Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Kitchen Economy in the United States, Part I, or How To Cook a Wolf

The economy cookbook genre provides tips for cooking and living on a budget, and therefore is a unique historical artifact, detailing aspects of daily life such as income, living conditions, and personal and family care. As Sarah Leavitt points out in From Catharine Beecher to Martha Stewart: a Cultural History of Domestic Advice (2002), advice manuals were often literary works, stylistically bearing a close resemblance to early novels by women.  Classics such as The American Frugal Housewife (1829) by Lydia Maria Child began a tradition of guides for Anglo-American women on how a run a thrifty household. Such early examples discussed both food and other housekeeping concerns such as cleaning and furnishing the home, as well as etiquette.  The content in advice manuals and cookbooks often overlapped but by the late 19th century had diverged into separate genres.  The economy cookbook grew from a meeting of these traditions.

Depending on the particular flavor of straitened social circumstances for which the cookbook was written (frontier life, war, inflation, unemployment), one will find a particular worldview that shapes the cooking process. These books are written for a swathe of the population who experience poverty through a shared outside influence. The author is a comrade, one who has managed to live comparatively well in the same situation. Why then, when food prices are just as high as ever, with worrisome unemployment figures, and "food deserts" threatening the nutrition and well-being of much of the U.S. population, has the genre all but disappeared? Many of these older books are still talked of on blogs and in news pieces; people still find their information relevant. In terms of their philosophy toward food, their closest counterparts are Alice Waters-like cookbooks on cooking with fresh, seasonal ingredients. But such examples are not typically written with budgets and scarcity in mind.

To see how the genre has changed, I'll take a look at some distinctive examples from the second half of the 20th century into the 21st century. What are your favorite money-saving cookbooks?

How To Cook a Wolf by M.F.K. Fisher

Published in 1942, How To Cook a Wolf speaks to a people struggling during war time.  The people were Americans and although their domestic sovereignty was not ultimately violated, ration books and blackouts brought an unsettling change to everyday life. When Wolf was published, Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher (1908-1992) was already known for her fluid, conversational writing in which recipes would materialize without warning, intelligently wrapped up in the middle of anecdotes, like the surprise cream center of a truffle.
If you think eggs boiled in their shells are fit for the nursery, and refuse to admit any potential blessing in one delicately prepared, neatly spooned from its shell into a cup, sagely seasoned with salt and fresh-ground black pepper and a sizable dollop of butter, all to be eaten with hot toast, then it is definitely not your dish. 
M.F.K. Fisher by Ginny Stanford, 1991. Acrylic and silver leaf on canvas. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.
The text is also interspersed with more structured recipes that bloom from Fisher's prose as an inevitable coda.  Wolf reads less like a cookbook and more like a letter from a friend giving you her best advice, rich with experience and humor.  As in the best stream of consciousness writing, her prose and content are in fact very structured. Her prolific use of the second person invites us in, easily courting our attention so that when the context abruptly shifts squarely to the first person, the effect is breathtaking. Each essay is a work of art. As with the book's title––which suggests an outsmarting of the proverbial wolf at the door––Wolf is organized into chapters with mysterious and evocative titles from "How to Keep Alive" (the very basics of eating to survive) and "How to Rise Up Like New Bread" (bread baking) to "How To Have a Sleek Pelt" (cooking for pets) and "How Not to Be an Earthworm" (living through blackouts).

Like Elizabeth David and Julia Child, Fisher's approach to food was shaped by travel in France and other European countries. Her message is simple: down with food snobbery and ignorance; embrace fresh ingredients and the wisdom of the soil. In her revised text for the 1951 edition of Wolf Fisher offers the most eloquent statement on food sovereignty I have ever read.  In a moment of prolepsis, she captures the post-war shifts in agricultural production and anticipates the struggles of what would become the organic, sustainable, non-GMO, and slow food movements :
I believe more firmly than ever in fresh raw milk, freshly ground whole grains of cereal, and vegetables grown in organically cultured soil. If I must eat meats I want them carved from beasts nurtured on the plants from that same kind of soil. As for fish...they can choose their own way of life in my gastronomy, unless we interrupt it with split atoms.

Food waste makes up one of the richest potentials for saving money.  In "How to Be Sage Without Hemlock" Fisher shares ways to make the most of the food and fuel you have.  My favorite––in fact the best kitchen tip I have ever found––is to store herbs in glass jars in the refrigerator. After two weeks even fine herbs, such as cilantro and parsley, were still fresh, green, and crisp. The method also works well for small heads of lettuce. To fashion your own store of vitamins Fisher recommends pouring all juice from cooked vegetables into a jar in the refrigerator. Add to it regularly and give it a good shake every now and then and it will keep fresh indefinitely.

