Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Canal House visits Penn

Near the banks of the Delaware, just across from an old-fashioned hardware store, tucked on the second floor of a red brick building, is a kitchen-studio.

On a normal day, it’s a hotbed of activity. Eight burners and two ovens blaze. Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton are turning food on.

The team self publishes their own seasonal cookbooks, the newest of which, Canal House Cooks Every Day, hits book stores this month. This hardcover tome is different from the triannual books they have published in the past.

But this day isn’t a normal day for the Canal House cooks. They’re not in their Lambertville, New Jersey studio. Instead, they’re in West Philadelphia introducing Penn students to the Italian snack tramezzini. Hamilton presents a silver platter bearing stacks of whitish spongy bread and silky truffle butter.

She opens one of her cookbooks and reads, “The truffle’s heady, intimate fragrance is powerful. Choose your company wisely.” She grins.

When Canal House started out, self-publishing was “a bit of a dirty word,” Hirsheimer says. But the former Saveur editors believed if they were interested in a subject, others would be, too. “I love this work,” Hirsheimer adds. “I’m excited every day. I like to be turned on.”

Hirsheimer and Hamilton prize reader-writer intimacy. Rather than simply listing recipes, they offer stories. A comment – signed C.H. or M.H. - ushers in each culinary concoction. “The head note has to illuminate,” Hirsheimer explains. “It has to tell something about our experience or have useful information.”

One inscription recounts the time Christopher and Melissa lugged a thirty-five pound Cinderella pumpkin home, coated its insides in pimetón and preserved lemon, and filled it with chicken broth. When the gourd was roasted, guests scooped soup and flesh straight into their bowls. They declared it the best thing they had ever tasted (“Aw, shucks!” writes C.H.)

Another head note accompanies photographs showing a cross section of a boiled egg’s insides after sequential minutes. When Hamilton told Hirsheimer she was going to nail the boiled egg, the latter loved the idea so much she leapt off her desk chair. “When people really know how to cook, often they talk about this,” Hirsheimer says, touching the egg diagram. “They think this is really wonderful!”

Self-proclaimed “platterists” (translation: they think plating each individual dish is missing an opportunity), Hirsheimer and Hamilton know meals create bonds. When they feed a group of people who don’t know each other well, they hand one guest a platter and let her figure out what to do next. The passing of a platter “engages people,” Melissa explains. “It breaks the ice, it gets people to be courteous. It’s a way of warming them up to each other.”

One more thing about the truffle (there are still a few sandwiches left on that shiny platter.) “The quality of a truffle,” Hamilton reads, “Like sex, is hard to describe. Its taste is so fundamentally good that even if you know nothing about it, your body will recognize the experience and know what to do.”

“Eating a truffle,” she says, “Involves following your senses and then some, so close your eyes and go with the feeling.”

The room erupts into laughter. Intimate, indeed.

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