Articles in History
One of my first purchases upon moving to New Delhi, India, in 2005 was Charmaine O’Brien’s “Flavours of Delhi: A Food Lover’s Guide.” The guide became a favorite go-to as I looked to taste and discover the diverse culinary gems of India’s capital. I was therefore delighted to learn that a recent trip back to India would coincide with the launch of O’Brien’s new book, “The Penguin Food Guide to India.”
Now, having had my own copy in hand for a couple of weeks, I can tell you that each time I pick up this book, I am happily tormented. Her descriptions of regional delicacies, particularly the ones that I too have eaten from the same stall or restaurant, make my mouth water, often forcing me to put down the book, head to the kitchen and prepare some of my own favorite Indian recipes.
O’Brien, an Australian writer and culinary historian, first visited India in 1995. Since then, she has visited every state in India with the exception of three in the northeast. In essence, the book is her journey of discovery informed by the core truth that India does not have one homogenous cuisine, rather the greatness of its food lies in its enormous variety and subtlety.
Her primary goal — and she can be gratified in her success at its achievement — “was to create a historical and cultural guide to India’s regional cuisine and to recommend places where — domestic tourist or international visitor — can find distinct regional food.” She gives readers the tools to experience genuine, local flavors.
Long history flavors Indian food
This was an ambitious and enormous undertaking. India as a unique country is still relatively young. Aside from the last 64 years as an independent republic, India has, as O’Brien points out, “been occupied as a patchwork of kingdoms, principalities and chieftainships, each essentially functioning as an independent country.” Imagine if you drew a line straight down from the top of Denmark to the bottom of Italy and colored over all the countries west of that line, including the United Kingdom and Ireland, and then decided to write a book about the local flavors and food cultures of all those countries. That gives you a sense of the task she set for herself.
By Charmaine O’Brien
Note: Currently, the book is only available in hard copy in India, and soon Australia, but it can be purchased as an e-book.
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The book is divided by geographic region, and within these each regional state is given its own chapter, beginning with a concise and condensed history. The historical details O’Brien weaves and connects through the book make for engaging reading that surpasses many travel guidebooks. We learn that all of these past rulers left a culinary imprint affecting the development and evolution of a region’s cuisine.
O’Brien’s personal encounters and insightful observations keenly illustrate that the prevalence of local and regional food in India is not a new trend or movement prompted by discriminating foodies but is part of an intricate food system born out of necessity and survival that has evolved over thousands of years. She does, however, indicate that as India’s growing middle class increases its appetite for foreign foods, some of the country’s elite has switched their attention to the perceived health benefits of traditional regional cuisines.
There is so much interesting information to digest — among my favorite nuggets are the descriptions and names of dishes or ingredients in Hindi or a regional language. Some of them you want to chew and savor. Yet perhaps due to sheer volume (or poor indexing), they can be a challenge to return to for another taste. Even for someone familiar with some of these terms, I wanted a short glossary of the region’s dishes at the end of each chapter to refer to.
Similarly, while the selected cookbook suggestions are a good place to start for trying new regional recipes, a handful of recently published regional cookbooks would have been welcome additions.
When O’Brien first arrived in India, her knowledge of Indian food was limited to the rather homogenous Indian restaurant menus from her native Melbourne that in many ways continue to dot the globe. She realizes that many readers, whether it is their first or fifth trip to India, want to sample new dishes but are concerned with hygiene at food stalls or restaurants, fearing the dreaded “Delhi Belly.” Aware of this but also eager for you to become a culinary explorer, she offers support with thoughtful and reassuring dining recommendations as you veer off the typical tourist menu road map.
It is interesting that two of the most recent well-researched books on Indian cuisine, this one and “Tasting India” by Christine Mansfield, are by non-Indians. A decade ago, Indian chefs and food writers seemed to be more interested in cooking and writing about foreign cuisines. However, over the past five years, there has been a noticeable shift in Indian food professionals revisiting and exploring their culinary heritage.
India’s culinary landscape is so vast and nuanced that there is much more to be recorded. As I believe K.T. Achaya’s historical books on Indian cuisine inspired O’Brien, I hope this book motivates others to investigate and preserve India’s rich diverse cuisines.
Sautéed Amaranth Leaves With Coconut (Tamdbi Bhaji)
Throughout her travels, Charmaine O’Brien discovered that no matter where she was, Indians love dining on bright, leafy greens. On my own visits to South India, I also found that cooks enjoy adding green and red amaranth leaves to soups, dals or even making fresh chutneys out of them. Here is a recipe of my own that spotlights its flavor.
Along the Konkani coast, blood-red amaranth leaves are typically used to make this quick coconut accented side dish, which is suitable to accompany fish, meat or poultry. Increasingly, farmers markets are selling amaranth leaves. However, if they are unavailable, beet greens, Swiss chard or spinach are wonderful substitutes.