Fisher believes in a common sense approach to eating. She has no patience for three-meals-a-day nutrition plans or food pyramids. Soup and buttered toast make a very fine meal, the addition of a baked apple with or without cinnamon milk, sublime. Leftovers are another treasure trove as fuel- conscious cooks could make large batches that would maximize the energy needed to run the stove, oven, or refrigerator. Leftover spaghetti is dressed up with honey and almonds for a comforting dish.     

M.F.K Fisher's Baked Apple, adapted from How to Cook a Wolf

I'm not a big fan of raisins but they are excellent in this dish.  Really stuff the apples with as many raisins as you can, and don't be stingy with the butter. The recipe is easily doubled, tripled, etc.
Serves 2

2 apples, cored
4 Tbs brown sugar
1/4 to 1/3 cup raisins

1. Preheat oven to 400°F. Put raisins in a bowl and dust with cinnamon and a sprinkle of nutmeg. Place apples in a baking dish. Stuff center with spiced raisins and a couple of spoonfuls of butter. Drop spoonfuls of the brown sugar in the baking dish and pour in water until it reaches about 3/4 up the sides of the baking dish. Bake until the apples are meltingly soft, at least an hour.  Serve with cinnamon milk.

Cinnamon Milk, adapted from How to Cook a Wolf

1 pint milk
1 tsp cinnamon or mixed spices
1 Tbs butter

Heat milk in a double boiler. Add spices and butter. Pour into heated jug and serve like cream.

Spaghetti with Honey and Almonds, adapted from How to Cook a Wolf

Leftover spaghetti
Slivered almonds, toasted

To plain, leftover spaghetti add toasted almonds and a generous stream of honey.  Either heat together in a pot on the stove or broil in the oven until toasty.  

As a note on cooking pasta, Fisher recommends adding a little butter to the salted boiling water.  It helps the spaghetti strands remain autonomous and slippery and adds a pleasant flavor. Less fat is then needed when dressing the pasta after draining.  I used to do this with oil, but the butter is far superior. 

With Fisher's characteristic flair, the final chapter offers not a parting token of thriftiness but rather the opposite. Sometimes in order to survive hunger, one has to remember what good food was like. And so "How to Practice True Economy" includes recipes of luxury, rife with ingredients that were unobtainable to most during WWII: Shrimp Pate, Eggs with Anchovies, Boeuf Moreno, Poulet à la Mode de Beaune, and Fruits aux Sept Liqueurs.
Close your eyes to the headlines and your ears to sirens and the threatenings of high explosives, and read instead the sweet nostalgic measures of these recipes, impossible yet fond. 

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Quotation Menus, Part III: Four and Twenty Blackbirds

A person's eating habits can be a revealing reflection of character and lifestyle. Consider the rigidity of a man who orders the same meal at the same restaurant, on the same day of the week, every week for 10 years. For 10 years he does not engage in conversation while in the restaurant, except to place his order, and sits alone for the duration of the meal.  We understand him to be a man who does not like to deviate from what is planned and comfortable. Now imagine that this man suddenly comes to the restaurant on a different day of the week and orders a completely different meal from the menu, consisting of tomato soup, beefsteak and kidney pudding, and blackberry tart.  Given the man's idiosyncrasy, this would be very odd behavior. But he then resumes his regular habit of dining on a particular day and food.

If you were mystery writer Agatha Christie's great Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, observing your fellow diner's departure from routine, you would find it more than curious. Indeed, you would be rather alarmed.   Add to this the discovery that a couple of weeks later, after visiting the restaurant on the expected day but again dining on an uncharacteristic meal featuring more blackberries, the man is found dead in his home.  Although the official verdict is accidental death, Poirot knows something wicked must be afoot.  Poirot's dining companion and fellow observer suggests that perhaps the man, now identified as Henry Gascoigne, was preoccupied with troubling news and thus ordered an unusual meal without thinking.  But as Poirot stresses, "a man who has got something on his mind will order automatically the dish he has ordered most often before." 

And so begins "Four and Twenty Blackbirds," which Christie calls "the sorbet" in a collation of short mysteries published under the title The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding (1960).  In the introduction she writes, "This book of Christmas Fare may be described as 'The Chef's Selection.' I am the Chef!"  Like the royal chefs of Medieval England, who transformed banquet foods into unrecognizable, theatrics at table, Christie presents us with a scenario in which the mundaneness of food can be a murderer's dramatic undoing.  As in the nursery rhyme, "four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie" was a dish--composed of live blackbirds--that graced elite tables.  Served as a between-courses sotelty, animals such as rabbits, frogs and birds were tucked between cooked pastry crust just before the pie was brought to the table.  Unsuspecting guests were then treated to a surprising kerfuffle when the crust was cut and the poor animals escaped and ran around the dining hall (Bober, P. 1999. Art, Culture, and Cuisine: Ancient and Medieval Gastronomy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press). Perhaps it was with such artful deception in mind that Christie titled this blackberry-infused story.

