dinsdag 21 oktober 2014

How to read Cookbooks

Here are two interesting papers on how to engage with historic cookbooks by historian Barbara Wheaton. One is called: A Structured Approach to Reading Historic Cookbooks, the other is Finding Real Life In Cookbooks: The Adventures Of A Culinary Historian.

She especially has my attention when she writes about how to approach ingredient-lists and what questions can be asked about them:

Cookbooks tell us more about the repertory of ingredients than anything else. An inventory of the foodstuffs called for in a single cookbook can be compared with a list of commonly used Western foods. Thus, one can get a sense of how much variety in the diet there may be in the course of a year, and how opulent or impoverished the kitchen addressed by a particular work may be. When seasonal availability is taken into account, even a long list of ingredients may not be enough to prevent inadequate variety in the depth of winter, or in the *starving season* of springtime. The list may well begin to reveal how the food is obtained. Some books are plainly rural, while others are urban. Amelia Simmons, in her American Cookery, begins her discussion of peas with recommendations about what varieties to plant, while Eliza Acton, writing in her Modern Cookery, is concerned with helping the housewife not to be cheated by her greengrocer. Urban cookbooks are much more likely to measure food quantities by price -take 3d. worth of salt fish- or -a punnet of strawberries- rather than by amount. The rural kitchen is supplied by a flock of poultry in the barnyard, by the kitchen garden, by barter with local people, and by hunting, fishing, and foraging. The urban kitchen is visited by a multitude of ambulant vendors who sell seasonal foods, and herd flocks of goats (ready to be milked at the door), as well as meat pies and other baked goods. Street markets, covered markets, and shops bring a much wider variety of ingredients to the city dweller than to his or her country cousin. It must be added that, by the nineteenth century, there is a much greater concern with the adulteration of foods in the cities. A more general question must be asked: What proportions of the most commonly-used foodstuffs are obtained within and outside of the
cash economy?

The ingredients repertory displays economic and geographic patterns and raises questions such as: What are the points of origin of different food plants and animals? How long have they been present in the region represented by the cookbook? Which are the luxury ingredients, which are the staples, and which are the foods of the poor, or famine foods?

Here, I should point out a caveat: the mere mention of an ingredient does not guarantee its availability. In the past, as today, some cookbook writers seem to feel obliged to call for esoteric ingredients to demonstrate how recondite are their tastes. By the nineteenth century, the repertory expands: canal transportation, then the railroads, and finally steamboats greatly improve the selection of foodstuffs available in most parts of Europe, the United Kingdom, and North America. Pineapple and coconut, for example, are featured in Eliza Leslie's cookbooks published in Philadelphia in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. By shortening the time spent in transit, the railroads in particular did much to improve the quality of foods sold in urban markets.

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