Tales from my jumbled Hogwartsian cookbook shelf
With temperatures plummeting, dining outside in Chicago is too cold for all but the most hardy. It’s a good time to sort through classic cookbooks collected over the years.
‘The unusual events described in this chronicle occurred in 194 – at Oran. Everyone agreed that, considering their somewhat extraordinary character, they were out of place there. For its ordinariness is what strikes one first about the town of Oran, which is merely a large French port on the Algerian coast ….’
And so begins Albert Camus’ The Plague. God, who would have thought…? What happened to the plain old ordinary? But hey, here we are. Not that I want to sound bleak, gloomy, dark and depressed. Far from it. Being the eternal optimist (joke) and a Monty Python fan, I always try to look on the bright side. Maybe all the crappy restaurants will get weeded out and only the good ones survive. Wishful thinking. It will probably be the other way round. Already some of my favourite restaurants here in Chicago have closed down for good. Or maybe …. well, I was going to say something more about chefs and tattoos but I’ll let that one go because I have made snippy comments on the subject before.
So I’m sitting here on a Sunday afternoon in late 2020 and I’m looking out the window and I’m seeing icy rain. And I can imagine gloomy restaurant people all over Chicago doing the same thing, gazing out their windows and seeing their futures slowly gurgling away down the gutters.
At the moment restaurants are limited to 25% inside seating capacity so they are relying heavily on patio dining to survive. But the last few weeks have been very rainy with temperatures up to 15℃ below normal. Even in Chicago people draw the line at al fresco dining below 5℃. And it’s not even real winter yet. Restaurants are scrambling frantically to find solutions to outdoor dining in the cold. Fact is, no matter how creative they get, from plastic igloos to huge outdoor heaters, there won’t be much they can do to ward off the deep Chicago winter. I’m not optimistic, to say the least.
Normalcy seems so remote now. Earlier today I had a craving for fish and chips. Just an ordinary plate of fish and chips. What can be more ordinary than that? And briefly I was tempted. Pubs are mostly open again to a limited capacity, but there is no way I’m going to wait in line in the cold rain, just to end up sitting in a room with aerosols of virus floating around, for a plate of fish and chips. Lying on the couch I closed my eyes and imagined the plate of fish and chips recede through a virussy fog back to a time when ordinary things were still possible. How did we get from there to here? It’s not my job as a humble food writer to philosophise, but as Camus wrote: “There have been as many plagues as wars in history. Yet plagues and wars take people equally by surprise.”
Enough of all this moping stuff. Look on the bright side. For instance, I’m not totally averse to the whole mask wearing thing. I’m chronically introverted and painfully shy so it’s kind of nice being able to hide behind a mask. Years ago when Willem was about eight or nine, I was walking him to school one morning when he suddenly turned to me and said, “It’s okay dad, I know how socially inept you are so you don’t have to go further.” My son had seen right through my “unobtrusive” lurking behind trees and ducking behind cars to avoid jovial early morning chit chat with other parents. He wasn’t mean about it, just matter of fact. I just stood there, completely speechless, thinking how pathetically ridiculous my “Mr Bean” act must have looked. At least now people like me can lurk behind masks legitimately.
But back to food. More specifically, cookbooks, of which I have many. Too many, according to my wife, Jill. The cookbook shelves in our kitchen have been in a state of chaos for years. Cookbooks everywhere, jumbled together, crammed sideways on top of already cramped rows. Just the way I like it. But not Jill. It’s a total mystery to me why she doesn’t experience the same kind of warm homey feelings that I get when standing in front of that unruly mess. Well, not really a mess. I can find any book in seconds, knowing which nook or cranny it got jammed into, even after a glass or two to taste the designated cooking wine.
Anyway, for Jill, leaving the shelves in their current state was not an option, so reluctantly I consented to a bit of tidying up and decluttering. To use Jill’s words, just weed out the ones you don’t want. And put some of them in the big bookshelf in the sitting room or in the basement. Easy? Not so easy. I don’t have any I don’t want. That’s the problem. And cookbooks belong in the kitchen, not in the sitting room.
First I had to deal with the problem of the little piles of cookbooks on all the kitchen surfaces and all over the rest of the house. I think I’m just incapable of returning books to the shelves. Also, once I take them out, their spaces seem to disappear, as if the bookshelf has a life of its own, like something out of Harry Potter. So here is the tricky part. In order to return them I had to create space. And the only way to do this was to remove some books to the sitting room or even the basement. Like deciding which friends to keep and which ones to cut loose.