While a proper quotation menu from this delicious story would feature thick tomato soup, steak and kidney pudding and blackberry tart, or Gascoigne's second strange meal of mulligatawny soup, beefsteak pudding, blackberry and apple pie, and cheese, I offer you a delicate and easy to prepare blackberry clafouti.      


Blackberry Clafouti

Serves 6

3 eggs
1 cup whole milk
6 Tbs butter, melted
1 tsp vanilla extract
2/3 cup all-purpose or pastry flour
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 tsp salt

1 Tbs butter
1 1/2 cups blackberries, cut in halves if large
1/2 cup sugar + 1 Tbs sugar

Confectioners' sugar, for serving

1. Preheat oven to 400°F and butter an 8" square tart dish or 6 individual ramekins.  Whisk together ingredients for the batter.  Lumps are fine and in this case enhance the clafouti, so let them remain.  

2. To prepare the filling, melt butter in a skillet over medium-high heat.  Add blackberries, sugar, and cook until juices begin to extrude and blackberries appear glazed, about 5 minutes.

3. Pour half the batter in the tart dish or ramekins.  Arrange the blackberries over the batter, reserving the juices.  Cover with the remaining batter.  Sprinkle the remaining 1 Tbs sugar over the batter and bake for 25-30 minutes, or until golden and set in the middle.  To serve, drizzle with reserved juice and dust with confectioners' sugar. 

Sing a song of sixpence,
A pocket full of rye,
Four and twenty blackbirds
Baked in a pie.

When the pie was opened
The birds began to sing—
Wasn't that a dainty dish
To set before the king?

The king was in the counting-house
Counting out his money,
The queen was in the parlor
Eating bread and honey,

The maid was in the garden
Hanging out the clothes.
Along came a blackbird
And snipped off her nose.

I recently learned of this lovely book, in which photographer Dinah Fried recreates and photographs meals from literature, resulting in tantalizing quotation menus. http://www.fictitiousdishes.com

Read Quotation Menus, Parts I & II, then peruse the evocative tableaux in Fried's book and begin dreaming up some of your favorite fictional feasts.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Quotation Menus, Part II: A Suspicion of Mushrooms

Des champignons comestibles, suspects et vénéneux [Edible, Suspicious, and Poisonous Mushrooms], Wellcome Library, London.  Various fungi - 20 species, including the fly agaric (Amanita muscaria), death cap (Amanita phalloides) and Boletus and Agaricus species. Coloured lithograph by A. Cornillon, c. 1827, after Prieur. 

Unlike the cuisines of Continental countries such as France and Italy, English cookery shied away from mushrooms before the 20th century. In many cultures these potent products of the forest, which seem to arise spontaneously from moist earth and rotting wood, are believed to have wild, mystical properties capable of miraculous healing as well as effecting hallucinations and death.   A scene from Shakespeare's The Tempest, in which Prospero recounts his use of magic before finally renouncing it, casts mushrooms in an otherworldy light:

Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves,
And ye that on the sands with printless foot
Do chase the ebbing Neptune and do fly him
When he comes back; you demi-puppets that
By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make,
Whereof the ewe not bites; and you whose pastime
Is to make midnight mushrooms, that rejoice
To hear the solemn curfew; (The Tempest, Act V, Scene I)

Despite the variety in form and color found in the fungal kingdom, a deadly species can look exactly like and grow in close proximity to a harmless, tasty one.  As Madge Lorwin notes in Dining with Shakespeare, Elizabethan cookbooks and dietary guides rarely mention mushrooms, unless the author was familiar with Continental cuisine.  In Castel of Helthe (1539) Thomas Elyot cautions, "Beware of musherons,..and al other thinges, whiche wyll sone putrifie."  In The Description of England (1577), clergyman William Harrison refers to them as "dangerous and hurtful."  Five hundred years later, a nice little chapter on fungi in Patience Gray and Primrose Boyd's European cookbook, Plats du Jour, attributes the rarity of mushrooms in the English diet to fear of poisoning as well as to the abundance of winter vegetables in England, making foraging unnecessary.  In countries where winter produce is scarce, they suggest, "everything provided by nature is put to some gastronomic use."  While this may not be an accurate conclusion (there are parts of England that see far fewer winter vegetables than parts of Italy where mushrooms are foraged), Gray and Boyd also note that fresh mushrooms were much more common in 19th century English markets than in the 1950s.  Mushroom gathering was not unheard of, however.  Elizabeth David writes about gathering mushrooms in England in the early morning with her sisters; their nanny would then cook the mushrooms over the nursery room fire (French Country Cooking, 1951).

