitpick is that there just aren’t enough recipes. There’s plenty of material there for the “Top Chef” fan, but not quite enough for the dedicated foodie. I’d rather have another recipe than read about chef’testants’ tattoos.
H, H, and I are planning to get together soon to try out some of these recipes. And if the fate of Mexican Cooking for Dummies is any indicator, then How to Cook Like a Top Chef is going to end up a beat-up volume with food-stained and water-blistered pages — true signs of love in the kitchen.