Happy New Year: Said with Food and Books
For a sweet and good year (and this column is going up on Rosh Hashanah, so it’s important to get the sweet and the wonderful as right as the year, which is 5773) I need books. Most people give lists of books they’ve read and think others should read, but this year I’m giving you cookbooks. Not the best of the best, but the ones that demand my attention most vociferously when I wander my shelves. The ones that are within my reach at all times and that I can lay my hands on easily. My new year may be ecstatically sweet and good, but it’s obviously going to be quite erratic. I was going to give you fiction lists, but they can wait: it’s been too long since I've talked about cookbooks. Here, then are five cookbooks I love.
Let’s start with the one I was browsing most recently, Joyce Goldstein’s Cucina Ebraica. I’d been looking for a recipe I’d picked up in Normandy, so many years ago I couldn’t remember which book I shelved it with, and I encountered Cucina Ebraica again along the way. This is why I love owning books: the joy of discovery happens not once, but over and over again. This time I cooked the meatball recipe, for I’d promised friends dinner and never quite got as far as finding my Norman veal recipe. They were very nice meatballs, too, full of garlic and mint.
The next book to hand is Pleyn Delit (or, as its subtitle explains Medieval Cookery for Modern Cooks) for I plan to take it to class tomorrow. I have loved this book ever since I discovered it in Toronto, which was half a lifetime ago. I met one of the authors (now, alas, deceased) when I was one line of the entertainment at a feast she was catering. My line was ‘Ut iubes’ and I performed it moderately badly. She gave me an elderflower tart to taste and I was instantly lost to the delights of Medieval food. This was a much better plan than being lost to the delights of acting in Medieval plays. English food from the Middle Ages is (at its best) truly wonderful, and this book is the one I use to lure students into sampling those wonders.
Right next to that is one of my other favourite cuisines. (I have many favourite cuisines, so this was not unexpected.) It’s to hand because I plan to cook up my version of a rijsttafel (the word means “rice table,” an elaborate presentation of many dishes, Indonesian style) a week or so after I finish my doctorate and I plan to invite friends to drop and in spend some time, nattering. I haven’t had much time for feeding friends and nattering since I’ve been working and studying both at once, and my Indonesian friends would be horrified at me.
I have two main sources of Indonesian recipes. One is my notebook, where I carefully wrote down everything those Indonesian friends taught me, way back when they were in Sydney. The second is this book: Sri Owen’s Indonesian Food and Cookery. It’s a wonderful cuisine to feed friends just as summer begins, for it’s good hot or cold, fresh-made or having sat around a bit. It uses many of my favourite spices. Come to think of it, it’s the closest modern cuisine to Medieval food in spice profile. There are no chillies in Medieval English food (for they are from the New World) but there is galingale and nutmeg and ginger and most of the other Indonesian spices. The mouth feel of the cuisines is very different and how the spices are used, but the same spice rack will do for many dishes in both cuisines.
The next book practically fell out of the bookshelf. It’s comfort food. A very close friend gave it to me, knowing I collect community cookbooks, for she wanted me to have a memory of her background. It’s Calico Cupboards, from Arkansas and, again, I cook using it and using my notebook wherein are the recipes I learned from my friend’s family. This is the joy of cookery. Every time I make a dish from Calico Cupboards, I think of my friend, even though she is on the other side of the world and is probably fast asleep at this time of day. As I’m writing here, I’m flicking through the book (I have two hands, after all, and I can correct the typos before you read them) and I realise that I have all the ingredients at hand to make marshmallows. This is quite possibly a bad thing, for if I make them then my Tuesday class will meet a cookbook and my Wednesday class will meet marshmallows and I’ll then have to find something for my Thursday class to meet, to keep everything fair. I think I’d better return to two-handed typing before this gets out of hand.
The last is another that fell out of the shelf at me. I’ve talked about it before, but not for a long while. It’s Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book. The food is both homier and stranger than the Medieval recipes, and Hilary Spurling has done a fine job of making the life of an Elizabethan country house seem close and personal. I don’t often cook from this book at all. But I browse in it from time to time, wondering if I could write a novel using the seasons and the recipes and the lifestyle.
What stops me every time is the realisation that I’ll need a lot more than this one book to ensure that the novel isn’t yet another romanticised view of past country-life. So many novels set in England and written by those of us for whom England is a corner of our ancestral memory create a twee and lovely past that bears far too little resemblance to the complex reality. This book, however, is a fine place to start unraveling the complexities. It includes, alongside recipes for pickles and preserves, a rather curious recipe for “syrop of tobacco,” by Sir Walter Raleigh. People seldom fit the stereotypes popular history has forced them into, and it’s rather nice to know that Raleigh was also a foodie.
Take the time this year to enjoy food, cooking and, of course, cookbooks. Have a very good 5773.
Books mentioned in this column: