I go to used bookstores for the same reason I look into windows when we’re driving down residential streets at night: I like to imagine the people inside. The same way I fix my gaze on the warm glow of a table illuminated by candlelight or the man who’s sitting in his recliner all alone, I pick up a hardcover, tracing over the handwriting, wondering about the person who underlined that passage or the reader who signed her name in this front flap.
This might be what I love about the first-edition copy of The Art of Mexican Cooking, written by Jan Aaron and Georgine Sachs Salom, that I found at McKay Used Book Store Friday Night. Published in 1965, this beauty has all the earmarks of another era, one in which American women still wore skirts and aprons to make dinner and in which Mexican food (along with other ethnic cuisines) was just beginning to enter the conversation.
There are hand-drawn illustrations at the division pages, created by artist Dierdre Stanforth, the same woman who did illustrations for a Betty Crocker cookbook two years later and for books on New Orleans after that. I’d never thought much about book illustrations until recently, when we went and made an ebook and hired the amazing Rebekka Seale to create the cover—now I notice them everywhere I look: on blogs, on Pinterest, when I’m flipping through the thick pages of my new vintage book.
Over the last few nights, reading The Art of Mexican Cooking before bed, usually out loud to Tim, along with continually remarking that “This entire recipe is a paragraph! One paragraph! These directions kill me!,” I’ve also been thinking about the woman who drew the maps in the front and back pages and who sketched two large pots of soup in front of Mexican tiling.
What was it like to be an illustrator in the 1960s, I wonder. Long before there were Etsy shops or blogs or Anthropologie, what was it like to make your living through your art?
So of course I did what any self-employed copywriting female does in the year 2012: I turned to Google. Through Internet research, I’ve learned that Stanforth, originally from New Orleans, settled in New York, where she was living when she illustrated this book, right around the time that she picketed historic buildings being torn down. In an interview with The New York Preservation Archive Project, she describes loving a building she was living in, with its “marble stairs and parquet floors,” and that makes me imagine her to be a little like me, someone who craves beauty, who feels inspired by it.
I imagine you all to be a little like me, too, honestly, even though, actually, I don’t know if you’re like me. You know much more about me than I do about you. While you get to peep in through my open windows, so to speak, or notice my handwriting in the margins of the book, I’m aware of only the fact that you’re there, not when or why or how. It’s kind of a funny thing.
What a world we live in, where I can notice an illustrator’s name and go to Google and form a caricature of her in my mind; where we can go to blogs or Facebook pages and build impressions or stories about others in our heads.
Tim and I listened to a lecture a few months ago where we heard the speaker say about humans, “We are all incredibly complex.” He continued to explain that while we are all, yes, our personalities and, yes, our upbringings and, yes, our families and our work and our passions, we are all, always, always, more than that, too.
For a person who wants to make the world clearer and easier to understand, that’s somewhat discouraging news: My impressions are, almost always, limited. The way I understand something can, almost always, be expanded into a fuller way of seeing it. Everyone is so complex! Everything is so complex!
But then, for someone who craves beauty, who recognizes it in the vulnerability of love, something she can’t quite explain; in story, that thing children tell as soon as they can talk; in food and in the complexity of ingredients coming together to form miniature flans, jiggly and sweet, the smell of burnt sugar in the air, seeing that things are, in fact, more than we see is a comfort, too.
Because when you are more complex than I realize, that means there is more of you to know. And when I see I don’t know all there is, that means there is still more to discover. There are deeper levels of love, better ways of knowing, fuller understanding, more truth.
There is always beauty yet to be found.
Coconut Milk Mexican Flan
Heavily adapted from The Art of Mexican Cooking by Jan Aaron & Georgine Sachs Salom
Makes five four-inch-round flan desserts
Note that this recipe’s sugar quotient is flexible. We used 1/2 cup and liked the results, but we tend to like things less sweet—if you’re at all in doubt, probably go with 3/4 cup.
Oh and also, you would not believe the difference chilling a few hours makes. In typical fashion, we went ahead and tasted the flan 30 minutes after baking; it wasn’t bad. But the next day, after sitting in the fridge? Ten times better.
2 13.5-ounce cans full-fat organic coconut milk
1/2 cup to 3/4 cup coconut palm sugar, plus more for sprinkling in ramekins
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
The zest of a lemon
4 egg yolks, lightly beaten
2 egg whites, lightly beaten
Heat oven to 350F. Take five four-inch-round porcelain ramekins and sprinkle a little sugar in the bottom of each. Place them in the oven until sugar begins to liquify (which, for me, was about as long as it took to pull everything else together).
Meanwhile, in a pot over low heat, combine coconut milk, sugar, cinnamon, salt, vanilla and lemon zest, stirring frequently, until the mixture thickens/reduces a little. I did this for around 20 to 30 minutes. The original recipe said the mixture would seem like custard; mine just seemed like it was going to keep reducing (and disappear!) if I didn’t pull it off the heat quick. (It had probably reduced by 1/4 to 1/2 in size) If the ramekins are ready by this point, remove them from the oven and reduce the oven temp to 300F. You can leave the sugar the way it is in each dish, or you can take a spoon or paper towel and spread it around to make an even layer.
Remove the custard from the heat, and let it cool a while. Once it’s about room temperature, combine the lightly beaten egg yolks and whites with each other, and then combine them with the custard. Divide the batter among the five ramekins and place them in a large baking dish. Fill the dish with hot water and bake the flans for about an hour.
Custards are done when a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Chill for a few hours before eating (see note!). Flan may be eaten straight out of the ramekin or, after you run a butter knife around the edges, inverted onto a plate.