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.

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23 thoughts on “Margarine”

  1. My husband Barry says that his pumpkin (with pecans) bread tastes better when made with fresh-bought margarine than when made with butter so that’s how he makes it. He makes all his other baked goods with butter. The rule is to get the very best taste rather than to be hidebound.

    At our parties, we serve both butter and margarine, because some guests want one and some want the other. The butter goes on a glass or china butter dish (real on real) ; the margarine goes on a plastic butter dish (fake on fake).

  2. “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.”

    How does the margarine help keep them from slipping? Don’t oil based products normally make stuff slippery?

  3. In reading this post, I was reminded of a quote by A.A. Gill, The Sunday Times restaurant reviewer:

    “Cooks do meals for people they know & love. Chefs do it anonymously for anyone who has the price.”

    I love the fact that Mr. Szathmary describes himself as “an honest cook”.

  4. Yeah, like that.

    I mean, there’s stuff. There are reasons you might use this or that — I’ve cooked for people with severe dairy allergies, such that margarine was a requirement, and a close relative has a number of dietary restrictions that require some creative substitutions, and some people can’t even afford butter regularly — and some recipes actually require things you wouldn’t use otherwise — my perfect key lime pie cannot be made without sweetened condensed milk, which otherwise I only put in coffee, and my great-grandmother’s fudge absolutely requires marshmallow fluff — but even that is honesty. You cook with the things that feed the people you’re serving it to. You cook with the things you can afford. You cook with what’s true to the dish, what gets the right taste and texture.

    And, actually, I think that the part about feeding the people you’re serving it to is the most crucial of those. If it doesn’t feed people, nourish something in them, body or spirit or senses, then it’s not really food, is it? I don’t mean in some sort of health nut snobby real-food-is-only-organic-and-healthy-by-my-standards way. I mean that it has to provide a person with something they need. Everybody has some kind of guilty pleasure food, something we don’t generally approve of, but that’s comforting in a way that nothing else is, or that scratches an itch nothing else does. When my dad took us fishing, he’d get us a bag of those awful waxy Sweet 16 chocolate-like-substanced-covered donuts, and so sometimes nothing else will do but that I have awful waxy not-chocolate-covered donuts, because something high quality simply will not invoke those dawns on the river in a little aluminum boat. Those things are dreadful, but they feed those memories, feed the child in me. On the opposite end of the economic scale, a molecular gastronomy tasting menu is not a good way to get either macro or micronutrients into the body, but it can feed some people’s minds and imaginations and palates like nothing else. If you center feeding people, and not just any people, but the people you mean to serve the food to, instead of centering your own ego and ideas, then it’s much easier to be honest. (Even a restaurant has a clientele it’s aiming for, even though it can’t plan for individuals much.) You don’t serve people things that will poison them, and you do serve them things that feed them. You choose who you want to feed, and what in them you want to feed, and then you do your best to accomplish that with what you’ve got.

    Running a restaurant is an even worse way to make a living than writing is, though.

  5. Also, dammit, someday I am going to have the time, the money, and the information about Hungarian cooking all at the same time, and finally do my own Dinner at Valabar’s like I’ve been talking about for years and years. Last time I had the money, I collected several books (including The Bakery Cookbook), but didn’t have the time because I had a restaurant, and then didn’t have a restaurant but consequently didn’t have a paycheck to spend on ingredients. One day.

  6. Maybe a 4th Street Panel — Why a good story is like a good meal…?
    Anyway, this is a topic that deserves 40 comments, so let the storytelling continue.

  7. This is a wonderful and valuable post. I would like to link to it from my own blog.

    James: I think the margarine would repel ice and meltwater. And because of the ice and cold, it would stay solid, not slippery.

  8. It occurs to me that some beginning writers might say something like this in reply:

    “I would like to write as honestly as Chef Louis cooks, just like I want Holden Caulfield to be a fan — but when I try it both ways, I think that dishonest fakery reads a lot better than my honest writing. When I write honestly it comes out horribly awkward, clumsy, naive, and embarrassing, but when I’m a fake, it’s smooth and easy.”

    It’s easy to answer this complaint with some trite “be yourself” rejoinder, but suppose that the honest stuff gets rejections and the fake stuff sells?

    All that said, I’m a big fan of the OP and wish to write that way myself, but still, it may not be the easiest way to go for some people, and for others may be almost impossible, at least to begin with.

  9. Miramon: The choice is always: Stay true and work on it until you’re good, sell fake work, or give up. You don’t make the choice once, you make it every time, with every story, every recipe. It’s a matter of what’s important to you, the truth, the sale, or the ease.

