Cleaning Out the Basement–The Boston Cooking School Cookbook

I got this 1937 copy because someone else, my neighbor, was cleaning out their basement

I got this 1937 copy because someone else was cleaning out their basement

I feel about Fannie Farmer the way I do about McKim, Mead, and White. (Stay with me.) Just at the cusp of modernism, as Louis Sullivan was exploring form and function to develop a uniquely American style of architecture, MMW swept into the Columbian Exposition and brought us back to the European Beaux Arts.

And just as America was becoming a more fragrant melting pot, with immigrant communities from Southern and Eastern Europe, Fannie Farmer kept cooks on the scientific straight and narrow with measurements and white sauces.

Now I love an MMW civic palazzo, but I also wonder where American architecture might have gone if it had resisted a return to classicism. Likewise, sometimes there’s nothing like a Waldorf Salad, but I can’t live happily without anchovies and olives.

Another thing I love is my neighborhood, where people leave their unwanted books on the sidewalk, where I happily scavenged this one.

The Boston Cooking School was founded in 1879 but it’s Fannie Farmer who graduated from it in 1889 who has become a culinary brand. Its classes were meant for women who wanted to earn their way; eventually the school taught classes in sick-room cookery at Harvard Medical School and to immigrants in Boston’s North End. And although previous principals published cooking books, it was Fannie Farmer’s that became an American classic.

In her preface to the first edition, some of that serious sick-room flavor comes through. “I certainly feel that the time is not far distant when a knowledge of the principles of diet will be an essential part of one’s education. Then mankind will eat to live…”. What would she make of a cronut?

By 1937, things have loosened up a little. The authors have introduced variations on basic recipes; a Two Egg Cake becomes a Spanish Cake with the addition of cinnamon–ole! And, “to conform with modern fashions” the canapé chapter has been expanded to meet the demands of cocktail parties. Wine shows up in “many fine old recipes.” And maybe they learned a thing or two from those ladies in the North End; this edition includes recipes for Spaghetti with Napoli Sauce, Gnocchi a la Romana, and Ravioli.

But the flavor of Yankee farmhouse remains. Tapioca in all possible variations, Molasses Cookies and various chowders, cider applesauce and cranberry pudding, and a standard approach to vegetables: trim, boil, season with butter, salt, and pepper.

The Boston Cooking School, where the making of pastries was serious business

The Boston Cooking School, where the making of pastries was serious business

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Savor the South–Bacon

Bacon by Fred Thompson, UNC Press 2016, cloth $19.00, 132 pages

Bacon by Fred Thompson, UNC Press 2016, cloth $19.00, 132 pages

A pig resembles a saint in that he is more honored after death than during his lifetime.

Irma S. Rombauer

With great restraint, UNC Press has resisted adding Bacon to its Savor the South series until the fourth year. I would have started with bacon.

But this one is certainly worth the wait. Fred Thompson has Southern cooking in his bones and can conjure and adapt delicious recipes that are easy to cook and satisfying to eat.

Like all Savor the South cookbooks, this one begins with some anchoring exposition. Thompson starts with history–pigs were brought to the South by Spanish explorers in the 1530s and thrived in swampy bottomland that wasn’t good for crops or cattle.

Farmers like his grandfather kept a few hogs as an easy source of protein and pork became a quintessential Southern food. But even though now, and like Thompson’s father, most Southerners don’t farm, pork remains a touchstone food.

And here, bacon appears in appetizers, at breakfast, in soups, salads and sandwiches, in mains and sides, and, not surprisingly, in desserts. Is there some carnivore you’re trying to capture? Make them Salted Caramel Bacon Brownies and they’ll be yours forever. If you eat Bacon Sour Cream Coffee Cake with Maple Glaze for breakfast, you have all day to work it off.

And don’t overlook the bacon fat–this is a food that keeps on giving. Thompson calls it a “great wonder of the culinary world,” not to be wasted and a vital flavor enhancer. To store it, he suggests clarifying the fat to remove any bits of meat that might go rancid. He uses it to make pie crust, but also, god help us, mayonnaise.

