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Gastro-Porn

Simple French Food

by Richard Olney
Atheneum, 448 pp., $5.95 (paper)

Mediterranean Cooking

by Paula Wolfert
Quadrangle, 384 pp., $12.95

The Carter Family Favorites Cookbook

by Ceil Dyer
Delacorte, 244 pp., $8.95

Feast Without Fuss

by Lady Pamela Harlech
Atheneum, 375 pp., $12.95

Irish Countryhouse Cooking

compiled by Rosie Tinne
Weathervane Books, distributed by Crown, 222 pp., $3.98

The Cookery of England

by Elisabeth Ayrton
Penquin (London), 547 pp., £1.25

The Taste of America

by John Hess, by Karen Hess
Viking, 320 pp., $8.95

Paul Bocuse’s French Cooking

by Paul Bocuse
Pantheon, 520 pp., $20.00

Revolutionizing French Cooking

by Roy Andries de Groot
McGraw-Hill, 352 pp., $15.95

Cuisine Minceur

by Michel Guérard
Morrow, 272 pp., $12.95

Dietary Goals for the United States Needs, United States Senate

prepared by the Staff of the Select Committee on Nutrition and Human
US Government Printing Office, 79 pp., $.95 (paper)

Food in Chinese Culture: Anthropological and Historical Perspectives

edited by K.C. Chang
Yale University Press, 429 pp., $20.00

The New French Cooking: Minceur Cuisine Extraordinaire

by Armand Aulicino
Grosset and Dunlap, 293 pp., $4.95 (paper)

They came and told one of the more recent dukes of Devonshire that in the interests of economy and general modern-mindedness Chatsworth really ought to dispense with the pastry chef. “What,” cried the duke, aghast. “Is a man no longer to be allowed his biscuit?” Somehow things never seem to get better in the world of eating. Indeed, if we are to believe Marvin Harris’s version of pre-history in Cannibals and Kings, things have gone more or less downhill since the upper palaeolithic period when the hunter-gatherers enjoyed high quality diets with plenty of free time too.

But those times are gone, alas—and are unlikely to return, since analysts of the connections between energy and food such as David Pimentel have reckoned that the land mass of the present United States could only support 750,000 hunter-gatherers before over-crowding would force agricultural settlements and the whole ghastly trend toward Earl Butz, General Foods, and liquid protein diets.

Cookbooks with certain very rare exceptions, such as Marinetti’s futurist cookbook, almost by definition try to appropriate the past, at least those bits of it that seem palatable. And so usually they become versions of pastoral, with the urban masticator being whisked into a world where kitchen and garden co-exist in harmonious union instead of being mediated by the Safeway, the can, the freezer, and the poison list on the back of every package. Here’s a fairly representative swatch of pastoral from Richard Olney’s Simple French Food:

Comforting also are the fantastic, crowded out-of-door morning markets, of which that in Toulon is exemplary, bearing ample witness to the fact that people still want fresh garden produce and seafood and to the certainty that, on the whole, the French willingly spend a great deal more on food than a similar budget in any other part of the world would permit. The banks of fruits and vegetables, freshly picked (depending on the season), baby violet artichokes, tender young broad beans, tiny green beans, peas, tomatoes, fennel, squash, and zucchini squash with its flower still clinging; creamy white cauliflower the size of one’s fist, giant sweet peppers, and asparagus—white, violet, and green; figs, cherries, peaches, strawberries, raspberries, and medlar; the endless tresses of garlic and wild mushrooms of all kinds (including the divine amanita of the Caesars); and crates full of live snails and crabs, both of which constantly escape and wander in a wide circle around the vendor’s stand. There are the odors of basil and pissaladière; the mongers’ cants [sic], melodic and raucous; and the Renoiresque play of light through the plane trees’ foliage, an all-over sense of gaiety and well-being…

Provence is of course the heartland of cookbook pastoral, and we can set Olney down on the shelf next to Elizabeth David, who began her great French Provincial Cooking with a reverie in her London kitchen:

…now and again the vision of golden tiles on a round southern roof, or of some warm, stony, herb-scented hillside will rise out of my kitchen pots with the smell of a piece of orange peel scenting a beef stew. The picture flickers into focus again. Ford Madox Ford’s words come back, “somewhere between Vienne and Valence, below Lyons on the Rhône, the sun is shining, and south of Valence Provincia Romana, the Roman Province, lies beneath the sun. There there is no more any evil, for there the apple will not flourish and the brussels sprout will not grow at all.”