4 cups red or green amaranth (or beet greens, Swiss chard or spinach)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cup finely sliced onion
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 green cayenne chilies, seeded and finely chopped
Pinch of turmeric
Salt to taste
¼ cup to ½ cup grated coconut (fresh, frozen or dry unsweetened)
1. Wash the amaranth leaves a couple of times in running water to remove any dirt or grit. Drain, cut off any of the tough bottom parts of the stalk and discard. Roughly chop the trimmed greens into bite-sized pieces.
2. Heat the oil in a sauté pan over medium high heat. Add the sliced onion and cook for 2 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium and cook until the onions are soft and translucent, about 5 minutes.
3. Add the chopped garlic and green chillies to the pan and continue to cook for another 2 minutes.
4. Toss in the chopped amaranth and a pinch of turmeric. Mix well, cover and cook for about 4 minutes until the leaves are wilted and tender. If using spinach, the cooking time will most likely be halved. Remove the lid and continue to cook to allow any excess moisture to evaporate.
5. Add the grated coconut, salt to taste and sauté for another minute. Serve immediately.
With shrimp: Many Konkani cooks like to toss in some sweet, tiny shrimp close to the end of cooking. Use 1 cup small shrimp (or medium shrimp roughly diced) cleaned and deveined, and add it at the same time as the grated coconut. Cook until the shrimp has changed color and is just cooked through.
With cooked chickpeas: If you have some extra cooked chickpeas, black-eyed peas or kidney beans leftover in the fridge, toss in about a half cup of them into the pan when adding the greens and continue accordingly.
Top composite photo:
“The Penguin Food Guide to India” book jacket, with author Charmaine O’Brien. Credit: Photo of author courtesy of the Australian Consulate in Mumbai
The idea that foods have aphrodisiac properties is quite old and found in all cultures, but this notion has waned with the rise of modern science.
Arab Muslim culture has had its aphrodisiacal foods, a phenomenon surprising to many people who think of Islam as a prudish religion that bans alcohol and frowns upon the sexual explicit.
However, a millennium ago, the elite in Europe began to change their attitudes toward eating, stimulated by the place of food in Muslim theology as represented in depictions of the Garden of Delights. The sensual pleasures of eating as portrayed in the Garden intrigued Europeans who began to associate luxurious dining with the food of the Arabs. Muslim sensuousness must have appeared attractive as a counterpoint to the ascetic life demanded of Christians. Already by the 12th century the Arabs had a rich poetry concerning wine and sexually explicit literature.
In the Arabic tradition there are “the two good things,” the translation of the Arabic al-atyabān. I always found it interesting that there isn’t a single mention of this idea in Arabic gastronomical thinking in any book on Arab cuisine or, for that matter, in any Mediterranean cookbook. But I alluded to these good things in my book “A Mediterranean Feast.” The two good things are food and sex.
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Food and sex are two of the three “fleshly delights” of this world in a saying attributed to the seventh-century Arab poet Ta’abbata Sharrān. “I have never enjoyed anything as much as these three things: eating flesh, riding on flesh, and rubbing flesh against flesh.” The Arabic literary interactions of food and sex are manifold. Some stories find the women berating their husbands for eating and drinking too much but neglecting them in bed.
A good appetite for food and for love was seen as perfectly compatible. There’s the story of Aishah bint Talha, a granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad’s father-in-law, who says to her husband the morning after the wedding night, “I have never seen anyone like you; you have eaten as much as seven men, prayed as much as seven men, and [had sex] as much as seven men.”
Food and sex inspire writers
Many of these stories, such as the bawdy tale of “The Porter and the Three Ladies of Baghdad” in “The Thousand and One Nights,” have a narrative formula that can almost be described as eating, drinking and having sex.
The stories get randier as in the “Slaughterhouse-cleaner and the Noble Lady,” also in “The Thousand and One Nights.” The lady wants revenge on her unfaithful husband and gets it by having an affair with the filthiest man she can find, the guy who cleans the latrines. He says, after their coitus, that he’d like to kiss the lady’s left hand (used for wiping) rather than her right hand (used for eating). This mixture of kitchen humor with scatological humor reflects the fact that the lady first looked for her husband in the outhouse but had found him instead in flagrante delicto in the kitchen, rogering a cook.
But the battle between love and food in Arabic poetry doesn’t always end in a truce. A Hispano-Arab poet, Ibn Mascūd, renounces love for food:
“If you ask me with whom I am in love and why my eyes
Pour forth tears,
I say: a sikbāj*, dishes of jamalī
Bruised white flour is sweeter to me than the saliva of the beloved who is embraced.”
The West has its own aphrodisiacal food traditions, although the dishes might be different.
