Sunday, March 16, 2008

Vicarious Cooking

I love cookbooks. I have a large collection of them, and I read them incessantly. I don't cook out of them much (except for Julia Child and looking up the temperature for my meat loaf in the Joy), but boy, do I have fun reading them.

My favorites are the older ones, because they take me back to a time in my own life which I know perfectly well existed, but which seems utterly bizarre now. Tonight I was reading the Gourmet Menu Cookbook, which has a date of 1963 and in one of the sections (Formal Dinners), it announces how much better off we are now. You see, according to Gourmet (and if you read food history, which I do, they're right), a formal dinner used to consist of 8 to 10 courses with different wines for each - but in modern 1963, they point out, we can now get away with only five courses and two or three wines! Wow. Now that's progress, wouldn't you say?

I remember these endless damn meals. My parents split up when I was three, and after that it was weeks with Mother and weekends with Daddy. Since Daddy was extremely well-known and extremely social, those dinners were a feature of every weekend. No, no, it never occurred to him to plan something slightly more suited to a ten year old. What, and ruin his social life? So willy nilly I had to sit through all those courses.

My favorites in these old books (and of course in Martha Stewart, who holds the same evil fascination for me as street accidents do - it's really ghastly, but you can't take your eyes off it) are the hors d'oeuvres. Oh, my God.

Take 100 blanched pea pods, says Martha casually, and fill them with a pastry tube. Gourmet goes on about hollowing out 200 steamed Brussel sprouts and filling them with ham mousse. One terrific hors d'oeuvres cookbook I have from the '50s is the best, though - this one tells you to make your own bread so that you can tint it different charming colors with food coloring. Then you make little canapes that look like butterflies, involving halved shrimp standing up like little wings and piped cream cheese "in a color to contrast with the bread." This particular book also contains a recipe for the sandwich loaf my Aunt Betty made for a bridesmaid's shower she gave me before my first wedding (1968). It's the one where you slice bread into three or four slices the long way, fill them variously with chicken salad and ham salad and carrot salad (or something) and then you frost it to look like a cake with more of that damn tinted cream cheese. Which you then decorate with little cutouts made out of carrots and pimentos and things...

And then of course there are the recipes that I read over and over because I stand in awe of people who would actually DO this. I have a recipe for Galantine of Duck which goes on for three pages and starts out: "Skin and bone three ducks, keeping the skin in one piece." OK, I'm outta here. Do WHAT? After that it gets into making the forcemeat, making the aspic, mincing the truffles - well, I did say it was three pages long.

My all time favorite recipe, however, is one which involves ortolans. If you don't know what ortolans are, they are tiny, tiny birds which you are supposed to eat in one bite...bones, entrails and all. If you've ever seen the movie Gigi, there's a scene in it where Gigi is taught to eat them by her Aunt Alicia.

So you take twelve of these poor little things, "recently smothered in aged cognac" (what a way to go) and wrap them in bacon. Then you take twelve large truffles and hollow them out and tuck each tiny bird into a truffle. And the recipe finishes up, "Cook them according to your usual recipe for truffles." Of COURSE.

Then there are the recipes that are simply unbelievable (to me, anyway). I ran across one the other day for a Pumpkin and Eggplant Casserole. No. No, no, no.

And Paula Deen - you know the Lady and Sons Savannah gal? She's supposed to be this great Southern cook and is all over the Food Channel, etc. Well, I looked through one of her cookbooks and discovered that every other recipe is made with cream of mushroom soup. Again, no. Not that when Sarah was small and dinner had to be fast I didn't on occasion fall back on it (oh, come, we've all done things we're ashamed of), but then I'm not appearing on the Food Channel or running a popular restaurant.

Ah, well. I shall now go and make myself some nice pasta with butter and Parmesan and garlic and some salad and probably eat some ice cream and go to bed. Now there's a meal.

Love, Wendy

1 comment:

SaintTigerlily said...

Ha! I love cookbooks too. One of my favorite things about Joy is that, until very recently, it still had recipes for terrapin and for other animals that could only be fairly described as roadkill. Mine also says (in the ingredient descriptions, you know, the part in the front of the book that is all 'this is an onion, it comes from the blah blah family and grows in the wherever...')something along the lines of: "GARLIC - Use garlic sparingly. Many find that more than half a clove in a dish will add a dangerous spiciness that could offend a sensitive appetite". Tell THAT to The Boss who insists on sometimes a whole bulb in every meal and whose favorite snack is toasted bread with a cut clove of garlic rubbed on top. My Joy is from the late 60's, the land where garlic was a no-no? Another reason I am very glad to be living in 2008 today - despite the obvious draw of nude dinner parties!