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Bert Greene’s Legacy

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.

Great American Cookbooks


A series of articles about influential American food writers.

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.

Photo: Bert Greene’s cookbooks, “The Grains Cookbook” and “Greene on Greens.”
Credit: Barbara Haber

 



Zester Daily contributor Barbara Haber is an author, food historian and the former curator of books at Radcliffe's Schlesinger Library at Harvard University. She is a former director of the International Association of Culinary Professionals, was elected to the James Beard Foundation's "Who's Who of Food and Beverage" and received the M.F.K. Fisher Award from Les Dames d'Escoffier.

14 COMMENTS
  • donna 9·4·13

    Here in the u.k., I found greene on greens and it is my favourite recipe book. Beautiful, scrumptious recipes for any garden glut it is a pie of a book, with a generous warmhearted collection of reminiscence in every slice. The recipes still work and I am looking for kitchen bouquets now.

  • Barbara Haber 9·5·13

    Hi Donna,
    I am so glad to meet another Bert Greene admirer. Just reading him is a pleasure, and the recipes, I agree, are delicious. Do you know his “The Grains Cookbook”? This too is getting to be a favorite.

  • Debra Swank 3·9·14

    Donna,

    I have a treasured copy of Bert Greene’s “Greene On Greens” – – I very much enjoy his writing, and am happy to come across your mention of his work.

    Debra Swank
    Ocala FL USA

  • Barbara Haber 3·10·14

    I have always been his fan and am glad to know that others share my enthusiasm for his work. Thank you.

  • Richard Fox 3·16·14

    Hello Barbara
    In our home in South Australia we have an entire wall of cookbooks in the kitchen. They are well used but also dipped into for pleasure. I suppose it is no surprise that American food and cooking in Australia is best known for its worst exports. Yet, two of my favourite cook books are by American writers. Greene on Greens is one of them. I use it extensively and his French provincial potato salad remains my favourite of all potato salads, especially when made with kipfler potatoes and the dressing includes a good South Australian Riesling from the Clare Valley. His ability to connect with his reader is unsurpassed. Incidentally, Richard Olney is the other American food writer and while I treasure Simple French Food, the book I refer to is the ‘Offal’ volume from the Time/Life series from 40 years ago. It is worth owning just for the step by step colour recipe entitled ‘Gentle treatment for fragile brains’.

    But back to Bert Greene. I have not found one recipe in Greene on Greens that has not worked for me. Both his cabbage and corn fritters are brilliant examples. He has been gone for a quarter of a century now, but he is certainly not forgotten in our home. And you have inspired me to search for his book on grains.

  • Barbara Haber 3·16·14

    Richard –
    It made me happy to read your message and to find yet another kindred spirit who enjoys Bert Greene as much as I do. His other books are also good, but my favorite continues to be Greene on Greens. To purchase out-of-print books I go to the site Abebooks.com that has dealers that ship everywhere.
    I also like Richard Olney whose prickly temperament could not be any more different from that of Bert Greene, but the guy sure knew food and wrote well about it.
    I appreciate that you like my column and got in touch.
    Barbara

  • Jane 4·30·14

    This made me so happy! After finding a fantastic recipe that was adapted from Greene on Greens, I went searching on Amazon and found a used copy for a penny! It just came and I’m absolutely enthralled with everything—his recipes, his creativity, his affection for his friends, his vocabulary, and most of all this all-encompassing love of food in the purest way. Every hipster, gourmand and reusable-bag-toting yuppie owes a debt to this wonderful man. Thank you for this article and I can’t wait to get cooking.

  • linda shields 7·27·14

    I became an admirer of Mr. Greene inthe early 1980s, I think his column was in Gourmet or Bon Appetit. I loved the sentimental tone, the true joy of his writing and recipes. Greene on Greens is one of my favorites.

  • Val 8·5·14

    Lost my recipe for Bert Greens corned beef & cabbage with caraway seeds.It appeared in. The newspaper many years ago for St.Patricks day. Would love to have this wonderful recipe again. Thanks

  • Ellaine Spivak 3·16·16

    I’m with Val!! Can I get the recipe please of the wonderful corned beef and cabbage? I NEED it. I crave it.

  • Barbara Haber 3·17·16

    I found the recipe in Bert Greene’s “Greene on Greens” pp. 81-83. I think it’s his best book. If you don’t have it, try a public library or you can purchase it on abebooks.com for less than $4.00.

    The recipe is a lengthy one. Otherwise I would reproduce it here.

    Good luck!

    • Ellaine Spivak 11·6·16

      Barbara, thank you.. We live in Mexico. I can’t get the book! or the recipe unless someone would scan it for me? I would pay the 4.00 willingly for the entire book, all of his books are my favourites. We had to purge when we moved here and recipe books were in the ‘to the kids’ pile. Not one of my daughters can find the book with the recipe in it.. I know it is a lot to ask. I truly do. But can ya help me out here? It’s one of my favourite recipes of all times!

      my email is [email protected] if you can find it in your heart to send it to me.

  • Noah 4·18·16

    Hello Ms. Haber,

    My name is Noah and I’m a huge admirer of Mr. Greene’s work. In fact, I’m working on a biography of sorts and was wondering if you might be able to put me in touch with someone (anyone!) who knew him personally. If not, I’d like to know your thoughts on this undertaking.

    Thank you very much.

  • Barbara Haber 4·20·16

    Hi Noah,
    I am so pleased to learn of your interest in Bert Greene and of your biography project. He was a huge talent. He died just after he was elected president of the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) and I am sure was known by long-term members of that organization. Nathalie Dupree comes to mind. Check her out on-line, and if you have trouble finding her contact information, e-mail me directly and I will help you out.

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