Lovers turn to chiles, because of their active ingredient capsaicin; bananas, because of their phallus shape; asparagus (same reason); oysters, for their zinc content and their tactile resemblances; vanilla, because it’s a stimulant for the nerves; salmon and walnuts, because of their omega-3 content, which keeps sex-hormone production humming; red wine, because it relaxes and reduces inhibitions; pomegranates, because they increase genital sensitivity; and chocolate.
There, now you should have a good idea of and guide to what you’ll prepare your sweetheart on Valentine’s Day.
* Sikbāj dishes, a kind of stew made with vinegar, were of Persian origin and very popular in the 10th century; jamalī is a kind of stew with innards.
I caught Ed Behr on the phone just as the writer was wrapping up a story about what he called, in an atypical struggle for the right word, “contemporary, innovative, imaginative, fashionable, modern restaurant cooking.” It would be the lead story for the 92nd edition of “The Art of Eating,” the quarterly newsletter he founded almost 30 years ago and has been publishing more or less regularly ever since.
But the highly evolved and ultra-complex haute cuisine of modern restaurant chefs seemed, at least to me, a long way from the subject of my phone call, which was Behr’s latest book, “50 Foods: The Essentials of Good Taste,” just published by Penguin Press. The book is a series of essays on a gamut of foods Behr finds interesting, challenging or curious, for one reason or another. A lot of the foods he writes about — cantaloupe, for instance, or cabbage, green beans, lemons, corn, rice, lettuce — are the kind of fundamental, even humble ingredients to be found in the kitchen of just about anyone who cooks.
So how does this relate to modern restaurants, to the radical creations of stars like Ferran Adrià or Heston Blumenthal, to mention two names that Behr brought up?
He was quick to explain: “The topics in ‘50 Foods,’ ” he said, “are timeless; they’ll be around for a long time to come. And that’s what I set out to write, a book that would endure for a very long time. Now, with this article, I want to make the connection between those topics and modern cuisine” — and, he might have added, with the almost relentless pursuit of novelty and the esoteric that seems to characterize contemporary cooking at that high professional level.
“With all this sophistication,” he went on, “there’s an enormous lack of information about particular topics, even about food in general. In the book, I wanted to get to the essence of the thing, the nuts and bolts of what it is, along with how to choose it, the flavors that might complement it, buying information, and even when it’s relevant, what wine to drink with it.”
’50 Foods’ not a cookbook, but may inspire readers to head to the kitchen
There is not a recipe, however, anywhere in the book, although an experienced cook could certainly derive some excellent ideas to put into practice. But this is decidedly not a cookbook, even if reading it may eventually drive you into the kitchen to try out a project.
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By Edward Behr
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And not all the 50 foods are basics, by any means, although it’s true that what’s exotic for one diner or cook can be dead ordinary for another. Take honey, for instance, which Behr calls “one of the most varied, delicious tastes of all foods, and it’s possibly the food most obviously and directly linked to the place it comes from, sometimes to a short period of days and the particular plants then in flower.” In 9½ tightly organized pages, Behr teases out the esoterica of bees and bee pasture; nectar; colony collapse disorder; industrial and artisanal honey production; honeycombs and why they’re important; the flavors of various honeys (acacia, lime, lemon, tupelo); what to look for when you buy honey; how to store it; how to substitute honey for sugar in a recipe; what complements it best (yogurt, very fresh cheeses); and how (not) to serve it with wine. In short, if you’re interested in honey, here is everything you will need to know short of how to make it yourself. And if you’re not interested in honey (I’m not, though I found the entry fascinating), just move on to the next topic, “Lamb and Mutton,” or the one before it, “Ham and Bacon.”
“50 Foods” is not an encyclopedia, not at all. Part history, part aesthetic appreciation, part a series of strong, knowledgeable and educated value judgments, this is a reading book, a delightful companion on the bedside table where, if you’re like me, you might pick it up in the middle of the night in order to peruse a section on, say, butter, where you will learn of this ideal complement: “crisp raw radishes eaten French style, with unsalted butter, coarse sea salt, and bread that’s either fully dark or tan from flour containing a portion of bran.” It’s enough to make a girl get up and raid the refrigerator right then and there!
Caviar, oysters, salmon and truffles are among the fancy, expensive, perhaps elitist foods he covers, but he goes into great detail also about pears, plums and apples. If you read the section on “The Baguette” and then the one on “The ‘Country’ Loaf,” you will have an excellent summation of the recent, somewhat troubled history of bread in France. And if you read the several sections on various cheeses you may well conclude, as Behr does in the preface, that “cheese is probably the best food just as wine is the best drink.”
In short, the words are those of a superbly opinionated writer. But not an ignorant writer, because Ed Behr is famous for the perspicacity with which he tackles almost any subject, but especially any topic having to do with food or drink.