Mushrooms and Murder in The Documents in the Case

Wellcome Library, London, The fly agaric fungus (Amanita muscaria): two fruiting bodies. Watercolour, 1892. 

With their potential for undetectable poison and their suspicious reputation in England, it is not surprising that the mushroom as weapon would make its way into a masterpiece of British mystery fiction. The Documents in the Case was written in 1930 by Dorothy Sayers, already well known for her mysteries featuring the aristocratic sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey. In this novel, a man named Harrison is found dead in his rural vacation cabin, evidently poisoned by a mushroom stew made from mushrooms that he foraged and cooked himself.  It appears to be an open and shut case of personal negligence, with Harrison mistaking the deadly amanita muscaria for the benign amanita rubescens. The coroner wraps up the evidence with a warning of "the danger of experimenting in unusual articles of diet. It was notorious, he said, that other nations, such as the French, were accustomed to eat many natural products, such as frogs, snails, dandelions and various kinds of fungi, which in this country were considered unfit for human food." 

Left: Wellcome Library, London. The blusher fungus (Amanita rubescens): two fruiting bodies. Watercolour, 1897. Right: Amanita muscaria by Anita Walsmit Sachs, 2004, The Society of Botanical Artists.

Harrison's son argues that his father was an expert in mycology, albeit an amateur, who had studied and wrote about mushrooms for years. Harrison produced detailed watercolors of his subjects and believed that England could be healthily fed by fungi and other wild edibles.  As the case documents reveal, it wasn't the un-English practice of mushroom hunting that was to blame; the human heart can indeed be much more sinister.

Mushrooms on Toast and The Lord Peter Wimsey Cookbook

One might recreate the mushroom stew in question from The Documents or try a quotation menu featuring mushrooms that has already been designed for another Sayers novel.  The Lord Peter Wimsey Cookbook (1981) by Elizabeth Bond Ryan and William Eakins, features menus and recipes gleaned from references to the diet and dining practices of Lord Peter in the Wimsey books.  For as the cookbook's authors argue, Sayers was an epicure who revealed her taste in fine food and wine through the Lord Peter character.  Wimsey devotees will recall Miss Climpson's 21-hour tea break in pursuit of a key witness in Strong Poison, depicted in Chapter 4, "An Orgy of Teas;" Lord Peter's unsatisfactory meal at The Soviet Club in Clouds of Witness (1926), appealingly renimagined here with Soviet Club Fish Soup, Red Army Borscht, and People's Black Bread; and my favorite, the meal of Poached Turbot and a Sweet Omelet cooked at table that plays a critical role in Strong Poison (1930).  Published in the same year as The Documents, Strong Poison takes equal delight in poring over a deadly supper.

Sayers makes a brief reference to mushroom foraging in Busman's Honeymoon (1937), in which Lord Peter and his wife Harriet solve a murder while on honeymoon in the countryside. When Lord Peter's efficient and faithful butler, Bunter, has to rustle up a dinner during the trip with few ingredients to choose from, he settles on mushrooms on toast for the final course.  When Lord Peter asks where he obtained the mushrooms Bunter replies,
"From the field behind the cottage, my lord."
"From the--? Good God. I hope they are mushrooms-- we don't want a poison-mystery as well."
"No poison, my lord, no. I consumed a quantity myself to make sure."
"Did you? Devoted Valet Risks Life for Master. Very well, Bunter."
With Sayers' signature wit, The Documents' death-by-mushrooms misadventure becomes an insignificant side note in Busman's Honeymoon.  If Harrison had had a Bunter, she seems to quip, he may never have died.


Mushrooms on Toast

Serves six

1 pound fresh mushrooms, washed, well dried
4 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons oil
Salt and pepper
6 slices hot buttered toast

Trim the bases of the mushroom stems.  Leave the mushrooms whole if small and slice or quarter them if large.  Heat one-half the butter and oil in a 10-inch skillet until the butter foam begins to subside.  Then add one-half of the mushrooms.  Toss and shake the pan uncovered over high heat for 4 to 5 minutes.  The mushrooms are done when they have browned lightly.  Remove from the heat and season to taste with salt and pepper.  Turn the mushrooms into a warm dish and repeat the process with the remaining mushrooms, butter, and oil.  Serve the mushrooms on trimmed squares of buttered toast.  The mushrooms may be cooked ahead of time and reheated briefly before serving.

Read Quotation Menus, Parts I & III, then dream up some of your favorite fictional feasts.