My first encounter with cookbooks happened in my dear departed friend Tjaart Potgieter’s flat in Gardens in Cape Town, back in 1980. It was a small little one bedroom flat filled with books. Mainly cookbooks. And they were stacked everywhere, even in the little front hallway and the toilet. My mom had two or three cookbooks stuffed in the back of the kitchen cupboard, like she was ashamed of them. I still have them. One was of course Kook en Geniet by SJA De Villiers. Another one was Lekkerkos (1931), written by ’n Praktiese Huisvrou, whoever the hell that was. All it says is that she was from the culinary hotspot of Zastron, wherever the hell that is. Mainly I associated cookbooks with mysterious stuff like domestic science or home economics, something the girls did in school while the boys did woodwork. So Tjaart’s collection was a total revelation to me.
I spent many hours lying around Tjaart’s flat (he didn’t have any furniture, just a dirty carpet covered in dagga pips), paging through cookbooks and dreaming about faraway places. Sometimes I would borrow one and Tjaart would tell me to keep it. That was just the way Tjaart was. I still have those and I treasure them. Now I’m in a faraway place and they transport me 40 years back to those lazy hours in a little flat in Gardens, when the world was just starting to open up for me. I’ve lived in Chicago for more than 30 years, longer than I ever lived in any city in South Africa, and I’ve come to realise that I will always be a stranger here, so just flipping through these old books every now and again can keep the odd nostalgic yearnings for the old country at bay. Like spending time with an old friend. Not that I find SA in any way familiar when I go back to visit. I was actually looking for an English equivalent of the Afrikaans word “heimwee” but it doesn’t exist.
My favourite Tjaart books were the Time-Life series, Foods of the World. I remember paging through the ones on France, or Italy, or Russia and soaking up the pictures and the descriptions of the different regions. I still have them. I read the recipes as well but even then I was not good at following instructions or doing what people told me to do. It’s also hard to believe now but in those days it could be very frustrating to try to cook foreign dishes because so many of the ingredients, things that we take for granted these days, were just not available in South Africa. The lucky ones that were fortunate enough to travel overseas back then couldn’t board a plane without a list of ingredients that they had to bring back to their desperate friends.
When I first got to Chicago I was kind of overwhelmed by the fact that every ingredient imaginable was available. You needed to know which neighbourhood to go to but still, it was all out there. Strangely, it took some of the fun out of cooking for me. I remember all the hours I spent with Tjaart or Braam Kruger trying to figure out substitutes for ingredients we couldn’t find. People I know here in America will give up on a dish if they don’t have the correct ingredients at hand whereas I just improvise and cook something perhaps less “authentic” but delicious nonetheless.
I think my early South African ingredient deficit experience was partly why I don’t follow recipes too closely. Recipes were never meant to be static anyway. Through the ages they’ve alway been adapted to changing realities like new environments or new ingredients. Cape Malay curries are good examples. Away from Asia they took on a character of their own. I’m also not too hung up on authenticity. Take a dish like ratatouille for instance. Depends on which region you’re in or who you talk to and not one recipe will be the same but everyone will of course claim that their version is authentic. In one village you’ll probably get 20 different versions. Same goes for dishes like Italian pasta sauces or tagines in Morocco.
I do read a lot of recipes but then I file them away mentally. I think my brain resembles my jumbled Hogwartsian cookbook shelf from which I can retrieve little fragments of recipes and cobble them together to come up with a dish. I kind of know what it should be and I can find my own way there. Until a few hundred years ago recipes were basically just descriptions of dishes. No lists of ingredients, measurements or even temperatures or cooking times. Until fairly recently most households didn’t even have a clock. So you had to calculate cooking time by saying paternosters, or do a task, like make a bed. Or take a stroll around your town’s fortifications. Or wait for the village church bell to ring on the hour. Most early recipes just said cook till it’s done.
And of course there were no scales around. So you made do with a cup or a spoon. Or the width of your thumb. Or a pinch. And how do you calculate heat if you’re cooking with fire without a kitchen thermometer? Experience. You use your brain. Hundreds of years ago cooks were craftsmen and they kept ingredients and their cooking methods in their heads because those were trade secrets and their jobs depended on it. The first cookbooks were actually published by their lords and masters to brag about how well they could entertain, not by the cooks themselves. Ingredient lists and separate cooking instructions only became common in recipes much later in the 19th century when housewives took on more cooking responsibilities and needed the help of detailed recipes to guide them because only the rich could afford dedicated cooks.