“The Art of Eating”
You may not have heard of “The Art of Eating,” but it is a publication read with attention and fascination by the likes of Alice Waters, René Redzepi, Dan Barber and lesser-known but equally important movers and shakers in the world of food and wine. The first issue, a scant eight pages, was written and produced entirely by Behr, and it continued that way for several years. Now, “The Art of Eating” runs to 48 information-packed pages, handsomely produced with the help of his wife, Kim, who functions as something between marketing manager and communications director. And it frequently includes contributions from others, both known and unknown (I’ve occasionally written for it). The current issue includes articles on Maryland hot peppers, old-fashioned blanquette de veau, a practically unknown Italian wine called Pelaverga, book reviews, restaurant reviews — in short an eclectic and provocative mix. You can read a few samples from back issues or subscribe (a nice holiday gift, perhaps to go with a copy of “50 Foods”) at www.artofeating.com.
Top photo: “50 Foods: The Essentials of Good Taste” by Edward Behr. Author photo credit: Natalie Stultz
Good writing about food is not different from good writing more generally, but cookbooks written by established literary figures can be especially satisfying. “Memories with Food at Gipsy House,” the work of Roald Dahl and his wife, Felicity, is one such book that I return to from time to time, for it shows not only his consistent interest in food but a tender side not often revealed in Dahl’s other work.
By Felicity and Roald Dahl
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In much of his writing, his approach to food is mischievous if not downright wicked as when gluttonous children are punished in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and in “Matilda.” That novel is now a current Broadway hit musical, where a naughty, greedy child is made to eat an entire chocolate cake by himself, with success I might add.
But my favorite wicked food moment in Dahl occurs in his short story “Lamb to Slaughter,” in which a pregnant, loving wife kills her husband with a frozen leg of lamb just after he announces he is leaving her. She gets away with the crime by getting rid of the evidence, cooking the meat and serving it to the four investigating policemen she invites to dinner.
Although I am happy to point out that “Memories with Food at Gipsy House” is not entirely free of Dahl’s biting humor, its purpose is to honor and celebrate the lives of the author’s extended family and friends through family recipes that connect people the Dahls loved to the couple’s favorite dishes. Writing such a book was a process of gathering-in so that the cookbook was a summary of what meant the most to Roald Dahl just before he died in fall 1990. “Memories with Food at Gipsy House” was published posthumously.
Dahl’s was a household where food was respected and enjoyed and where paying tribute to meaningful dishes was essential. Because the book is so personal, its recipes are eclectic, ranging as they do from Dahl’s mother’s chicken concoction that contains canned potatoes and frozen peas to the complicated latticed lamb and apricot roulade with onion sauce, a dish that calls for a long list of ingredients that include puff pastry, chopped almonds and Middle Eastern spices. What limits the book as a cookbook — recipes sometimes chosen for their sentimental value — is also its greatest strength as a personal statement about love of family.
Famous last meals
Occasionally pulling back from too much sentiment, Dahl threw in a chapter called “The Hangman’s Suppers,” which reminds us that back in the days when convicted murderers were hanged in England, they were allowed to request a last meal. Dahl asked well-known friends what they would order for their last meal were they to face the hangman.
Actor Dustin Hoffman didn’t think he would have much of an appetite, but for the sake of the game chose mother’s milk. “Might as well go out the way I came in,” he said. Writer John le Carré was also transported back in time and ordered up a nursery meal that includes bread and butter pudding served, he hoped, by a young and pretty nanny.
Mystery writer P.D. James provided so complete a menu with proper wines that I suspect she had previously given the question serious thought. She went so far as to order two desserts because she figured she would no longer have to worry about her weight.
And, this being Dahl, his love of chocolate is deliciously dramatized in his elaborate discussion of British candies that were invented in the 1930s, including such classics as Mars Bars, Kit Kats and Smarties. He likened this golden age of chocolate to what in music would be compositions by Bach, Mozart and Beethoven and in literature to the masterpieces of Tolstoy, Balzac and Dickens.
He ends his disquisition by declaring, “If I were a headmaster, I would get rid of the history teacher and get a chocolate teacher instead and my pupils would study a subject that affected all of them.”
Always end a meal with chocolate
Such devilish perceptions enhance this food memoir, a genre that can be tiresome in the hands of people who take themselves too seriously. Roald Dahl’s voice keeps the tone of this book lively and entertaining, but at the same time pays homage to the people who have meant the most to him, and food is his vehicle for expressing both love and his roguish humor. That’s the thing about good writers writing about food. They can take us anywhere.
Although so many of Dahl’s books remain popular, “Memories with Food at Gipsy House” has gone largely unnoticed, probably because it is a cookbook and assumed by many to be unimportant. Bad enough to miss out on the insights provided by his descriptions of food, but to miss out on the colorful autobiographical writing and amusing anecdotes found here is a sad loss indeed.
