Thursday, July 09, 2009

Cookbooks About Actually Cooking

So I'm reading Mark Kurlansky's new book, The Food of a Younger Land. It's not actually his book, he's more of the annotator/editor. Sort of like how Flavor Flav doesn't really write Public Enemy songs, he just adds his two cents here and there and wears a clock.

The book is a printing of the scrapped Depression-era WPA project called America Eats. Like the immensely successful WPA guidebooks that were published in the 1930s, America Eats would offer insights into regional cuisine and, just as much, regional food culture. State projects submitted notes and essays to one of six regional headquarters who then compiled the information into guides like "The South Eats" and "The Northwest Eats." Unfortunately, flagging interest in the WPA during the waning days of the Depression combined with disparate regional funding slowed the project and World War II put a decisive end to the program entirely.

Kurlansky makes no attempt to recreate what the theoretical guide book would be. He simply presents the article he's selected with short introductions. He lets the vintage writing from the late 1930s speak for itself.

It's an engaging read because it reflects how recipes should be written. The recipes aren't quite as haphazard and whimsical as 19th century cook books (where a "good joint of mutton" was a common ingredient), but they do require an active engagement with the cooking process and the local culture behind the recipe.

Cookbooks now are about measuring ingredients, aseembling, setting timers, and walking away. Even as recently as the 1930s where clocks and timers were rather common, recipes required vigilance, advising you to "cook until done" or "cook until bright green." Sure there are some specific measurements, but there are also directives like "cover with water, add more if needed" and "if you want spicier, add more Tabasco."

Now we treat cooking as a sort of paint-by-numbers rote exercise instead of a fluid act of creation. This is why we can never make something "like Grandma used to make it." Sure Grandma followed recipes, but she wasn't a slave to them.

The best contemporary cookbooks for real cooking I've found are How To Cook Everything and The Best Recipes in the World by Mark Bittman who, despite his recent late-to-the-game Locavore transformation, still does a good job of integrating food, culture, and history into his recipes.

And if you haven't read Kurlansky's Salt or Cod, you really must. They're indispensable food history books.

HFF out.


Zack said...

"Cook until bright green" would always have been a specific measurement if everybody had easy access to Pantone swatches. It was only a handwavy instruction because that was the most specific instruction possible. Even today, we don't have standard widely distributed color references except for Coke Can Red, and loving relationships have been broken up by an inability to agree whether something is green or blue.

Also, if there is such a thing as "like grandma used to make it," then there was a recipe, in her head or otherwise. Food item X, prepared to taste a particular way that you look back fondly on, was created through a specific series of steps. If it's not a recipe written down, then grandma was lazy, or illiterate, or couldn't convey her methods in words, or had better things to do.

I have to say, given the subject matter, Kurlansky's salt book was unexpectedly and unforgivably dull. I can recommend it to nobody. This new book still sounds interesting, though.

yutjangsah said...

hold the phone. flavor flav doesn't write the damn songs? he's just the eye candy? wtf!

David J.D. said...

You thought Salt was dull? That's too bad. It's my favorite of his books, of the four I've read.

This explains why we get into so many blog comment arguments, I suppose.=^)

TonyC said...

This is one of my to-read "cookbooks" this summer. Delicious Coma made quite a few recipes from the book and apparently the instructions were completely inadequate.