By the time French Provincial Cooking was published in 1960 Elizabeth David had been conducting her elegant propaganda for French regional peasant and bourgeois cuisine for a decade. And it was having considerable and generally beneficial effect—at least in England. By the early 1960s, when I was there (and eating cheap Indian food most of the time), half the academic kitchens in north Oxford had earthenware pots in them, simmering queue de boeuf aux olives noires or a daube du béarn, or indeed the fearful cassoulet itself; this last produced with prodigious effort and damage to digestion and the thought processes generally.

(Students of Provence cookbook pastoral will know that cassoulet invariably stirs the writer to protracted analysis and counsel. The normally pithy Elizabeth David spends three pages on this dish; in the first volume of their Mastering the Art of French Cooking [1961], Julia Child et al. take six pages, or rather eight if you include their preliminary advice on how to roast pork in a casserole; and even this barrage of advice omits a recipe for confit d’oie, which only makes its appearance on two pages of their second volume [1970]. I’m glad to see that some sense of brevity is restored in Paula Wolfert’s excellent Braudelian Mediterranean Cooking [1977], which cuts the saga down to three pages, although she does shirk the confit business. By contrast Escoffier’s Cook Book, which had to cover more ground than just Provence, takes just three-quarters of a page.)

These cookbook pastorals have some pretty consistent formal rules. There is the customary invocation to Escoffier’s edict Faites simple and usually a doff of the toque to Brillat-Savarin, though I’m glad to see that Olney denounces him for the gormandizing old bore he was. And there’s the insistence that only the best ingredients will produce the best results. This apparently self-evident piece of counsel is actually a crafty pastoral ruse, since the cookbook reader is usually nowhere near Olney’s Toulon market or some equivalent haven and thus is damned before he begins. You can of course try to interview a fish in the local store to see whether its eyes are clear, its gills red, and its scales in prime condition, but fishmongers have a limit to their patience and so you are left with the unspoken recommendation of the cookbooks—namely to get up at four in the morning and go to the local wholesale market where you will be trampled to death by the retailers and restaurateurs, and despised by the wholesalers to boot.

In keeping with the pastoral genre, many cookbooks are in fact moral tracts about gastronomic good behavior in which the reader-consumer’s best strategy is to fall into line without too much fuss. Sometimes, in a confusion of genres, amateur cookbook writers attempt a jocose tone, hoping to inveigle the reader into a shared ritual. Thus, in her The Carter Family Favorites Cook book, Ceil Dyer attempts some advice on the preparation of coleslaw: “Cut the cabbage in quarters, place in a large bowl of well-salted cold water, and let stand for at least one hour. This is to make sure any possible ‘critters’ emerge—nothing spoils good slaw like a many-footed friend. Once soaked, drain and place the cabbage on a large chopping board and chop away like mad….” This is all wrong, and the reader backs cautiously away from Dyer, somehow associating her with the critter instead of with the healthy strips of slaw.

Far superior to the Dyer approach is the pastoral-aristocratic strategy of Pamela Harlech, whose Feast Without Fuss invites the reader to consume, in a simple act of transubstantiation, aristos and their camp followers. Lady Harlech, as the book jacket takes good care to term her, announces in her acknowledgements that:

The following recipes are reproduced by kind permission of Condé Nast Publications Ltd.—Miss Fleur Cowles’s Jerusalem artichoke soup; Mrs. John Hay Whitney’s oyster stew; Madame Jacques de Beaumarchais’s oeufs chimay; the Earl of Gowrie’s oeufs en cocotte with duck jelly; Mrs. Anthony Lund’s taramasalata; Mrs. Rory McEwen’s avocado and caviar mousse; Peter Coats’s Mr. Briggs’s avocado ramekin; Baroness Dacre’s curried melon and shrimp; Mrs. Arthur Schlesinger’s spinach quiche; Lady Elizabeth von Hofmannsthal’s poached bass; Fiona Charlton-Dewar’s kedgeree; the Honorable Mrs. James Ogilvy’s deviled pheasant; Anthony West’s good chicken recipe; Mrs. Jeanette de Rothschild’s special stuffing; the Earl of Gowrie’s cold steak au poivre; Derek Hart’s stew; Mrs. Ralph F. Colin’s baked Virginia ham; Mrs. Anthony Lewis’s veal goulash; Anthony West’s veal roast; Anthony West’s kidneys in cream and Calvados….

