I’ve been watching a PBS series on Michael Feinstein, a great interpreter of music from “The Great American Songbook,” popular music that includes tunes from Broadway shows and Hollywood films. When not performing, Feinstein spends his time tracking down and preserving old recordings, tapes, sheet music and other evidence that reveals the work of people who contributed to his field. Feinstein’s efforts to preserve our musical heritage inspired me to show appreciation for what might be called “The Great American Cookbook,” the works of food writers, some well-known and others forgotten, whose contributions make up our country’s food heritage.
Bert Greene, who died in 1988, was a food columnist and cookbook author admired by many, but is perhaps unknown to young people today. Greene not only wrote well about food, but wrote well, period. And he always gave credit to others, often with warm-hearted and humorous anecdotes sprinkled throughout his writing. In 1966 he opened — and for 10 years ran — a high-end takeout store in Amagansett, Long Island, N.Y., thought to be among the first of its kind in the nation. His first cookbook, “The Store,” tells the story of how a group of Greene’s friends vacationing in the Hamptons got the impulse to open a food shop that catered to the sophisticated taste of New Yorkers. They successfully scrounged around for investors, and Greene and Denis Vaughan, one of the partners, produced memorable dishes ranging from simple picnic fare to refined catering for large parties.
What Greene makes clear in “The Store” is his love of fresh vegetables or, as he puts it, “anything and everything from the garden.” Well before we were all talking about eating locally grown food, Greene was planting and harvesting young vegetables and knew exactly how to prepare them. The store produced at least a dozen vegetable dishes daily, and Greene cast a wide net for inspiration, offering such dishes as cold Norwegian roasted peppers, newly minted peas, or cold corn ensalada Mexicana, along with the more expected array of potato salads made, of course, with Green’s own mayonnaise.
Greene’s abiding love of vegetables
But, apart from coming up with appealing recipes, Greene had a gift for storytelling, and to my mind, his was one of the most distinctive voices in food literature, best described as sweet-natured and humorous. He called himself a “culinary busybody” because he had the habit of sidling up to complete strangers in supermarkets, peering into their carts, and telling them, for instance, not to buy the tired broccoli, but rather the perky-looking cauliflower. Instead of thanks, he received “the kind of withering glance usually reserved for subway flashers for my efforts,” he reported.
Of Greene’s six books, my favorite is “Greene on Greens,” published 10 years after “The Store” and more evidence of his abiding love of vegetables. In his own words, the book was “a love letter to the 30 or so vegetables, green and otherwise, that I prize most in all the world.” To many of his outstanding recipes he provides an engaging context so that his section on celery and celery root turns out to be all about the French writer, Colette, who once went on a celery diet. He points out that her way of making contact with life was utterly sensory, that “when she entered an unfamiliar garden, she would kick off her shoes and walk barefoot — crumpling leaves on her tongue and chewing random stalks. … She simply had to know every single thing there was to know about life. Everything!”
Recipes live forever
But the anecdote in this book that stays with me most has to do with his mother, a hard-headed but loving woman who did not immediately understand the life her son had chosen. In his chapter on zucchini, Greene recalls the time she came down from New York City to Amagansett to care for him while he recuperated from an appendectomy. They fell into the habit of strolling through his vegetable garden in the late afternoon, with Greene well aware that being surrounded by verdant edibles was a new experience for his mother. No longer impressed by the abundance of tomatoes, peppers, peas and beans, she came across a newly opened squash blossom, lifted it and cried out. “There on the ground,” Greene said, “were the first zucchini of the season. Five of them, tiny as a child’s fingers and still fuzzy in their green wrapping. Without a second thought I picked one, then another, and handed them to my mother. On our knees, we ate the tender young squash raw. The taste? Forgive me, but almost 20 years later it is still impossible to describe.
” ‘Kiddo,’ said my mother at last, ‘this makes you know there really is a God.’
“She had never been so right in her life.”
At one time, Greene said about himself and others who have contributed to our food heritage, “Cooking fame does not last forever. With luck, recipes do!” I am hoping to prove him wrong by paying homage to this man who wrote about food with such feeling, wit, style and grace.
Barbara Haber is a food historian and the former curator of books at Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library at Harvard University where she built a major collection of cookbooks and other books related to food, and influenced the recognition of food history as a viable field of academic and professional study. She founded the Radcliffe Culinary Friends, which supported the library’s culinary collection and provided a forum for food writers from across the country to present their work to an appreciative audience. She also held monthly gatherings, called “First Monday,” where local chefs and writers came together to hear talks on timely food-related topics.
Barbara’s books include “From Hardtack to Home Fries: An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals” and “From Betty Crocker to Feminist Food Studies: Critical Perspectives on Women and Food,” which she co-edited. She has written numerous articles and reviews including “Home Cooking in the White House” published in “White House History.” She is currently working on a book about food and World War II in the Pacific tentatively called “Cooking in Captivity.”
She is a former director of the International Association of Culinary Professionals and currently serves on the awards committee and chairs the Who’s Who Committee of the James Beard Foundation. She is a frequent speaker on topics related to the history of food as well as popular food topics, and has appeared on television’s “The Today Show,” “Martha Stewart Living” and The Cooking Channel. Barbara was elected to the James Beard Foundation’s “Who’s Who’s in Food and Beverages” and received the M.F.K. Fisher Award from Les Dames d’Escofier.