Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Old Cookbooks

Dear Reader,

Over the weekend we took a little one-tank-trip to the lovely berg of Berne, Indiana with a couple very good friends. While we were preparing for a nice stroll in the 35 degree pouring rain, my friend presented me with a tattered and yellow book.

"It's a gift." He said, handing the tome over. "You don't have to keep it if you don't want it."

Yeah, giving me a book is a commitment thing. I could start my own hoarding show, just me sitting in my hole of an office surrounded by teetering piles of print, muttering "I don't have a problem…" What's doubly bad is this particular book is titled A Taste of Texas, a 1949 Neiman Marcus giveaway containing recipes "culled from over 2000 submitted by N-M customers…" as the flyleaf says. I really can't fathom sending a recipe to a department store. Neiman Marcus probably had a contest or something of the sort with thousands of post-war home makers vying for a brand new fry-o-lator or something equally gadgety. Needless to say the book hasn't gone anywhere but into the "do something with me" pile.

Staring at that pile today I thought, "Hey, why not post a few snippets from these unwieldy books that nobody but me would even consider keeping? It's not a good or original idea, but what else are you going to do on a gloomy, Indiana Monday in March when the finals aren't on TV?

So, though I started out talking about A Taste of Texas I hope you will pardon the curve I'm throwing when I start with a totally different cookbook. The biblical the Gourmet Cookbook volume I came out in 1950. After a decade of circulation, the editors at Gourmet Magazine decided they'd better secure their spot in the cooking pantheon with a hardback cookbook for the epicure. The result is a weighty 781 page book bound and printed in Italy to ensure its panache. Like a good Italian roadster, the Gourmet Cookbook is impractical - hardcover and as thick as an unabridged dictionary, hardly the sort of thing you want nestling between the flour and butter while baking cookies. My copy came from my wife's favorite aunt and it looks nearly unused. Since she was an excellent cook I imagine she found it just as unwieldy in the kitchen and opted for something a little more counter friendly.

Regardless, paging through the book gives an overview of the rarified mind of the late 40's gourmet. There are the aspic-molded horrors you'd expect along with some truly odd stuff. Aspic referres to a jelly, usually formed from stock rendered from some sort of meat and then clarified. If you've ever taken a piece of roasted chicken out of the fridge to find a gelatanious goo pooled in the bottom of the container, essentially that is an aspic. The use of aspic in American cookiery rose to its pinnacle in the 50's before plummeting from the dinner table and into kitsch ridicule. The following two examples show how Gourmet Magazine suggested plying the edible shalack that was aspic:

For those who don't possess a culinary dictionary, this dish is a jelly-mold made with goose liver pate, aspic from chicken or some other fowl, and mayonnaise. It's difficult to imagine this falling in the appetizer section of the book. I can't fathom the thought of jellied liver and mayonnaise as appetizing! I'm also left wondering how this recipe ever came to be. I mean who thought, "You know what this chicken and liver jelly needs? Mayonnaise."

If jellied goose liver isn't to your taste we have an alternative. Jellied cheese! Actually it's jellied cheese and mustard. I'm struck by the difference in terms here. Notice that the cook is advised to add a few 'grains' of cayenne and salt? You'd never see that language in a modern cookbook, probably because the concept is utterly ridiculous. As someone who dabbles in cooking, I can't ever imagine picking out three grains of salt and adding them to a dish. What would be the point?

Well, I thought I'd conclude the first batch of appetizers with a dish that doesn't involve meat jelly. The Lorraine Custard is akin to the popular in kitchen and song, Quiche Lorraine. The Lorraine in question refers to the Lorraine region of France where the German-influenced locals concocted an open pie consisting of an egg custard with smoked bacon or lardons. Later cheese was added to the mixture to create the quiche that is popular today. The custard version shown in this section of the Gourmet Cookbook is, essentially, the filling of a quiche Lorraine without the pie crust. It seems like an odd selection, one that might be interpreted as the author padding this section of the book with a partial recipe given a new name.

I think a lot of the focus on cooking from the fourties and fifties is on the oddities of aspic. Maybe it's the freak show aspect of jellied foods or the fact they're so uncommon on the modern table. Regardless, the number of aspic recipes in the cookbook is very limited. The next portion of the cookbook's hors d'oeuvre section deals with vegetables. When I say vegetables, don't think vegetarian. The cheff of the fifties seems as incapable of imagining vegetarianism as the cheff of the middle ages would be of imagining the microwave oven. Nearly every dish involves meat and those which don't rely on salad dressing. An example would be cucumbers dressed with french dressing, salt, and pepper. Not all are as bland, there is a recipe for Eggplant Caviar that I plan to try.

Maybe the most interesting things in the Gourmet Cookbook are the few photographs of the food described by the recipes. I'm not sure if the way we think of food has changed since the fifties or if the technology and techniques of photographing food has evolved sufficiently to make the old photos look absolutely hidious but I've yet to find a 'classic' cookbook that makes a single dish look remotely appetizing. Anyone who is familliar with The Gallery of Regrettable Food by the genious James Lileks will be fully aware of the mayhem that can be wrought by a recipe and a camera. The odd pairings of props with dishes, the off colors, the bizzarre geological formations are all apparently part and parcel of the 50's gastronomic landscape. I imagine in sixty years someone will be looking at Paula Dean's creations and thinking "What must she have been smoking..." so I'm reluctant to be too hard on the food of the fifties. Of course, that doesn't mean I'd want to see it served to me!

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