Tag Archives: cookbooks

Did Elizabeth David Test Recipes? Eat Your Words, Rachel

Some time ago, writing about Elizabeth David and Julia Child, I cheerfully said of the former

“I would bet a good bit that she had never cooked most of those recipes, let alone tested them. Not that this worries me because recipe testing in most cases (not all) is vastly overrated.  But someday a scholar is going to locate the origins of all those recipes in French cookbooks.”

Now in this video, Jill Norman, Elizabeth David’s editor and author in her own right, describes how Elizabeth David prepared certain dishes at successive lunches, trying them out on her friends.  When she had achieved a version she liked, whatever the opinion of her friends, that was the one that went in the manuscript.  And the friends all received a typed copy of the final version, a lovely gesture.

via Video: Jill Norman talks about Elizabeth David – Telegraph.

Eat your words, Rachel.

Well, yes, I’ll eat my words.

But I also maintain that David’s attitude to trying out dishes differed in an important way from contemporary recipe testing.

Take French Provincial Cooking as an example. Many of the recipes are direct, acknowledged quotations from French cookbooks, with no indication of further modification.  Others are acknowledged summaries of French authors, Madame Sainte-Ange, for example.

Further, the recipes rely on the judgment of the cook rather than measurements down to the last ounce.  Here’s one picked at random for an Alsatian onion and cream tart (p. 284).

For the filling: 1-1/2 lb. onion, the yolks of 3 eggs, a good 1/4 pint of thick cream, seasonings including nutmeg and plenty of milled pepper, butter and oil for cooking the onions.

That wouldn’t pass muster now.

In short, David never assumes uniformity, whether of diner’s tastes, availability of ingredients, nature of ingredients, or availability of utensils, cookware, or of cooking equipment.  She writes her recipes to suggest the limits within which a cook can explore, not as a template to be reproduced.

I remember when I was a judge for a major cookbook prize.  Boxes of books would arrive at my house situated at 7000 feet up on the central plateau of Mexico.  Fulfilling my obligation to test at least two recipes from each finalist was a matter of intuiting from the recipe what the author was aiming at and trying to recreate it under very difficult circumstances.

I once tried to explain this to colleagues in the organization.  ”You shouldn’t have been a judge,” they said angrily.

Sorry, no, I think I should.  Even within the boundaries of the United States, altitudes vary, water varies, flour varies, availability of produce varies.  Templates and strict copying are not what is required but mutual trust between author and reader.

At least that’s how I look at it.

Horse Meat in a Sauce: An American Perspective

The French can . . . put a liquid overcoat, and  non-pronounceable name, on a slice of horse meat and have an American wondering if it’s breast of veal or angel food cake. It’s that gravy those Frogs pour on there that does the dirty work.

That’s according to Will Rogers, political satirist, and top-paid movie star (cowboys) in the Progressive Era of the first twenty years of the twentieth century.  It comes in his introduction to the Fashions in Food in Beverly Hills (3rd edn, 1931), a book full of the recipes of movie stars that coincidentally introduced avocado to the American public.  Not British, clearly, but drawing on the same attitudes.  Horse meat is suspect, sauces disguise it.

Look, there’s so much that could be said about the background to the current horse meat kerfuffle, quite apart from the lack of transparency and the revulsion at the very idea of eating horse meat.

There’s the five or more century-long effort of the Christian Church during the Dark Ages and early Middle Ages to ban horse sacrifice and the feast on horse meat that followed.  They eventually made it seem disgusting just as in this century smoking has become regarded as disgusting.

There’s the interesting (and as far as I can see) unexplored question of what happened to the carcasses of all those farm horses and cavalry horses over the centuries.  Honorable burial?  Don’t think so.

There’s the scrabble in the nineteenth century to find new sources of protein for the growing European cities (blue bottle flies, moles, zebras, they were pretty desperate).  The horse was the solution in much of Europe, overcoming the taboos and disgust of a thousand years.

There’s the British reaction that they were beef eaters and would not stoop to horse.

There’s a debate that goes back at least to Plato about good, honest un-sauced food for real men with real appetites, endorsed by the British and the Americans, versus food disguised with sauces to stimulate the appetites of idle aristocrats, attributed to the French.

These attitudes creep in to the language (where’s the beef?), are inculcated in children by nods, winks, and instructions in manners, and crop up in jokes and popular media.

