In The Kitchen With Unruly Women

K.D. Lang’s Indonesian Salad With Spicy Peanut Dressing

There is a commercial that’s haunted me for years. It opens with a tight shot of the foil cup of a Jell-o Mousse Temptations pudding cup, which is sensually peeled back by a disembodied hand to reveal the sinful indulgence — unnaturally airy whipped pudding — to a woman who seems perpetually on the brink of orgasm.

“Because after you’ve washed the bills and paid all the dishes, it’s finally me o’clock,” a wink-y voiceover intones while a blonde woman dressed in J.Jill sits on the hands of a giant clock, knocking away the hours with a gesture from her spoon. “It’s me o’clock,” the voiceover repeats. “Time for Jell-o.” I try not to think about this commercial very often; it upsets me greatly. Food writer Nicole Alper’s intro to Wild Women In the Kitchen: 101 Rambunctious Recipes & 99 Tasty Tales has a similar effect.

“Women of all generations and ages have shared one very special and constant lover — food,” writes Alper, before setting out into a few sentences painting food , something that just about everybody on this planet needs for survival, as a “sweet-talking seducer,” a tempestuous lover that keeps women — only women — on tenterhooks. Emotional terrorism via the allure of ripe strawberries and soufflé is an odd way to go.

The cookbook was published in 1996 and is a time capsule, lifting the curtain on a very specific time in the culture. Post-Women Who Run With The Wolves and Kathy Bates’-as-Towanda in Fried Green Tomatoes but pre-internet feminism, Wild Women in The Kitchen speaks to a very specific kind of woman. She’s the leader of your local chapter of the Red Hat Society who takes pleasure in making the tiniest of fusses in the bulk food aisle at Berkeley Bowl, just because she can. She’s wild, but she’s not wild.

The women featured in the book are both celebrities and historical figures. Isadora Duncan’s asparagus salad sits next to an imagined recipe for Roman poisoner Locusta’s “sumptuous stuffed mushrooms.” There’s an onion soup recipe from Les Halles that’s tied loosely to Joan of Arc, via a narrative thread that feels loose at best. Each woman featured in the book could be best described as unruly, stubborn enough to let their eccentricities define them in the face of the social mores of their times. Their wildness is further elucidated in a handy introductory blurb and the recipes are interspersed with sidebars that offer up tidbits of information. Immediately following Jessica Mitford’s solid recipe for Chicken Paprikas, a gray box informs the reader of other “women writers” that steam up the kitchen, followed by a list of books that feature food in the title; Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen sits in between Jeanette Winterson’s classic coming-out tale Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and a reference to “the turkey scene in The Accidental Tourist.”

The care in the book is evident, but the execution feels off at times. Wild women are rambunctious creatures, in full thrall of their own untamed states. A wild woman could easily make Belinda Carlisle’s recipe for Hot and Spicy Cauliflower a Go Go but to follow that recipe up with a list of “Songs for a Wild Kitchen” that are just songs and album titles that feature food feels like infantilization for no reason. This probably isn’t that deep. Maybe it is! Maybe I’m not wild enough to understand it.

I had a lot to chose from. Alice B. Toklas’s recipe for Haschich Fudge seemed appealing as did the aforementioned Chicken Paprikas. Instead, I made K.D. Lang’s Indonesian Salad with Spicy Peanut Dressing, only because I had most of the ingredients at home and because I have enjoyed “case/lang/veirs” immensely this summer. The recipe was simple: steam some vegetables, fry some tofu, throw some peanuts and brown sugar and lime juice into a blender and make a sauce. Without the surprisingly delicious dressing, the dish is mush: spinach and cabbage and potatoes and tofu, underseasoned and bland. I accidentally overcooked the potatoes because I set a dishtowel on fire and found myself distracted. It was…fine. Perfect for a dinner party where you only know the host and want to seem impressive. It’s no “constant craving” (I’m sorry), but for a late afternoon in the dregs of summer, it’s just the thing.