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Laura Calder and the Need for Intelligent Book Editing

By the time I was 13, I so loved mashed potatoes that I decided to make my own.  The concept was pretty simple: cube the potatoes, boil them until soft, strain, mash, and add milk, salt and pepper to taste.  I remember one of the first times I made them was for Thanksgiving at my grandmother’s house, and my family told me they loved them.  Of course, I had already known they were good (I had tasted them to know the right amount of salt and pepper to add!), but it was also nice to hear their affirmations.

Since then, I have learned a few tricks to make my mashed potatoes even better.  One is to use golden potatoes instead of Idaho potatoes.  Another is to add butter and to use heavy cream instead of milk, but not simply to add them directly.  Instead, I roast relevant vegetables such as onions, bell peppers, carrots and green onions, then steep them in the butter and heavy cream, puree the vegetables, cream and butter when finished, and only then add them to the mashed potatoes.  I sometimes also add homemade stock.  The key to all of this, I learned, is not to cook the potatoes completely.  By leaving them just undercooked, they are better able to absorb the liquid.

How My Wife Led Me to Mashed Potatoes, and Then to Laura Calder

None of the significant improvements in my mashed potato technique, though, came until after I met my wife.  Unlike me, she came from a family who always cooked and ate their meals at home.  She could cook far more than mashed potatoes and—something I learned to appreciate—had a much lower tolerance than I did for undercooked, overcooked or improperly seasoned food, and what I would consider “inventive” flavor combinations.  Through her I learned to appreciate quality cooking and to look outside my personal experience for inspiration.

It was in watching TV one night with my wife that we came across French Food at Home, a series that had won the prestigious James Beard Award for best Television Food Show.  Laura Calder’s graceful personality and inviting manner demystified French cooking, and made me realize it was something I could easily accomplish at home.  My wife saw that her cookbook, French Taste: Elegant Everyday Eating, had won the Cuisine Canada gold medal and gave it to me for Christmas.

My Immediate Fascination with Laura Calder’s Recipes, Followed by My Growing Dismay

When I opened French Taste, I was both fascinated and overwhelmed.  Each recipe was a delightful adventure waiting to be explored, and there were a lot of them.  It would take us at least a year to try them all, allowing, of course, time to repeat a few of our favorites.

I started with Milk Pork.  I had braised meat before, but never a lean cut and never with milk as the braising liquid.  The result was a disaster.  The pork was dry to the point of having the taste and texture of sandpaper, and the milk, when I removed it from the oven, was burning.  I read back over the recipe to see where I had gone wrong.  There was nothing:  I had followed every step exactly as it was described, and it was then I noticed the error.  It should never have been braised at 325° F for 2 hours.  That was simply too long.  The cooking time, I discovered after two more attempts, should have been 55 minutes!

Disappointed but nonetheless undaunted, we plunged into trying other recipes, but more frequently than not found significant errors that produced dramatically erroneous results.  The Slow Shoulder—what should be a delicious recipe for lamb—for example, asked for only 1 cup of braising liquid (white wine), though the cooking time was 4 hours.  I thought it was a little low but tried it anyway, only to find all the liquid evaporated and the meat burning by the time the 4 hours was finished.  I now know that simply using the whole bottle of wine produces much better results.

My Implicit Trust in What Laura Calder Had Written, and Why Her Book Should Have Been More Intelligently Edited

Like most readers of any document, from cookbooks and blog posts to papers and dissertations, my wife and I implicitly trusted what Laura Calder had written.  We believed the cooking times and amounts of liquid.  We believed her when she stated that the result was delicious every time. What we found instead was that significant errors had been printed, ones that indicate her editors had not thought through every detail.  The result is that of the many recipes in her book, we have only tried a handful, and we are no longer excited to watch the next episode of her television program.

Where Laura Calder went wrong is where many authors go wrong, and where her book editors went wrong is also where many book editors go wrong.  Both can make the mistake of focusing so much on the technique of the writing that they lose sight of—or in many cases simply do not consider—issues that go beyond the more superficial aspects of punctuation, word choice and sentence structure.  Many editors know where a comma should be placed, for example, as well as how to break up longer sentences or merge two short sentences into a longer one.  Some are also gifted at thinking of better words to use to engage the reader or communicate a particular point.  However, where many of them fall short is in thinking through the content and discerning the intended message from what is written on the page.

What an editor could have done is help Laura Calder see the deeper concerns with her content.  Instead, they were left in her writing, where enthusiastic readers like my wife and me come across them, and with each one feel our excitement fade.  What I wish is that Laura’s editor had helped her correct these, and that Laura—as all authors should—had held her editor to a higher standard.

Posted in  Writers
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