In short, as the American author William Faulkner said in Requiem for a Nun (1951), “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

I’ve been thinking about that a good bit the past week.  First, the living past in the Super Bowl Dodge ad, which celebrates an agrarian philosophy of the hard working, virtuous farmer as the bedrock of the state. Now the equally living past in the horse meat scandal. Both of them are so emotionally powerful that they frame the way we experience the present.

We need history, folks.  Without history, we are trapped in such suffocating webs of myth and legend that we thrash around unable to move forward.



Cooking Across Cultures, Classes, and Sexes in the 1930s: The Extraordinary Career of Mary Sia

When I taught at the University of Hawai‘i in the 1980s, I often wandered into the university bookstore during the lunch hour. Always on the shelf of local cookbooks was an unassuming volume with a bright yellow cover and a red spiral binder that bore the title, Mary Sia’s Chinese Cookbook. My copy appeared in 1984, the seventh reprint of the third edition (the first having come out in 1956).

Mary Sia’s Chinese Cookbook

Only later did I realize that Mary Sia’s Chinese Cookbook was not just finely crafted. It was also the entry point to the story of a fascinating woman whose life sheds light on the history of the Chinese in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century.

Act One: From South China to Yale and Cornell

This story of Chinese migration to the United States begins with war-torn south China at the turn of the twentieth century, medical missionaries, eloping parents, dreams of modern western society, a big Chinese family, handling plague in Hawaii’s Chinatown, and daughter Mary who became expert in tennis, playing the organ, and domestic science.

Act Two: Publishing an English Language Chinese Cookbook in Beijing (1935)

This sees Mary Sia going to elite colleges on the east coast, then with her immigrant Chinese husband to the Rockefeller funded Medical College in Beijing, teaching cooking classes to the foreigners there, and leading them on restaurant and grocery-shopping tours.

There she created a Chinese cookbook and food guide from scratch. In 1935 the Peiping Chronicle, the English-language newspaper, published Mary Sia’s Chinese Chopsticks, a slim blue hardback cookbook and restaurant guide.

1935 English-language Chinese cookbook

Title page of Chinese Chopsticks by Mary Li Sia, Beijing, 1935

Recipes from 1935 English-language Chinese cookbook

Recipes for stuffed mushrooms, soup stock, and bean curd, eggs and chicken blood soup from Mary Li Sia’s Chinese Chopsticks, Beijing, 1935

English-language Chinese cookbooks were few and far between, only a dozen or so having been published in the United States. With no one to borrow from, Mary Sia created recipes and names for techniques and ingredients from scratch.

Hataman Street which housed many of the regional Chinese grocery stores to which Mary Sia led her classes

Restaurant addresses, Beijing 1935

Addresses from Cantonese, Szechuanese, Duck, Mutton, and Vegetarian Restaurants from Mary Li Sia’s Chinese Chopsticks (Beijing 1935).

History of Chinese food restaurant menus 1935

Fukienese (partial) and Honan Restaurant Menus from Mary Li Sia’s Chinese Chopsticks (Beijing, 1935)

Act Three: Publishing Mary Sia’s Chinese Cookbook in Hawaii

This saw the Japanese invasion, the couple’s return to Hawaii, the raising of a family, more classes at the YWCA and the University of Hawaii, the updating of her cookbook as Mary Sia’s Chinese Cookbook that experts who know it regard as one of the most refined of introductions to the cuisine of Canton, and cooking with Julia Child.

Presumptuous it may sound but I suggest there are parallels with Julia Child.  She never had the huge audience, of course.  But she sold 20,000 copies of her book in Hawaii over the years and taught hundreds of men and women Chinese cooking.  And she made the tricky job of negotiating race-bound Hawaii, the even more race-bound foreign community in Beijing, the pursuing of her own avocation while raising a family, the shifts back and forth between China and the United States look effortless, a feat much greater than bridging French and American cuisine.

So, OK, I’m partisan but it’s the kind of story that makes my heart beat faster.  I wrote it up in an introduction to a re-issue of Mary Sia’s Chinese Cookbook so please go there if you want the full account. The book itself will be out in January for Chinese New Year.

Just one more thing.  In the introduction, I said little about later generations of the family since I wanted Mary Sia to take center stage.  Forty five members of the family have attended Punahou, Hawaii’s elite prep school and Barack Obama’s alma mater, in the last century, as well as endowing a major building on campus. They have contributed beyond measure to life in Hawaii (and thus the United States) in medicine, real estate, airlines, and philanthropy.

Here’s a copy of the order form from the University of Hawaii Press.




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