Monday, February 18, 2013

And Now For Something Completely Different

This afternoon, my wife and I went to browse the annual sale at Whitlock's Book Barn, a used and antique bookstore in a literal barn (two of them, actually) in Bethany, CT. I was introduced to Whitlock's by my daughter, who was in turn introduced to the place by a favorite professor at Yale.

But wait, you ask: Why are we talking about an afternoon of booking on a food blog? Well, it's because of my best finds, both of which are food-related books:

The first is Colonial Virginia Cookery by historian Jane Carson. Originally published in 1968 by University of Virginia Press (or perhaps distributed through UVa Press on behalf of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation: my Googling left me uncertain which), this is a 1985 Colonial Williamsburg Foundation edition that returned Carson's survey of 18th century cooking manuals to print.

From what I've heard previously of antique recipes — and note that the recipes of the period are more like a narrative description of cooking the dish than they are like the procedural form we're used to today — I don't have great hope that many of these dishes will be plausibly cookable (or desirable, for that matter) in the modern kitchen, but I'm expecting them to be fascinating to read. How something as ostensibly fundamental as cooking has changed over human history is a subject that never ceases to intrigue me. And in any case, when you flip open a book at random and find a recipe for "Soup of Any Kind of Old Fowl (The only way in which they are eatable)" and on the opposite page discover instructions for turtle soup that advise you to "Kill [the turtle] at night in winter, and in the morning in summer"... well, how could you not be captivated?

The book describes menus and ingredients, the colonial kitchen itself, dishes in several chapters organized by cooking method, sauces and garnishes, and finally, food preservation. That last chapter, in particular, calls out to me. Given that neither refrigeration nor canning was known in colonial times, I'm sure the methods described will be quite terrifying to a modern, germ-aware sensibility... and yet, somehow our colonial forebears (at least some of them) managed to survive. If it seems sane to try any of the preservation methods —or if any of the recipes seem adaptable —you can count on reading about it here!

The second find is even better. I'm the first to admit I'm no expert on the classic literature of cooking, but when I pulled a volume off the shelf, I instantly recognized the name Brillat-Savarin, if only as the author of the the quote that opens (at least in its American distribution) the original Japanese version of Iron Chef: "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are." But even if I hadn't recognized the name Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, nobody even vaguely acquainted with the literature of food (and, as I say, I myself am no more than vaguely acquainted) could fail to know the name M.F.K. Fisher, perhaps the preeminent American food writer. What I had found was the 1949 Heritage Press edition of Brillat-Savarin's The Physiology of Taste: or, Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy, translated "with profuse annotations" by Fisher, and illustrated by Sylvain Sauvage.

I had stumbled upon one of the most famous books ever written about food, translated by one of America's best known food writers, in a very beautiful edition. The accompanying Heritage Club Sandglass brochure describes how (punctuated by what seem to 21st century eyes an inordinate number of references to how good-looking she was) Fisher and her husband brought them the idea of translating Brillat-Savarin; how the edition was translated, edited, designed, illustrated, and published; and how, sadly, Sauvage passed away before it was on the shelves. It's a gem of a food book, and I can't wait to get "stuck in" reading it

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