You may by now have deduced from all this that I’m a cup and spoon kind of cook. And you are right. I really do hate using a scale. To my mind most recipes don’t need that kind of precision. Okay, if you’re a pastry chef, I get it. Everything else, I just don’t buy it. Even for bread. How on earth did ordinary households manage to bake perfectly good bread through the centuries without kitchen scales? Anyway, the last thing I want to do after a long work day is reach for a scale when I’m cooking dinner. Cups and spoons or a little pinch will do me just fine. Also I think the whole precision thing with scales intimidates people and discourages them from cooking.
Not that I have any valuable antique cookbooks. Except perhaps for a 1915 edition of Mrs. Beeton’s All About Cookery that I found in Cape Town in the early ‘80s for R4. Funny enough, Mrs Beeton was one of the mid-19th century pioneers of separate ingredient lists and including detailed measurements and instructions. And I don’t buy recently published cookbooks. I agree with Mark Bittman that the true value of a cookbook can only be determined over time. They need to be used for months, if not years, to know if the recipes work. And most recent cookbooks seem to be written, or co-written, by celebrity chefs anyway and who needs that. So most of my cookbooks tend to date back to the years before umami became the buzzword.
Umami. My new bȇte noire. Not that I have anything against Japanese or Asian culture (apart from the fact that I seem to be going off sushi lately), but umami is not exclusively Asian. In the West, awareness of amino acid glutamates, or the fifth taste, goes back to early Roman times when they used garum, a fermented fish paste, in just about everything they cooked. Byzantine and Arab cuisine used fermented barley. Umami has been around forever, long before millennials woke up to it in their sushi dipping sauce. Think of a good stock, or anchovy paste, or plain old Worcestershire sauce.
So, back to my cookbook shelf decluttering exercise. I finally managed to select six (okay, five) for resettlement. Four will be going into purgatory in the sitting room bookshelf and one is going straight to hell in the basement. Now this last one may come as a bit of a surprise. It certainly surprised me. It’s The Family Meal by none other than Ferran Adriá, famous for the legendary el Bulli restaurant on the Costa Brava. I’m always on the lookout for weeknight dinner ideas so I ordered a used one on Amazon. How can you go wrong with Ferran Adriá? One recipe interested me particularly and that was his tortilla Espanola or potato omelette, made with potato chips, or crisps, not boiled potatoes. It got a rave review in The New York Times.
I make a pretty decent tortilla myself and quite often too because it is one of my son Willem’s favourites and I can tell you, Adriá’s recipe sucked. And I followed it to the letter, which is unusual for me. Or to the picture, actually. All the recipes are in pictures. I mean, if you need pictures to show you how to boil and peel an egg, you shouldn’t be in the kitchen. I’m not kidding. And all the recipes are really basic, like a hamburger, or spaghetti with tomato and basil. Come on, if you know who Ferran Adriá is in the first place, you certainly don’t need pictures to make spaghetti. What was this guy thinking?
My favourite cookbooks? I would say the Time Life series, The Good Cook is definitely at the top of my list. Edited by Richard Olney (now there is a guy you can’t go wrong with), Time Life started publishing them in 1978, each volume dedicated to a specific subject, like lamb, or cheese and eggs, or bread. I got my first one from Tjaart, of course. They’re out of fashion now and not that easy to get hold of but I’ve managed to collect most of them over the years and they are still by far my best recipe source.
And not far behind The Good Cook series is the South African Cookbook, published in 1985 by Reader’s Digest. I know, Reader’s Digest, but take my word, with people like Phillippa Cheifitz, Renata Coetzee, Ina Paarman and Peter Veldsman, among others, behind it, this is a great book. If you ever come across a copy, grab it, you won’t be sorry.
Speaking of grabbing stuff, I suppose I can now say that I grabbed the moment and finally addressed my cluttered cookbook shelf. Declutter is probably too strong a word but I did rearrange it a few times. And now it’s kind of back to where it was in the first place. Perhaps I was never truly committed to solving the decluttering problem anyway. What did happen is that while I was focusing on my cookbooks my brain felt a little less cluttered by anxious Covid-19 virus and election thoughts. Paging through books to evaluate whether they should stay or go was very interesting because it made me see them in a different light. It was fun becoming reacquainted with old friends and allowing myself to go on little journeys with them. And remembering why they are important to me.
Perhaps the whole cookbook shelf decluttering exercise was not such a bad idea after all. Sometimes, it seems, just rearranging things a little, or doing something by half, is enough to make a messy situation tolerable. My lockdown thought for the day. (Insert laughing emoji here.) DM/TGIFood
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