The place was called The Bakery, and it was something of a Chicago institution. Insofar as Valabar & Sons is based on any real place, it is The Bakery. We used to drive from Minneapolis, eat there, then turn around and drive home. It was well worth the journey.
Chef Louis — Lájos Szathmary — was an immense man with a massive gray mustache. Periodically, during dinner, he would come out to meet the patrons and say hello. Once, while he was chatting with us, it came out that I was a writer and we spoke about that for a bit. From there, we got onto the subject of art in general, and I brought the conversation back to cooking. I expressed the opinion that he was an artist. He considered for a moment, then said, “I am an honest cook.”
“Can you explain that?” I said. “I understand what honesty means in writing, but what does it mean in cooking?”
His Hungarian accent was thick, but his English was perfectly understandable. He frowned a little, then said, “Every year, we use one pound of margarine. For everything else, we use butter.”
Obviously, I had to know. “What do you use one pound of margarine for?”
“We have a Christmas show once a year,” he explained. “And to do it, we have to open up the building behind us. The walkway is always icy, so we put margarine on our shoes so we don’t slip on the way.”
That’s what margarine is good for, you see. For actual cooking, you use butter. You use the best ingredients you can find. You don’t scrimp on the details, and you don’t try to pull a fast one on the reader–excuse me, the customer. If you ever find yourself thinking that the person you’re cooking for can’t taste the difference between butter and margarine, you’ve started down a road that leads to McDonald’s.
If there is joy in the story, let it flow naturally from events that feel inevitable, because the ingredients you have acquired and prepared and mixed together have formed that way. The same if there is sorrow. If there is death, make it real, make it meaningful. If there is love, earn it. If the food is spicy, let it be because the flavor combination you wish requires it, not because you added extra peppers to show how hot you can cook. Sweet confections are fine, but you know and I know that there is a cloying, over-sweetness that can ruin the best dessert. And if someone doesn’t care for your concoction because there isn’t enough sugar, or because it is too spicy, or there wasn’t enough action, or there was too much dialog, then at least you can know that what you set on the table was truthful.
The point is not to impress the reader with how good you are, but rather to delight, amaze, move, and even, if I may, epiphanize. I am not the best writer whoever set fingers to keyboard, and sometimes my dishes don’t emerge from the kitchen tasting the way I want them to. But I don’t cook my stories with margarine. And neither should you.