But I’ll stop here, for the merging of person and product goes altogether too far with the thought of West’s innards (or “variety meats” as they are properly called) being bathed in cream and apple-jack and served up to the would-be gourmet.

There are, as a matter of fact, some pretty disgusting things in the Harlech anthology. We need go no further than “Peter Coats’s Mr. Briggs’s avocado ramekin” listed above. Lady Harlech confides that she was given the recipe by Coats, who presumably got it from Briggs. What this man Briggs apparently did—unless either Coats or Harlech got it wrong—was to put three ripe avocados in a blender along with three quarters of a can of Crosse & Blackwell clear consommé, some lemon juice, and two tablespoons of cream. Half the resultant gunk is then put into the ramekins and allowed to set in the refrigerator. A little later chopped walnuts are added, then more gunk, then a little bit more Crosse & Blackwell, and finally some bits of crisp bacon. The stuff, says Harlech, should then be kept in the refrigerator until it is finally unleashed on some unsuspecting guests. Harlech, naturally, does not mention guests unsuspecting or not, but I do not imagine the ramekins were destined for anyone with the least capacity for resistance, such as children or pets. Guests will eat almost anything.

However even the Coats/Briggs/Harlech effort pales in comparison with a recipe from another volume in the pastoral-aristocratic mode. This is Irish Countryhouse Cooking, edited by Rosie Tinne. Miss Tinne, who seems to run a restaurant in Dublin called Snaffles (which gives the whole game away), has put together one of those cookbooks where each page is a simulation of the letterhead of the relevant recipe provider, thus allowing the reader almost to imagine that “Lindy Dufferin and Ava” (facsimile signature) is sending her “Clandeboye chicken” to him personally from Clandeboye House, Bangor, Co. Down.

On page 77 of this dreadful volume, beneath the letterhead “The Glebe, Leixlip, Co. Kildare” we find a recipe for “Cold curried fish.” An in decipherable signature which appears by process of elimination to be that of Lady Holmpatrick is attached to the following:

1/2 lb spaghetti—cooked and cold

1-2 lb white fish—cooked and cold

1-2 pt white sauce—cold

1 (or more) tin shrimps

1 dessertspoon curry powder

chopped chives

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1 teaspoon redcurrent jelly or apricot jam

GARNISH

parsley

paprika

Mix all ingredients gently together, sprinkle with parsley or paprika. Chill and serve.

I wonder what the hunter-gatherers of the upper palaeolithic period would have made of this. Short of lowering one’s naked foot slowly into the weeds at the bottom of a pond it is hard to imagine a more depressing experience.

Indeed Irish cooking, justly maligned, does badly in the current crop of cookbooks. Paul Bocuse’s French Cooking, one of the fancier productions of the season, has a recipe for Ragoût de mouton à l’irlandaise which defiles the divine purity of Irish stew by urging a bouquet garni, lamb shoulder and lower ribs (instead of just best end of neck), and celery. And Bocuse omits the pearl barley which is the whole point and without which life—so far as Irish stew is concerned—lacks all meaning. There should only be the meat, potatoes, onions, and barley. Bocuse is not alone in his errors, and indeed was possibly influenced by Escoffier, who gives virtually the same recipe. Prosper Montagné, in his Larousse Gastronomique, adds insult to injury by calling his version of Irish stew “Ragoût d’agneau à blanc (à l’anglaise).” There may be a problem here. On the old packet boat which used to ply between Fishguard (Wales) and Cork (Ireland), the dishes on the menu were rendered on either side of the card in both Irish and English. Except for Irish stew, which appeared only in English and which apparently defeated the best efforts of Gaelic scholars.

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