The Delectable Past
The Vogue Book of Menus
The Chamberlain Calendar of French Menus
If cookbook writing is somewhat less than inspired today, it had a more illustrious past. Or so, at least, Esther B. Aresty says in her book about cookbooks, The Delectable Past. An intense bibliophile, she has collected cookbooks for the past twenty years, and her impressive library, listed only partially in the appendix of her book, spans the centuries from antiquity to the present day.
Collecting often appears, to the non-collector, as a mild aberration to be viewed with amused tolerance. Too frequently the pursuit of rarity, particularly among book collectors, seems to be its sole justification. But Mrs. Aresty’s delight in the chase, and the excitement with which she flushes her quarry makes one almost believe in the virtues of cookbook collecting. Mrs. Aresty insists that collecting expensive rarities as such is not her goal and that cookbooks by influential nineteenth-century authors are still available at modest prices; she hopefully appends, however, that these are sure to be rarities some day.
Rare or not, the many early manuscripts from which Mrs. Aresty quotes have a vigor and charm lacking in the works of all but a handful of presentday writers. She offers a salad from a seventeenth-century English cookbook called The Whole Body of Cookery Dissected by Will Rabisha. The cook is directed to collect
all manner of Spring-Sallets, as buds of Cowslips, Violets, Strawberries, Primrose, Brookline, Watercresses, young Lettice, Spinage,…and what other things may be got…Then prepare your standard for the middle of your dish; it may be a wax tree or a castle made of paste, washed in the yolks of eggs and all made green with herbs and stuck with flowers, with about twelve supporters fastened in holes in your castle and bending out in the middle of your dish. Then having four rings of paste, one bigger than annother, place them so they rise like like so many steps. This done place your Sallet, a round of one sort on the uppermost ring and so round the others till you come to the dish; then place all your pickles from that to the brim and place the colors white against white and green against green…
Other quotations in The Delectable Past are freely translated from early Greek, Latin, Italian, and Old English. If Mrs. Aresty is responsible for them, one can only admire the skill and scholarship with which they were done. But it is to be regretted that the author chose to interrupt an engrossing survey with archly written recipes of her own devising, interspersed with cookbook clichés such as “appetizing,” “tasty,” “adds sparkle to any meal,” “for delighted cheers serve,” and “tasted as good as it looked.” Dishes such as Aspician Dilled Chicken and Aspician Ham and Figs from De Re Coquinara, 1 A.D., are hardly to be taken seriously when the chicken is made, as Mrs. Aresty suggests, with Worcestershire Sauce as a substitute for asafoetida and the ancient ham and fig dish with a canned or precooked …