Old cookbooks are always interesting to read–they give you that lost kitchen point of view. We really ate kidneys, good housewives knew how to clean kid gloves, and root cellars were a thing.
But some books are not quite antique and in re-issue can take on a new life. When Kelly Alexander updated Clementine Paddleford’s How America Eats, she had to edit out a preponderance of dessert recipes and rewrite the recipes themselves to provide more direction to contemporary cooks.
But Paddleford was a journalist, reporting on who cooked what, where. James Beard was a teacher and as Mark Bittman notes in his foreword to this 60-year anniversary re-issue, “It remains a book that any home cook could pick up and learn a thing or two from.”
Bittman is right about the recipes. Beard suggests salad greens that any kale convert would love–turnip tops, lamb’s quarters, dandelion, and escarole. He offers dressings from Basic French to Red and Green Mayonnaises. And he offers “molded salads” without a bit of irony.
And the common sense continues in Beard’s discussion of “The Calorie Question. “Generally,” he writes, “the calorie-packed food are the candies and other sugared things…” What would Beard have made of Venti, latte, caramel, etc? He’s pretty straightforward, “Eat enough, not too much…”.
Even though some of the recipes may be challenging for microwaved tempered cooks–Pot au Feu, Broiled Partridge, Floating Island–they are written with a crystalline directness that make them seem easy to take on.
It is remarkable how much ground Beard covers in about 300 well-illustrated pages–appetizers, outdoor cookery, frozen foods and pick-up meals, extensive sauces, breads and a few cakes. You could eat out of this book happily for years partly because most recipes are accompanied by variations. Potatoes Anna can be varied with herbs, parmesan, onion, ham, or curry. Leeks are served a la Grecque, parmesan, vinaigrette, béchamel, and stuffed eggs can be a lifetime’s pursuit–onion, mushrooms, parsley, chives, anchovy paste, minced ham, dry mustard, etc. It’s an approach that adapts to seasonality, personality, and what’s in the cabinets.
Bittman gets a little sniffy about the illustrations and I’ll admit that cooking mice are a bit twee, but as long as they clean up after themselves… . The illustrations are the work of Alice and Martin Provensen, a husband and wife team who worked so collaboratively it’s impossible to see where one ends and the other begins. The images of and pasta-eating Italians who look suspiciously like Chico Marx, green-clad leprechauns dancing with their corned beef hash, and long-nosed French waiters marching under the Eiffel Tower may be a tiny bit politically incorrect, but the Provensen’s sophisticated use of color, their engaging pages, and vivid line are charming. As a bonus, “the owner of this book” is directed to unfold the dust jacket to find a “four-color chart to decorate your kitchen or game room.”
Nostalgic and useful–what could be better?
Finally, check out this kickstarter campaign–an indie film biography of James Beard–America’s First Foodie.