Hand to Mouth

misadventures in eating

Anything with liberal references to the word “aspic” will do.

with one comment

For the reasons I find moulded deserts and food that keep their own shape even if you shake them vigorously cool (if inedible) I collect old cookbooks.

It started as a lark when my best friend passed me an ugly, library-hardcover book with an unspired scrolling script on the cover: The Spice Book. It’s more than five decades out of print by now and lists meat tenderizer as a spice; we’re not talking about cutting edge cuisine or sexy comfort food so much as post-WWII PTSD, still traumatized and eating potatoes out of a can. Most of the recipes listed along with the encyclopedic number of spices are pretty terrible (anything that involves a seafood and the word “loaf” is delightfully disgusting to me, so much so I have to pause and really admire it because once upon a time, somebody voluntarily ate this stuff) but the book has its own charms. It talks about Purslane and Marjoram and Mace, spices that nobody I know uses and the first and last of which I have never managed to find — not even in the overpriced aisles of the local specialty grocery store, which stocks natural sodas made by people who feel almost as guilty about being white as you do if you’re buying their peddled fizzwater.

In the years since that day, I’ve started accruing more shameful purchases, including but not limited to old Chinese cookbooks pilfered from my parents’ pantry that make almost disturbingly frequent references to animal runoff in one incarnation or another: lard, marrow, blood, lard.

It was this year though when I hit the jackpot and realized what I really love about the old cookbooks: the history intrinsic in them. I ended up buying a 1974 Chapel Hill Junior League Cookbook at a Friends of the Chapel Hill Library booksale and have been entertaining myself (and horrifying my friends and colleagues) endlessly with tales of braised wild rabit, broccoli and egg aspic, molded raspberries and my favorite, hunter’s stew, requiring the carcases of 10-12 doves. The food is strange, unsophisicated and dependent on such mortifying ingredients like crushed potato chips and Knox gelatin mix.

I know, I know — let he or she who has never used a can of condensed Campbell’s soup as a recipe base cast the first well-deserved stone, but even my laughing is laughter with appreciation. Even if the food seems strange and inedible to me, to you, to anybody under the age of 65, they were the language of dinner tables three decades ago, were the foods set in dishes and crocks and upon steamed white tableclothes. Some family probably gathered around the broccoli and egg aspic and breathed of its fragrant steam, ate Chicken Captain Kangaroo and completed the meal with a slice of still-quivery molded raspberries and felt fancy for it.

Food changes with the people who eat it, and if nothing else, the book should be applauded for only having one reference to “low calorie.”

It brings up the really horrifying thought, obviously, that in fifty years somebody will find a cookbook I use today, flip through its once-glossy pages and stare horrified at the chemical substitutes and shortcuts modern cooks take, the utter lack of respect for the purity of the ingredients — stare in blank realization as they find that a Chinese person owns a Chinese cookbook with margins filled with desperate notes about failure to produce edible facsimiles of the recipes.

“Oh my God,” he’ll say, “this poor soul. She must have been retarded or something.”

“She probably was,” his significant other of indeterminate gender will say. “I found this other book she owned? And read this story called Flowers for Algernon. It was intense.”


Written by lshen

September 29, 2006 at 5:15 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. (here through LJ)

    I too have a small cookbook obsession – but those Post WWII (and even WWI) books just traumatize me!

    If you haven’t already read her- you should look for M.F.K Fisher’s writings – half food musings / half recipes with her own stories of failures. She’s a simply fantastic writer and her book How To Feed A Wolf (um, I think – may not be exact title) – was aimed at all those war households struggling to survive. What they ate was disgusting – incredible, but disgusting.


    September 29, 2006 at 8:18 pm

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