    That’s not a judgmental phrasing on my part. Sometimes “fake” to you still feeds people something they want, and that’s why it sells. You have to decide whether that’s something you want to feed in people (titillation and sensationalism sells because it feeds excitement, but is that something you, personally, want to feed in that way?), and you have to decide whether the sale is more important to you than being “true” even if you don’t necessarily want to feed that (because sometimes you need that sale to pay the rent). If you don’t need to make that sale, and want to stay true but can’t get it right, you have to choose how much time and work the end result is worth to you. I used to want to be a fiction writer, used to write both fanfic and original stuff. I discovered that there were certain skills I could not acquire to my satisfaction, and that the work I was putting into it had ceased to be satisfying to me while I tried. I stopped writing fiction. I’m satisfied with that. I’m better at nonfiction, I work on those skills (along with a variety of other creative pursuits), and I just recently had my first piece published in an anthology from a press I respect.

    These are the choices we make. We order and reorder our priorities, and sometimes we make choices we’re not happy with later. It’s part of life. So you ask yourself: What’s the most important thing for you, right now?

  10. I feel like this needs to be distilled so it can go e.g. on twitter.

    “If you find yourself thinking the person you’re creating for can’t taste the difference between butter and margarine, you’ve started down a road that leads to McDonald’s.”

    “If you find yourself thinking someone you’re creating doesn’t know from butter or margarine, you’ve begun a road that leads to McDonald’s.”

    Needs work.

    Most of modern business is run exactly the opposite of what you describe, Steve. As you are no doubt aware.

  11. “the person you’re creating for” (v.1) ≠ “someone you’re creating” (v.2)
    (In case that was just a slip of the fingers. If you meant those senses, never mind.)

  12. @madgastronomer: I’ve heard that that’s how Piers Anthony decided to crank out Xanth and other series, after he was dissatisfied with the reception of Macroscope.

  13. I think it’s about making choices based on what you honestly believe will make the highest quality whatever it is — not the most profitable, most expedient, most indistinguishable-from-actual-quality, most popular. It’s okay if you’re wrong, or if you later learn a better way.

  14. I have a question: A friend of mine from work gets these large pierogis from the ******** ******** in ########. His way of cooking them seemed… not quite right. He threw them in a fry pan with margaine and fried them up. That’s it. My question is, what is a good way to cook perogies?

  15. janb: I have cooked perogies like that before and that is a perfectly good way to cook them if you want them to be crunchy on the outside without deep frying them. It would probably be better with butter, however I have never used real butter and therefore I am not sure.

  16. @James. Thanks, I was thinking to use butter instead of margarine as well. Didn’t think of deep frying though. Would you recommend olive oil, vegetable oil or canola oil for a deep fry? Would boiling work, or would they fall apart?

    BTW, I know I could look up recipes, but I wanted opinions from others on this site since so many of us appear to be as interested in food as in Vlad books. Or Vlad books with food in them. Speaking of which, @SKZB, I have had two diets ruined because I made the mistake of re-reading Dzur.

  17. janb – My wife makes the best perogies I’ve tasted (granted, not being much of a fan, they’re the only ones I actually like). Once they’re made, she boils them until they float. Then they’re drained, cooled & can be frozen for later use. In the final preparation, she fries them in a mixture of butter & olive oil (just enough olive oil to keep the butter from burning) & serves them with chopped, sauted (in butter of course) onions & sour cream. Heavenly! While there are as many filling choices as there are opinions, my particular favorite is: potato, old, sharp cheddar cheese (lots!), chopped, fried bacon (lots!) & black pepper (you guessed it – lots!). We’ve tried deep frying & the result just isn’t worth the effort. Having said that, I’ve found that you want an oil with a high smoke point for deep frying as it gets hotter & less oil is actually absorbed by the fried food. We use either corn oil or, when feeling flush, as it can be expensive, peanut oil. A lot of people use canola oil but I’m not fond of the flavour it imparts to food. Olive oil is a very poor choice for deep frying as it doesn’t get anywhere near hot enough. Hope this helps.


  18. How nice to know where the Valabar’s inspiration comes from! I always wondered. It seems like I, too, have a cookbook purchase in my near future. Sounds like he was a helluva guy.

    I do find it humorous that Chef Louis seems to embody a bit of Valabars:

    “Periodically, during dinner, he would come out to meet the patrons and say hello”

    and perhaps also a bit of Vlad’s restaurateur father’s perspective:

    “He strode around in rolled-up sleeves, wearing an apron and his trademark handlebar mustache, often telling diners, in a booming voice, what to order or questioning them about why something was left on a plate.” (from the LA Times Obit)

    I am reminded of Vlad’s father’s position that if a diner needed to add something to the dish, there was either something wrong with the dish or with the diner.

    Thanks for sharing Mr. Brust!

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