Sunday, January 1, 2012

Cooking By Encyclopedia

If you want a quick glimpse into American social mores, crack open a cookbook. Recipe books have always reflected the lives of the people who compose them — whether it reveals the importance of summer fruit preservation in 17th century family cookbooks, with their page upon page of nearly identical recipes for making marmalade (in order to allow the rare ripe oranges from southern Europe to last the winter in the north), or the newly hip shabby chef attitude brought to the kitchen by today’s Dads (see Jamie Oliver).

The ability to publish large books for a reasonable price allowed books on cookery and household management to find their place in the homes of literate women, who were able to expand their repertoire of dishes beyond those which had formerly been passed down within the family. In addition to the recipes for food, certain ideas about how to run a home —how to manage a household economy, how to decorate, how to entertain — became codified according to this new source of knowledge from experts.

In Victorian England, the young Isabella Beeton became an authority on all things related to the feminine art of household management (from mistress to maid), launching the ascendency of women into an area of expertise (cooking) previously limited to men.

As late as 1970, the same sorts of ideas about how to run a kitchen were being reproduced in Better Homes and Garden’s Encyclopedia of Cooking. In the front, there is this rather lackluster photograph of the food editors engaging in one of their evaluation meetings which determine the suitability of a recipe for inclusion into their cooking Bible. What an unhappy and joyless bunch they are.

These ladies might be wearing the latest in feminine fashion, but they are still relegated to the kitchen, rather than the boardroom. The introduction states: “Within the Encyclopedia of Cooking are dishes to delight the lady who wants to stay slim or help her husband and children to eat right.” Is that all? Is that an acceptable sentence construction?

Sadly, something intrinsic had been lost in the move from cookbooks written by individuals to ones written by committee — passion and a vocabulary as rich as the food and personality of the person cooking it. Antique cookbooks feature quaint instructions that lend the dish a flavor of their own, especially the 15th century recipes which all seem to end with the requirement that one “serve it forth.”

There is something honorable in that particular intonation that implies all that the Encyclopedia has to spell out — there was no need to stay slim or help a family “eat right” back then. There is a difference between simply putting the dish on a table and serving it forth. Is it a coincidence that it comes from the same era of self-serve everything and the TV dinner?

Encyclopedia of Cooking, Better Homes and Gardens, 1970
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