It’s easy to dismiss this 23-volume series, first published in 1966, as an example of white sauce and Jell-o mold cookery. You know, it’s Women’s Day–on the rack at the supermarket check-out or online, a self-loathing combination of relationship advice and diet suggestions, behind a cover picture of a calorie-loaded cake.
And dismiss it I did, cooking instead from the Silver Palate right through to locavore farm markets. But an article in Saveur magazine made me take a second look.
There’s a section on White Sauce, but rather than treating it as a way to make food fancy, it takes the saucier approach, explaining the family of sauces that include veloute, béchamel, and roux and then using it as a cooking tool in soufflés and croquettes.
And Jell-o is ignored in favor of a Jellied Consomme Madrilene and elegant cream desserts. This “jellied” section comes after an extensive section on Japanese Cookery that starts with the basics of Dashi and finishes with four dessert recipes. And Jellied leads to Jelly, as in make your own, and Jewish Cookery that explains kosher, customs, and the recipes of the bubbes–gefilte fish, honey cakes, and kasha.
The books are absolutely basic and useful–recipes for cookies, salads, stews, and more that you can cook for a lifetime. And they delve into history, culture, and technique. Not one of my cookbooks or history books includes Agape, the Greek word for love that describes the charity feasts of the ancient Christians, revived by Moravians. And where else can you find (or could you, pre-Internet) a solid explanation of all the a la’s: a la carte, a la greque, a la king, and a la mode.
But here’s the real secret, they include essays by such esteemed food writers as James Beard on the Aperitif or the Art of Carving, Nika Hazelton covers the world with essays on Finnish German, Hungarian, Norwegian, and Swedish Cookery, Craig Claiborne on outdoor cooking and eating, and my neighbor and fellow-CHoW member, Kay Shaw Nelson, on the Elegant Eggplant, and Savory Sauerkraut.
And aren’t you dying to know what Julia Child suggests as Five Basic recipes for Low-Cost Meals? It’s a meat-heavy list of boeuf a la mode, pot-au-feu, hamburgers, beef or chicken sauces, and a basic fish dish with fumet and veloute. What counts as basic has obviously changed.
And, as with all Cleaning Out the Basement entries, this one prompts Internet searching. I need to know more about Countess C. Van Limburg Stirum and why she’s writing about Dutch Cookery. We would expect Princess Alexandra Kropotkin to write about Russian cookery, but what exactly does she bring to the table? (Well, she’s a bona fide princess and a bona fide anarchist who wrote the definitive recipe for Beef Stroganoff, to begin with. Thank you Internet!)
From the basic to the obscure, this mid-century series may just be the source of our current foodism.