Ignore the trend-eaters and get back to bacon basics–chowder, BLT, biscuits, and greens.

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Food in the Gilded Age

The Culinary Historians of Washington, D.C. are pleased to begin their 20th anniversary season this September 11, 2016. If you’re in town, please do join us.

We always think of Gilded Age dining as ridiculously long menus full of game, oysters, and stand-up, gelatin-based desserts. But that was only for the 1%. Everyone else was scraping together supper from what they could find–whether it was beans in the Southwest or sweet potatoes in African-American communities. Immigrants carried their favorite foods with them–the Chinese relying on rice and Italians on pasta–to create the melting pot we dine from today.

Read all about it in Robert Dirks’ study of turn-of-the-century “dietaries.”



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Cookbook Digest–Family Cooking Fun

School is starting, and even if everyone has graduated the shift to fall always feels a tiny bit burdensome. The fragrant basil and perfumed peaches fade out at the farm stand to be replaced by more business-like apples and root vegetables. If you feel a need to re-energize your cooking, or perhaps to start cooking after a summer of tomato salads and corn on the cob, check out these books, which make family meals look easy. The Oz family will help you stay healthy, and sisters Lisa Albert and Julie Gnat are all about the happy.

Check it all out in Cookbook Digest.

oz lick

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Cleaning Out the Basement–Mind Your Own Business

Mind Your Own Business, A Book for Records, Vassar Cooperative Bookshop, 1943, priceless!

Mind Your Own Business, A Book for Records, Vassar Cooperative Bookshop, 1943, priceless!

This book was published to celebrate the Vassar Cooperative Bookstore’s 20th anniversary, and was given as a gift to the Cooperative’s 2,000 members who lived all over the world and shared in the shop’s profits.

Alumna, Marion Bacon had founded the store in 1923, “with some second-hand furniture and lots of enthusiasm,” as noted in the May 1943 Vassar Chronicle. On its first day, they sold 60 books and The Vassar Quarterly commented about the shop, “It shows an insidious cordiality to charge accounts.”

It sounds like a wonderful place–one that exists because one energetic person has an idea and makes it work.

Bacon was counted among the College’s historians and also compiled and published Life at Vassar, Seventy Five Years in Pictures. She lived with her cousin, Julia Bacon who served as the “schedule-fixer” and was a well-known campus fixture.

I love this book. I found it at a used book sale and carefully wrapped it in a library plastic dust jacket. But I could never bring myself to actually write in it. Somehow, my life and housekeeping didn’t feel worthy of its neat pages and implication of an ordered life. I love an ordered life.

I also love it, because even with mostly blank pages the book captures a moment. You’re a well-educated, intelligent young woman who’s job–your business–will be housekeeping. Power dressing will be a frilly apron and your record-keeping will include household linen, seed orders, and shopping triumphs. (I have those, but I don’t write them down.)

Everyone needs to keep records and there are pages to record personal loans, mortgages, income: dividends and income: compensation. But there are particulars that make this of its time. The woman is responsible for keeping the family clothing sizes, birthdays, and medical records. Well, maybe not so much has changed? Except now, there’s an app for that.

One thing that has changed is wartime. The publishing date was delayed due to paper shortages and  WW2 makes its presence felt in the book itself. Those seed records were for planting a Victory Garden, and there are pages for ration books, canning, and fuel consumption.

of course he's annoyed, he's busy financing the free world. no time for hummingbirds!

of course he’s annoyed, he’s busy financing the free world. this is no time for hummingbirds!

(Not writing in this book may have turned out to be a good thing. This one looks to be a first edition with an unclipped price on the dust jacket–worth more than the later, used versions I found online. But I need to get with an entrepreneur who can reprint this charmer, with only the most minimal updates.)

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Voracious by Cara Nicoletti, Back Bay Books 2015, paper $16.99, 283 pages

I live on good soup, not on fine words.


Yes, but good soup is much tastier when accompanied by a good book.