The book reminded me that although critical evaluations of the lives of women automatically take into account their personal side, the same is not true for men. It is therefore all the more refreshing to find descriptions of Roald Dahl holding forth at a festive old pine table 12 feet long and 3 feet wide, covered with quantities of such sumptuous foods as Norwegian prawns, lobster, caviar and roast beef. At the end of the meal he would produce a battered box stuffed with chocolate goodies and announce, “Treats!” It is the only way to end a decent meal.
Top: “Memories with Food at Gipsy House” and other books from Roald Dahl. Credit: Barbara Haber
Grand Forks is a small middle-American town in North Dakota that was pinned onto the pop culture map last year by a single restaurant review in a local newspaper. When an earnest review of an Olive Garden restaurant went viral on the Internet, the seasoned reporter who penned the story was probably the most surprised of all.
At age 87, columnist Marilyn Hagerty has been reporting stories of local interest in the Grand Forks Herald for 56 years. But that March 2012 review won her recognition beyond her hometown audience. The compilation of her work spanning 26 of those years, entitled “Grand Forks: A History of American Dining in 128 Reviews,” is the delightful result of her overnight success.
My affection for this new book does not stem from defending against supercilious foodies who derided her Olive Garden review, nor jumping on the bandwagon of those who backed her up, like the culinary master of sarcastic retort, Anthony Bourdain. It is much more personal than that. I like her writing style and I can identify all too well with her subject matter.
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By Marilyn Hagerty
For starters, Hagerty’s first-person voice is full of next-door neighbor character that makes this book fun to read. It’s not often that I break into a chuckle when I’m deep into a cookbook. With every review, she paints a clear picture of the setting, the food and her “Constant Companion,” her meat-eating husband of 64 years. It’s clear from her uncluttered prose that she must have been drawn more to Hemingway than Jane Austen in her formative years. Food journalists everywhere should take a lesson from this.
Describing a local burger joint in 1987, Hagerty wrote:
“You give your order at the counter. They ask your name. You take a seat. They call your name. You pick up your burger and proceed to an extensive topping bar. You take your malt — in the metal can. You eat your burger, your fries and your malt. This is a happy place. This is Topper’s.”
Over the years, Hagerty visited and ate at every local eatery within driving distance of her small hometown, starting with mom-and-pop places popular in the mid-20th century and gradually shifting to well-known national chains and fast-food outlets. Sadly, updated annotations to the reprinted reviews reveal that many of the independent establishments, like Topper’s, are no longer in business. It’s a sign of the times in much of the country, but not everywhere — as I can attest.
‘Grand Forks’ a reminder of home
I spend my summers in a place eerily similar to the Grand Forks of Hagerty’s early work. These places still exist. I live down the street from purely local eateries such as Wimpy’s coffee shop and Bunny’s Custard. There is no McDonald’s, no Starbucks and no other ubiquitous brands unless you count the Subway franchise that pays rent to the corner gas station. Most mom and pop restaurants in town have been in business since I was too young to order on my own.
But years ago, I moved away to expand my culinary horizons and gain exposure to other life experiences. It was not until I had the privilege of reading through Hagerty’s disarming book that I looked at my own backyard in an entirely different light.
In succession, her reviews paint a disappearing landscape of regional fare, blanketed over by the monotonous menus of the chain restaurants. Although it may have been an unintentional long-term project, Hagerty’s new book documents this glacial shift. Some books enlighten because they broaden your horizons. This one simply shined a light on what was already within eyesight and reminded me to enjoy it while I still can.
Top photo composite:
Author Marilyn Hagerty. Credit: John Stennes, Grand Forks Herald
Book jacket courtesy of Ecco Books
The cookbook “Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens,” first published in 1970 and still in print, documented the history of cooking in the Canadian province. The book, written by Marie Nightingale, is still celebrated today. This story is the second in a two-part series and will explore the cookbooks impact on cooks and chefs in Nova Scotia. The first story in the series examined Nightingale’s efforts to write the book.
Marie Nightingale’s “Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens” was first self-published in 1970. After its first few printings, however, Nightingale found a new printer with Nimbus Publishing. The book is still a top seller with the company, with more than 200,000 copies printed. “It speaks to the timelessness of the recipes,” says Patrick Murphy, the managing editor at Nimbus. He points out books like “Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens” help keep Nova Scotia’s culinary traditions alive. “The historical aspect to the book keeps it a favorite. They are classic recipes from this corner of the world, and so there has never really been a danger of them becoming ‘out of fashion’ just by the nature of what they represent.”
‘Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens’ serves as a useful tool
For some people, the book represents a culinary heritage that could have easily disappeared. Craig Flinn is a chef and cookbook author. “Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens” was the first cookbook his mother owned, and he still owns the very same copy. For him, the book is not just as a repository of information, but a tool to be used by home chefs. “‘Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens’ is about keeping those dishes alive and to the forefront,” he says. “We tend to be a busy culture and we don’t have mothers and granddaughters teaching their kids how to cook anymore. Cookbooks have become more important. ‘Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens’ made me understand that every region’s culture was greatly influenced and represented in the food we ate.”
