Duke University Alumni Magazine

In Helen's Kitchen: A Philosophy of Food

By Helen Hudson Whiting. Regulator Bookshop, 2000. 241 pages. $17.95.

consider myself a lover of good food, a connoisseur of local markets, and a sucker for fresh tart grapes and good cheese. However, sometimes I get a little disappointed in myself for not expanding my cooking repertoire.

After all, how many times can one make chicken cutlets with skins-on mashed potatoes and green beans in olive oil?

I told myself I'd buy more cookbooks, and even went so far as to peruse a few, but the recipes all seemed so, well, inaccessible. They either involved ingredients I'd never be able to find or kitchen appliances I couldn't afford. But now, after reading In Helen's Kitchen: A Philosophy of

Food, I find myself re-energized, ready to scour markets for the smallest courgette or the thickest slab of bacon, prepared to retire chicken cutlet & co. for an extended period of time and begin a New Relationship With My Kitchen.

Helen Hudson Whiting '75 was, among other things, a bookseller and co-owner of Durham's Regulator Bookshop, a reader, a writer, and an amateur chef. For nineteen years, she wrote food commentaries for Triangle area publications: first for WDBS-FM's The Guide, and then for The Independent.

In Helen's Kitchen, organized posthumously and edited by her friends and colleagues, features an eclectic selection of these columns, as well as remembrances from people who knew Whiting and cherished her enterprising, adventurous culinary attitude and her zest for pleasure and her keen intellect. Given this, the book is much more than a collection of recipes to be used as a reference when one needs a good tomato sauce or cauliflower curry-although it certainly serves such a purpose. It is a source of tidbits on other cultures, advice on life in general, and, most of all, a reflection of Whiting herself.

"The Traveling Stomach," a commentary dedicated to eating on the road, features a recipe for travelin' iced tea, which Whiting proclaims "a refreshing change from overdosing on cola." But it also lets us know that she prefers "smaller highways" to "big interstates," and "regional dishes" to "the usual burger and pizza chains." She encourages us to ask questions, and look around a little: "That little local bakery might be full of real cream- or custard-filled goodies or, on the other hand, the employees might rival the chemists at Hostess."

This is not the only way that H. Hudson Whiting (her byline, adopted in 1978) challenges us to ignore our boundaries and move beyond what's ordinary, both in eating and living. She admonishes us that there's no excuse for eating badly: "IfŠyou think good cooking takes more time than you can spare, remember that bad cooking takes time as well," she wrote in a 1984 column for The Independent, "All Right, Campers! No More Excuses!

Into the Kitchen and Cook!" Time and again, she reminds us that to be a good cook, you need to pay attention; purchase high-quality (though not necessarily obscure) ingredients; own a sharp knife; and acquire at least one good cookbook. "You don't need a kitchen full of gadgets," she writes. Whiting's unpretentious and informative advice peppers these pages, if you'll pardon the pun. She recommends the perfect dish on the day you've just begun to recover from the flu (vinegar-splashed chicken), tells us why not to be nervous when using yeast (just in case we were), and helps us pack and plan our menus for tailgate parties (which, by the way, are also perfectly acceptable to have when it's not football season). Eagerly, she shares her favorite food writers, who included Elizabeth David and the late

Bill Neal '71, and encourages us to discover our own. Just when we're beginning to feel a little intimidated (how could we ever know as much about food as the late H. Hudson Whiting?), she comforts us with stories of her own humble culinary beginnings: "Like most children I was conservative about foodŠ. I tolerated the walnut as a lesser pecan and can only imagine what I would have thought had I encountered the hazelnut, with a flavor nearly as distinct from other nuts as that of the almond."

In Helen's Kitchen is indeed a philosophy of food. It's also a catalogue of Whiting's personal tastes, which range from the fiber-intensive (Margaret Stewart's Refrigerator Bran Muffins) to the unusual (Badrijani Nigvis Satenit-Russian for Eggplant Stuffed with Walnuts) to the tongue-in-cheek (Pot Luck Brownies, alternately titled Brownies Like Your Mother Never Used to Make). Whiting doesn't just give us a recipe for couscous; she explains its origins (North Africa) and informs us that it's not precisely the name of a dish, but rather of the grain itself. Then she provides an Algerian recipe for couscous with chicken and lamb stew, given to her by a woman who grew up in Algeria and, she writes, "is one of the best and most hospitable cooks I've ever known."

In the column, "A Weakness for Chocolate," she educates us as to the precious commodity's history, and reveals some surprising uses: in molé sauce, which, in Mexico, is often served with turkey; and as the "secret ingredient" in her mother's chili. Then she delivers some spectacular recipes: sinful chocolate cake, chocolate mousse, hot chocolate, and the mysterious-sounding chocolate chinchilla -all of which I can't wait to try.

