About 30 years ago, I started pursuing cooking in a more than an I’m hungry kind of way. I knew I couldn’t simply couldn’t buy every cookbook I came across or even every Italian cookbook. There were too many then and too many now.
So I narrowed my focus to books about cooking, which were rare finds then. My first purchase was Laura Shapiro’s Perfection Salad, a groundbreaking look at foodways (before that was barely a word) to illuminate social and economic positions, particularly of women—who moved from Madonnas at the family hearth to measuring scientists overseeing family health.
In those pre-Amazon days, I’d haunt old bookstores for copies of M.F.K. Fisher and was an early subscriber to Jessica’s Biscuit catalogs. Every once in a while, Daedalus would toss up a book on food history or review of European markets amid the novels and children’s books. One of those was Patience Gray’s Honey from a Weed, which I was inspired to write about after this reminder on CHOW.
Honey from a Weed is at once personal, anthropological, literary, historical, and deeply romantic. Here is the story of a woman following a sculptor around the Mediterranean in his pursuit of marble. Her essays about life in Catalonia, Naxos, and Tuscany are redolent with oregano and salt air and by applying her knowledge to the seemingly simple native food traditions, she revealed their complexity.
Her observation that during Lent, the already meager winter diet on Naxos become even leaner as cupboard stores dwindled and the earth was still cold. Suddenly the religious strictures of Lent are linked to a very practical seasonal fact and Christian doctrine is shown as a reflection of the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone.
Gray’s recipes never particularly inspired me to cook, but they did inspire me to look at the food around me in a new way—why my family eats a wheat pie at Easter, the pleasures of glut and the even the pleasures of limits. By giving meaning to food, she was well ahead of today’s foodie culture and the more serious recognition of foodways as a field of scholarship.
A look at her first book, Plats du Jour, written with Primrose Boyd, shows she was ahead of today’s food culture in another way. We’re all to rushed and busy to cook, and so five-minute solutions abound, but Gray and Boyd came up with the very adult and sophisticated solution of plats du jour—“Long before this book was thought of, we had separately evolved a system of cooking by which a variety of dishes was replaced by a single plat du jour accompanied, as a rule, by a green salad, a respectable cheese, and fruit in season, and whenever possible, by a bottle of wine.”
They were responding to pre-War periods of complicated foods and meals—“truffled woodcock and champagne in Berlin,” but it is an approach that works as well for harried contemporary cooks. But be warned, these are recipes in the Elizabeth David style—succinctly written and no easy substitutions for matelotes and fricassees, pickled tongue, or tete de veau. By the same token, there are plenty of risottos, pastas, and a good guide to cheeses.
Grow up and cook an Estouffade de Boeuf Nicoise!