In these essays just long enough to read while you’re stirring a risotto or waiting for the mac n cheese to bubble, Nicoletti explores the universality of food and humanity as the meet up in novels.

Books, like meals, can anchor themselves in our memories and stand in as markers for a time of life. I went through a Henry Miller phase in college but these days,  find him impossible. And it took me until after college to find my way to Jane Austen, but it is a fact, almost universally acknowledged, that she continues to delight.

In this book, Nicoletti works her way through childhood favorites. I would love to be in Homer Price’s predicament, eating my way through piles of donuts to find a bracelet. It’s funny how so many of the children’s books deal with uncontrolled abundance–Strega Nona’s magic pot cooking pasta that will devour the town instead of the other way around, Hansel and Gretel tempted by a house of sweets, or a mouse made manic by a chocolate chip cookie.

Books of adolescence offer a bit more tang. To Kill a Mockingbird and Lord of the Flies use food to trace human perfidy and introduce us to conflict and grown-up choices, whether it is table behavior that reveals class and status or a more cut-throat reach for power.

If you are at all well-read, or even you’re not, Nicoletti’s brief and perceptive essays will give you a new perspective on classic and contemporary literature from Anna Karenina and  Les Miserables, to The Corrections and In Cold Blood. Nicoletti was raised in a family of butchers and worked as a cook; she was also an English major and notices things a more traditional academic might not. For example, Virginia Woolf, who it seems, had an eating disorder, famously wrote, “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” But Woolf also used food to illustrate character and condition. After reading Nicoletti’s analysis of love and tea cakes, making her recipe for Mrs. Dalloway’s Chocolate Eclairs will be a feminist act.

By the way, Nicoletti is good company as well as a good cook. If you can’t join her in her book club, you can at least join her in this book.

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Ethnic American Cooking, Recipes for Living in a New World

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Ethnic American Cooking by Lucy M. Long, Rowman & Littlefield 2016, hardback $38.00, 321 pages

I’m in favor of liberalizing immigration because of the effect it would have on restaurants. I’d let just about everybody in except the English.

–Calvin Trillin

But without the English, according to Lucy Long, we’d have to give up a Maryland classic–Smith Island Cake.

This book is a little bit mind boggling, and depending on your politics, you’ll be more or less impressed with the U.S. Our country has made room for the German, French, and Italians, but also for Micronesian, Gypsy, and Djiboutian communities. And though their foods may not have trickled into the American diet the way pizza and burritos have, just wait.

There’s a food truck near my house that sells a delicious dish from Mail, lemony Chicken Yassa, and Algerian Shakshouka has become my go-to quick dinner, especially when the tomatoes are piling up at farm markets.

This book is excerpted from a larger work, the two-volume, Ethnic American Food Today, A Cultural Encyclopedia, which provides more information into foodways and cultures, drawing on ethnographic research and personal experience. This volume is for cooks. A few maps at the beginning will orient you and headnotes offer a brief discussion of each country’s cooking style and influences.

But it’s about the recipes. And part of the fun is armchair quibbling over what the representative dishes are. It’s interesting to see that Sicily’s distinct food culture is treated separately from other, mainly southern Italian communities. But Spaghetti with Anchovies and Walnuts never made it to my family’s table–though maybe now it will. You won’t be surprised to find Bulgogi representing Korea, though with only a mention of kimchi. And I’ve been making Dutch baby pancakes for breakfast without knowing they are a Finnish dish.

Part of what makes the book so interesting is how ethnicity is parsed. In the introduction, Long defines ethnicity as “groupings that were culturally distinguishable from a larger social system of which they formed some part.” National boundaries don’t always figure into it.  Jewish food is represented by both Ashkenazi and Sephardic dishes. Native Americans are divided into Pacific Northwest, Plains, Southwest, and Woodlands. Contested states like Palestine and Taiwan are represented as are perhaps overlooked groups like Roma American and people from San Marino.

You can still haunt the church fairs for authentic flavors, but now you can make them in your own kitchen too.




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