By the time I finished reading the book, I felt both chastened and delightfully informed. On one hand, I had a pervading feeling of guilt-how could I have been so lazy, for such an extended period of time? But on the other, I had a sense of inspiration. Tonight, for sure, I'm going to make the eggplant parmesan she describes on page 125, and perhaps, for dessert, her apple pie.

Sadly, the inscription she wrote beneath her eggplant parmesan recipe-"H. Hudson Whiting lives in Durham and frequently publishes favorite recipes in hopes of encountering these dishes away from home"-no longer applies. Though the world lost an incredible resource with her passing, I'll be fondly thinking of Helen as I discover whether the dishes that were so successful in her kitchen can pass muster in my own.

-Emily Colin

Colin '97 is an editor at Coastal Carolina Press, editor-in-chief of Carolina Women's Press, and president of Carolina Women's Partnership. Her most recent books are The Secret to Their Success: How 33 Women Made Their Dreams Come True, and The Long Way Around: How 34 Women Found the Lives They Love, collections of essays by and interviews with women living in North Carolina.

Beautiful Work: A Meditation on Pain

By Sharon Cameron. Duke University Press, 2000. 121 pages. $19.95.

et me be up front about this. If you read Beautiful Work for the story, as Doctor Johnson remarked of Clarissa, you might be compelled to hang yourself. And while it contains some touching accounts of imagined conversations that take place in a hospice, neither should you read it because you're looking for a way to manage your or someone else's chronic physical pain.

One might well read it for other reasons: Its ravishing prose simulates the stream of incessant commentary, mystical dream, niggling argument, and visionary rapture that characterize the experience of formal meditation. To say that the author has convincingly captured her protagonist's interior voices is no faint praise, for though such voices may not be inherently instructive, they surely can be beautiful, decorous, aesthetically pleasing. Fairly humorless, as sensitive as a mimosa, this is not, thank God, another self-help book.

That said, what is it about? "I speak of the pain that has no cause," announces the narrator early on. And later: "Inside pain is the whole world." Beautiful Work is far too unsystematic to be called philosophical, too reminiscent of memoir to pass for fiction, yet too full of stealthiness to read like nonfiction. The publisher labels it "belles-lettres/Eastern philosophy."

In Eastern philosophy, pain leads straight to suffering-the ten thousand attachments and aversions that keep us trapped just this side of nirvana in an endless cycle of death and rebirth. The reality of suffering is such that the wheel is never quite centered on the axle: "Anytime there is contact with the ravishing world," Cameron writes, "there will be an impulse toward or away from it." Meditation is the sword that separates pain from suffering. This slim volume is an answer in search of a question. Neither dharma talk, theological treatise, nor incantation, it partakes of all three. One might call it a bildungsroman, a novel of education in which a naďve but good-hearted heroine learns about the pitfalls of the world and how to make her way safely among its snares. But then, I already said it wasn't fiction. The progress of the action, such as it is, has to do with the narrator's intellectual and spiritual journey through three meditation retreats, in the course of which-with generous allowances for dreaming, the winnowing of submerged memories, and the recall and amplification of relevant leitmotifs-she comes to see the distinctions between pain and suffering, awareness of thought and thought itself, indifference and equanimity, pity and compassion. It is an account of the march toward emptiness, the visceral mastery of the notion that self is a delusion, and the ultimate reaching of escape velocity to take the narrator out of history, especially her own.

Practitioners of meditation in the Vipassana tradition will love this book, if they haven't already achieved enough equanimity not to love anything.

But one need not be a Buddhist, or even a student of Buddhism, to savor the subtle beauties of its prose-the sound of a nun chanting in the Pali language is "beautiful, like snow melting"-or the frisson occasioned by unforgiving truths that leap off the page: "You have all your life demeaned your life by making a story of it."

The urgency of one's stories, those contrived histories that create the illusion of continuity and meaning in life, derives finally from excess ego. To escape the self, we learn here, one must get beyond both despair and hope, since the illusion of a separate self (along with the fact of pain) is the precursor of suffering. Anna says, "I see that hope to perfect the self hangs around my neck like the corpse of a dead animal." A hundred pages later, she speaks for the last time of a dying animal in the wall that, throughout her retreats, she has been sure is there, first crying and hysterical, then by turns calm; an animal with which, in her dreams, she learns to lie down.

Letting go of perfection means letting go of the self. Letting go of the self leads to the letting go of suffering. Her accompanying epiphany-enlightenment, rather-centers on the insight that "No one can free himself from pain. But suffering is a house you can unbuild."

This is a difficult, taxing morsel, full of thoughtful and thought-provoking cleverness for all its renunciation of the ravishing world; it is a book full of sadness, masterful prose rhythms, and soulful resonance. Although reading it can be frustrating, it is itself a beautiful work that effervesces once you put it down.

-Paul Baerman

Baerman M.B.A. '90 is special assistant to the president at Duke and a freelance writer.

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