Thursday, December 28, 2017

Things I'm enjoying of late: Stranger, the Korean mystery on Netflix. The Crown part 2, all episodes but last night we got into Margaret & Snowden episode - hot stuff for royals.

Jane Kramer's book, The Reporter's Kitchen, which reminded me of my passion for cookbooks which had backed off of late. Oh, I buy the hot titles from Naomi Duguid and Ottolenghi and Vivian Howard of PBS' A Chef's Life who has a new cookbook, Deep Run Roots. I don't buy Ina Garten who is too easy, too shortcutty, and too TV-oriented. The same with most other television cooks. I like a scholarly bent to my cookbooks, a cook who has researched and tested thoroughly like Claudia Roden or the late Paula Wolfert and of course Diana Kennedy.  I do buy every Diana Kennedy (DK we call her) although I'm overdue on her new edition of Nothing Fancy which is as close to a memoir as she's published and includes British and other recipes from her youth and her travels. I have a special place in my heart for that book given to me by a friend lost to AIDS in the Eighties. The best DK to my mind is Essential Cuisines of Mexico but they are all different and each has its merits. The Oaxaca book is unique, thorough and glorious but has a lousy index. The Tortilla Book was the first I ever purchased and still my go-to- for simple enchilada and taco meals.

Kramer calls this research the Quest and it is so true. I've searched and found so many rarities, thanks to Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks in Manhattan. For years, it was my goal to acquire - what is this acquiring gene of mine? - every cookbook cited in Richard Olney's Good Cook Series from Time Life. He supposedly selected the best recipes from hundreds of cookbooks to be anthologized by category in the series. Now, I use those books so infrequently although they still are reliable resources. In fact, I use most of my cookbooks a lot less often since I took up writing. In the morning, I think of making some elaborate recipe and by afternoon, I've lost my will or Michael has talked me out of it. Let's just grill that meat, lot less work, and I make a salad to go with grilled protein. Tonight however we're going for the Shrimp in Hot Lime Leaf Broth from Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet: A Culinary Journey Through Southeast Asia.

I love the idea of planning a week of meals out of my cookbooks and the planning would be a lark. But the execution is my bugaboo. I haven't even kept up the diary of past dinners served to guests although the few listed show delightful ambition.

Eat Your Books  is helpful in planning, notes and hints from other cooks regarding individual recipes indexed on the site. They only list ingredients, not amounts which would infringe on copyright issues, but I can access ingredients on my phone so I know what to pick up to prepare that night's recipe. I subscribed years ago when it was free or almost free. And many of my hundreds of cookbooks are indexed. I've got 462 cookbooks on the site and that yields 98,902 recipes including a few from eight blogs and a couple dozen magazines. I do not lack resources but when have I ever? Working as a reference librarian for twenty years made that a priority.

I have no ebooks on cooking. What's the fun in that?  Leafing through an ebook.

Now if I could just reduce the inventory a bit, I am sure I would not feel the pain. But which to unload? The French Laundry Cookbook, complicated, time-consuming and huge? Larousse which I've rarely opened or one of the old bound Gourmet books on Viennese cooking? Novelty cookbooks which don't appeal, they seem too desperate: Zucchini Cookbook, Tomato Cookbook, Jello Cookbook?

Few of them are worth anything. I have sold a few online, The Plantation Cookbook the other day and also the YMCA Cookbook of Malaya. I have a delightful oeuvre of old Mexican cookbooks and small tomes which speak to their times, i.e. Butterick Book of Recipes and Household Tips ("Fasten jewelry to clothing with a strong safety pin while traveling" or "A toothbrush used for dampening seams for pressing saves time" or, best yet, wash black lace in a solution of one tablespoon of ammonia in one cup of coffee." Or substitute pickled nasturtium seeds for capers. Cheese cutlets for the vegetarian?

Lady Jekyll in her Kitchen Essays offers a Shooting Party Luncheon (cold game pie, baked beans and burnt house cake), a Christmas Shopping Luncheon might include Oysters au Gratin or Malay Curry of Prawns, and  reveals a secret family recipe for a Bombe Caramel.
But a few pages later, she  talks of fat as "unbecoming, fatiguing, and impairs efficiency (while) oftener the result of defective metabolism than of undue or indiscriminate appetite." She does think however that "weight can be reduced by a diminished consumption of dairy produce, sugar and starchy foods" and includes a recipe for Lemon Tea (lemon and boiling water served in "a delicate china cup").

Fifty-two Sunday Dinners is a catalog of excess always beginning with a consomme, a bouillon or chowder, meat with gravy and vegetables, stewed fruit and dessert. This is exactly what the women consumed each day in the diaries I found from the Sixties .

Mrs. Rasmussen's Book of One-Arm Cookery from the Forties (reprinted in 1970) offered "mouth-watering recipes which could be whipped up with one hand, while the other slaked the cook's thirst with a cold glass of the best brew." She originated in the Suds series of novels from Mary Lasswell. "It's a poor cook who won't lick her own fingers, so taste, taste, taste!" The recipes are inviting and I'm tempted to throw a One-Armed Cookery Dinner Party with plenty of cold beer.

I'll probably never make Oxtail Jelly or a Chicken Pie out of Magda Joicey's Cook-book Note-book from l946 ("if you're not sure of the tenderness of your bird, it is a good plan to steam it for a short time before joining."), I might try a Milanese Souffle of oranges or lemons or a Bakewell Pudding.

But there is always satisfaction in looking at history through cookbooks, or envisioning with mouth watering a table laden with sauces and soups and desserts which we rarely offer. I'm now about to open a can of sardines for lunch - all that anchovy paste in the old cookbooks nudged me to the can. And start planning this one-armed dinner party circa 1946.

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