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By Marie Nightingale
Down East Books,
2011, 208 pages
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Another big fan of Nightingale’s oeuvre is Michael Howell. He’s the president of Slow Food Nova Scotia and a former chef. Like Flinn, Michael remembers his mother owning a copy of the book, an edition he still owns. “It has some food stains that I can almost remember when they splattered the pages,” he says. Howell’s relationship with “Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens” is special. A few years ago, Nimbus publishing decided to prepare a 40th anniversary edition for 2010. He and Nightingale updated a few recipes, and Howell himself wrote a new foreword for the book. In it he describes the recipes that gave his copy its own distinctive spots and splatters, dishes of “colcannon, baked beans [and] blueberry grunt.” His copy may have lost its front and back covers, but that just speaks to how useful the book has been to him. “I learned that recipes did not have to be complicated to be delicious,” Howell says, “one of the central tenets that my cuisine has adhered to over the years.”
“In most cases, a cookbook has a market span of a year or two,” Nightingale writes in the preface to the 2010 edition of her book. But most cookbooks don’t give readers — as well as those who cook from it — such an immediate connection to their past. A past that could’ve been lost in a food world that values the modern and the contemporary. Not bad for a little book that was published with a plastic coil binding. “I think part of the charm of ‘Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens’ is that it is unassuming,” Flinn says. “It’s all about the content, not the glitz and the glam. I think she would be surprised that it’s been around this long. I don’t think she thought she was writing a classic when she started. You feel like you’re buying a piece of history.”
Here is one recipe from the book.
(A dinner of new vegetables)
The recipe below is written as is in “Out Of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens,” with very few measurements and relying on the home chef to know exactly how much they would have and want of each vegetable found in the dish. Hodge Podge is usually served in early summer, when the variety of vegetables is at its best in Nova Scotia.
1 cup diced salt pork
1 cup cream
1 cup vegetable stock
1. Prepare new vegetables. The string beans, carrots and potatoes may be cooked together in boiling salted water. Cook the peas and cauliflower separately.
2. Fry the salt pork to a golden brown and add the cream and an equal amount of vegetable stock. Season with chives.
3. Bring to a boil quickly and serve over the vegetables.
From “Out Of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens,” with permission from Nimbus Publishing
Top photo: A vintage copy of “Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens” by Marie Nightingale. Credit: Simon Thibault
The first thing to say about Anne Willan’s “The Cookbook Library” is that for years or decades to come, this beautiful volume is going to be an indispensable resource for readers and researchers in love with the history of cookbooks. Certainly it will become one of my own hunting grounds for the answers to many mysteries.
The next thing to say is that it must have been an unimaginably difficult work to compile and publish, one of those productions marked with awkward traces of their own birth pangs. Something like three or four different books seem to be going on here at the same time — all worthy, all fascinating, but not all harmoniously meshed or equally well-realized.
The overall framework is a kind of gallery tour through the huge and important private library amassed by Willan and her husband, Mark Cherniavsky, over a period of many decades. The book is studded with many dozens of title pages, frontispieces, engravings, etchings and other images from the Willan-Cherniavsky collection. (All illustrations are black and white, a drawback only with reproductions of medieval illuminations and later paintings.)
The couple’s “cookbook library” is also the springboard for a historical survey of cooking, cookbooks, cookbook writers and recipes from the late Middle Ages to about 1830. The material is organized into four substantial chapters covering developments throughout the four centuries from 1400 to 1800, two shorter chapters addressing the late 14th and early 19th centuries and a few dozen boxed essays on special topics such as the medicinal angle of early cookbooks and the evolution of table furnishings. As if this complex design weren’t enough, each chapter also concludes with a handful of recipes (38 in all) taken from books in the collection, with the original text followed by Willan’s lengthy adaptations for modern home kitchens.
A spirited historical overview
The best-realized part of all this, aside from sheer visual plenty, is the general historical overview. Willan manages to place dozens of obscure (to most lay readers, anyhow) figures in lucid, lively context while sketching trajectories of influences from one seminal work to its progeny. Her spirited sketches of people like Taillevent, Platina, Elizabeth Raffald, Sir Kenelm Digby and Marie-Antoine Carême will make “The Cookbook Library” an invaluable adjunct to food history courses everywhere, not to mention a nifty tool for self-taught dippers and browsers.
The subsidiary boxes do a fine job of bringing crucial but often unsung issues — for instance, the literacy or illiteracy of cooks through the ages — to attention. And Willan can trenchantly remind us that “historical” cooking techniques aren’t terribly distant from living memory; one of the best things in the book is her childhood recollection of being taught by an old family cook to beat the batter for Christmas cakes with her bare hand in a rural Yorkshire kitchen. (“First the butter: I would squish with my fingers, then curving my hand like a spoon would beat it to a cream, the warmth of my little, eager hand helping the mix.”)
All the more pity that as a historian, culinary historian or elucidator of texts, the author is frequently out of her depth. Owning a notable library of historic cookbooks unfortunately has nothing to do with scholarly chops. Willan seems to believe that Piers Plowman (not William Langland) wrote the Middle English poem “Piers Plowman.” Her unfamiliarity with the conventions of scribal abbreviations produces garblings like “Pep” for “Peper” (pepper) in a transcribed 14th-century recipe for “cormarye” (roast pork in a spiced wine sauce). Elsewhere, she marvels over the “spartan” character of a 1791 dinner at the court of George III without noticing that it’s for “Their Majesties Pages,” not “Their Majesties” and mangles the title of the oldest book in the Willan-Cherniavsky collection, a 1491 edition of St. John Cassian’s “On the Establishment of Monastic Communities and the Remedies of the Eight Principal Vices,” by thrice writing “viliorum” for “vitiorum” (vices).
The left hand sometimes doesn’t appear to know what the right hand is doing. Having pointed out that Lucy Emerson’s “New-England Cookery” (1808) was almost wholly plagiarized from Amelia Simmons’ “American Cookery” (1796), Willan then manages on the same page to draw inferences about Emerson from her book’s title page without observing that it’s repeated almost verbatim from Simmons. About 40 pages later, she reproduces one of the cribbed Emerson recipes (a squash pudding) without mentioning its provenance.
The difficulties of old recipes
The reconstructed recipes, which occupy acres of page space and obviously have had much work bestowed on them, are the weakest part of the effort. You never know whether you’re going to find penetrating insights into the nuts and bolts of old recipes or stumble on maddening failures to think through the meaning of some original word or direction.
A very few examples: Modern commercial brown sugar is no proper equivalent of the “Madeira sugar” in a 16th-century quince jelly. (Madeira sugar was white enough to have been dubbed the island’s “white gold.”) Gallina morisca in a 17th-century Spanish recipe almost certainly refers not to a Moorish style of cooking chickens but to a particular variety of poultry — in fact, today it sometimes means “guinea hen.” The chocolate in Vincent La Chapelle’s “Chocolate Cream” (1733) would have been a coarse-ground, grainy substance more akin to today’s Mexican chocolate than the smoothly conched modern dark chocolate in Willan’s reconstruction. The “rape-vinegar” in Maria Eliza Rundell’s pickled lemon recipe (1811) would have been made not from “wild turnips” but from wine-press leavings.
It has to be said that reconstructing historical recipes is difficult stuff even for skilled culinary historians; probably Willan would have been prudent to make these a less prominent part of the general plan. “The Cookbook Library” is still a triumphant contribution to both the study of culinary history and the ranks of treasurable books on cooking. Would that the execution of its grand design were less erratic, but it belongs in any real cookbook lover’s library.
Anne Mendelson is a freelance writer, editor, and reviewer specializing in food-related subjects. She has worked as consultant on several cookbooks, was a contributing editor to the late lamented Gourmet, and has been an occasional contributor to the New York Times Dining Section and the Los Angeles Times Food Section. Her biography of Irma Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker, Stand Facing the Stove (Henry Holt 1996), won widespread critical praise for its insights into the history of modern American cooking. In 2000 – 2001 she held a fellowship at the Dorothy and Lewis Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, working on a study of food history in New York City. (Part of this research, a survey of pre-European foodways among the Lenape Indians, won the 2007 Sophie Coe Prize in Food History at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery.) Her most recent book is Milk, a cultural-historical survey of milk and fresh dairy products (Knopf 2008).She is now working, with a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation, on a study of how the global Chinese diaspora is influencing Chinese food in America.Top photo composite:
Book jacket courtesy of University of California Press
Mark Cherniavsky and Anne Willan. Credit: Patty Williams
Two new books about Spanish food raise more questions than they answer, the principal one being why Spain is such a hard sell in the United States. Spanish cuisine, after all, is not so different from that of Provençe or Italy. Spain, Provençe and Italy all rely on that celebrated triad of olive oil, bread and wine, along with lots of fresh vegetables, lots of seafood and a seasoning palate that includes garlic, basil, bay leaves, parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. Admittedly there are huge differences, and I’ve spent a lifetime trying to define them. But in the larger perspective, the similarities are compelling.
Why, then, do we rush to buy cookbooks and frequent restaurants touting the food of Provençe, Sicily, Tuscany, Naples and the Riviera, while we ignore the cuisine of Spain? As far as I’m concerned it’s our loss.
That said, I’m not convinced that the books under review help repair the problem. Roden’s “The Food of Spain” is not, alas, her finest, not compared to her magisterial first effort, “The Book of Middle Eastern Food,” (1974) or the equally great “Book of Jewish Food” (1996). Her latest effort is steeped in the melancholy fragrance of a committee effort, initiated by a publisher who saw a market and filled it with a prestigious author, an enormous number of handsome photographs (not one of which is identified by a caption), a large 609-page format with loads of white space, and precious few recipes (about 180) for the size and price: $45.
More gazpacho, please
Little in this book suggests Roden has a personal passion for the food of Spain. Instead, we are presented with a pristine, well-mannered, bloodless production, like a proper bread-and-butter note written to acknowledge a hostess for each thing that happened on a long and rather boring weekend. In a work that purports to be about all the food of Spain, why is there just one recipe for the iconic and multi-variant gazpacho? (The index of Janet Mendel’s “My Kitchen in Spain” lists seven.)
Roden’s lengthy introduction gives an overview of Spanish food history, with plenty of romance about Jews and Arabs (called by the dated term “Moors”) and their impact. But what happened in Spain in the past century is more compelling and better speaks to the state of food in the country today. The 35 years since Franco’s death have seen a major increase in the production of fine wine and olive oil, whether premium extra virgins or the current ocean of industrial quality — Spain now makes one-third of all the world’s olive oil. Along with a revival of regional breads, cheeses and sausages, much of it for export, there has been a troubling deterioration of regional and local traditions, replaced by what we might call supra-national foodways, MacDonald’s and the like — now that’s a story worth telling. But it’s not told here and, while I may be accused of targeting Roden because she didn’t write the book I would like, I still think she misses the mark.
That said, I will give credit for good recipes that work well. I tried a hearty and deeply satisfying lentil soup and delicious empañaditas, savory turnovers made of olive oil pastry filled with a mix of tuna, onions and red peppers. Both performed exactly as promised, though I added spicing to the empañaditas — saffron and smoky pimentón de la Vera which online sources included for this treat.
In the end I’m not sure for whom this book is intended. Surely not home cooks: Would you want to dribble olive oil and egg yolk over the pages of such a handsome production? I’m guessing “The Food of Spain” is intended as a gift book, one that makes a statement with its hefty look and price.
Down Under Take on Spain’s Food
Australian chef Frank Camorra’s “Rustica: A Return to Spanish Home Cooking” was written with Richard Cornish, a television producer. The text is sprinkled with anecdotes of characters encountered during journeys around Camorra’s ancestral Spain and, along with photographs presumably taken by the author, these are the most delightful part of the book.
As a cookbook, “Rustica” suffers from some serious defects, so much so that I hardly know what to make of it. The publisher seems to have bought it, as is, from Australia because recipes require difficult to find and even mysterious ingredients — a fish called trevally, a cockerel (rooster), fresh, young lemon leaves. Chapter subjects are inconsistent — some deal with types of service (tapas), others with regions (the Basque country) and others with ingredients (sherry, salt, fish). Seafood recipes are scattered throughout so it’s hard to know, if you’re thinking of fish for dinner, where to begin.
Again, I tried two recipes, one of which was for that cockerel cooked in red wine, just like a coq au vin but flavored with cinnamon and black peppercorns. It was delicious, even made with an ordinary free-range chicken instead of the rooster. But the second recipe, for Tortas de Aceite, or Crunchy Anise Cookies was, quite simply, a disaster. I had to add about three times the amount of liquid called for, olive oil and anise liqueur, to get a dough that I could form into a log. In the end, after my “improvements,” the cookies were tasty, but the dough certainly didn’t perform the way the recipe predicted.
So what should a person do who wants to learn more about the rich and varied cuisine of this fascinating country? You can’t go wrong with any books from Mendel, who has lived in southern Spain most of her adult life. For a more chef-like perspective, Jose Andrés, the ebullient Washington chef, erstwhile Ferran Adrià acolyte and tireless promoter of Spanish food, writes engagingly about the dishes of his homeland with recipes geared to American cooks. You’ll learn far more from these writers.
Nancy Harmon Jenkins is the author of several books, the latest of which is her newly revised “The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.” Her other food books include, “Cucina del Sole: A Celebration of the Cuisines of Southern Italy” and “The Essential Mediterranean,” which looks at a dozen foods key to understanding Mediterranean cuisines. She also wrote “Flavors of Tuscany,” “Flavors of Puglia” and “The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.” She is working on a book on Atlantic salmon. A former staff writer with The New York Times, Nancy continues to contribute to the Times in addition to writing for The Washington Post, Saveur, Food & Wine and other national publications. She currently divides her time between a Tuscan farmhouse and a home on the coast of Maine where she was born and raised. She has lived and worked throughout the countries of the Mediterranean, at various times making a home in Spain, France, Italy, Lebanon, and Cyprus as well as in Hong Kong and England. You can read more of her food writing on her site, NancyHarmonJenkins.com.
Top photo composite:
Book jacket for “Rustica.” Credit: Courtesy of Chronicle Books
Book jacket for “The Food of Spain.” Credit: Courtesy of Ecco
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