With Grandpa having passed away a little over a month ago, and Grandma close to nine years, my dad has been sorting through a lifetime’s worth of papers. Most of it ends up in the trash, but every so often he comes across a piece containing rich family history or a piece that sheds further light into who my grandparents were.
Recently my dad found two pieces of the latter sort. Two speeches my grandma delivered—one in 1958 on cooking and one on gardening, which unfortunately has no date. He had them both scanned and emailed me them, knowing that I would especially love the speech on cooking.
I just finished reading In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan, and some of what Grandma talks about in 1958 sounds like it could have come straight from the book, but Grandma had Michael Pollan beat by a half century. Both speeches are too good not to share, so here is the speech on food. It is a little long, but is quick easy reading.
One of the most interesting things Bill [her husband, my Grandpa] and I have learned the last few years that makes cooking those three meals a day that we are all required to do much more intriguing and fun is that cooking is culture. In reading noted cooks from the past, present and from all over the world—they all agree that cooking is definitely one of the arts and is therefore culture. Sounds rather strange when you first hear it, but stop and think, if one is to live so every minute counts, to be alert and alive instead of numb, then cooking and eating rank high as cultural matters. Nothing affects the very quality of life itself so much as our diet, our pleasure in it and what it does for us nutritionally.
The person who cooks and eats to just assuage his hunger is living no more fully than an animal. The person who is interested in food on many levels is actually living more. For the more you know about food, the more you can appreciate it—sensually and intellectually. The cooking you accomplish from day to day, whether cooked by yourself or others, is as indicative of the quality of your life as your architectural surroundings, the books you read, the clothes you wear, the music you listen to or the objects you rest your eyes upon. In some ways, it is more important than all these other things, for there are so many times in a day, and therefore in a lifetime, when food must have your attention as a necessity. Once you become aware of how fascinating the world of food really is you bemoan the years you have wasted.
Some people associate gastronomy with “excess” but Andre Simon has expressed it best saying, “Excess is the hallmark of fast living, as sure a road to damnation as good living is to salvation. Gastronomy is, on the contrary, intimately bound to moderation, the very reverse of excess. Without moderation, appreciation becomes impossible. Others confuse gastronomy with high living. It is entirely opposed to it. High living is inseparable from extravagance, from rare and rich costly foods and wines, and from fatty hearts and enlarged livers.”
There are many levels on which you can pursue food as culture. First, there is the gourmet point of view—that is the training of one’s tongue, one’s eye, and one’s nose to recognize small differences. Without this ability to distinguish small characteristics, it is impossible to develop as a critic, as an expert or as a cook. This sensitive awareness is the cornerstone on which a cultural attitude toward food must be built.
Once you start paying attention to food in this critical way you open new areas of interest. You make observations about how food expresses national and racial differences, and how it reflects economic conditions. For instance, has it occurred to you the reason France is such a cheese producing country may be that they have so little refrigeration? Whereas, we consume our milk as milk thanks to our superb transportation system and universal refrigeration.
Thus the intellect comes into play, and you see food and cooking as living history. The folk wisdom and practices of any nation are in their cooking traditions. If you know how to analyze them you learn more about their values—from the status of women in society to the nutritional protection afforded by native diet.
The Germans have a proverb “You are what you eat.” Scientists have proved that many so called racial and national characteristics—laziness, energy, persistence or instability often bear a direct relation to habits of eating. From whatever point of view, it would appear that the proper study of mankind is FOOD, as food is linked with every branch in the tree of cultural history.
A knowledge of cooking adds a new dimension to travel. It is, in the truest sense of the word, your passport into new areas and your introduction to people, things and places, which the ordinary tourist never sees. You cannot understand any country or people unless you know something about their food. When you travel you should taste your way around the world. The tourist that insists on an American steak or an American cup of coffee is missing much a country has to offer. I feel we miss much here in our own country when we are not willing to experiment with regional dishes. I have greatly enjoyed the Southern dishes Izetta [the wife of Grandpa’s brother, Don] has brought West—like the country ham and egg pie she once made for our PEO. Too many people refuse to try anything they are not familiar with and consequently deprive their families and themselves of a great deal of pleasure.
One of the pleasures of cooking is being able to increase your skill. We all know the act of doing something successfully is a pleasure. It is fun to perfect a technique, to become better and better at something. We can analyze why a thing contributes to flavor, texture or efficiency or speed. It is fun to think of the alternatives open to us—whether to soak lamb in wine or soy sauce or whether to use ginger or garlic. Cooking this way is not work or drudgery for you are always testing a theory, pursuing a point of view. You are creating as you cook.
You may be asking, what is the down-to-earth pay-off of making cooking a culture area? Here are a few ways.
- Once cooking becomes more than reading and blindly following somebody else’s recipe, you begin to cook superbly well. For, let’s fact it, many, many recipes are not superb because they are created by people who may not have their own cooking practices sharpened by years of tasting the best. You, though, begin to view a recipe as something you can improve. You look for faults in methods or the lacks in seasoning and you correct as you go along.
- This way of cooking lets you create new methods, new combinations and new short cuts. A huge mass of recipes are obsolete in the light of the revolutionary meaning of new appliances and new foodstuffs.
- You can order a meal well in a restaurant, for you know how to run your eye down the menu and judge the capabilities of the chef and order the best he has to offer.
- You can buy the best foodstuffs available for your own kitchen, screening from a huge variety of sources the choicest. You tap the local and national sources in a way you would not have known before.
- You get a better focus on price, for you know when to pay extra to get something better, and when not to pay more because there is a false value buried in the price. For instance, peak-of-season plenitude is also the time of peak flavor and lowest prices. Out-of-season means lowest flavor and highest prices. The gourmet eats in season.
- The cultured cook knows when to cook quick and when to cook long and adapts the menu and the recipes to time available. Just as there are certain types of music written to played as encores, there are certain types of dishes for fast concocting.
- The cultured cooks commits no clichés such as the ever present buffet menu of baked ham, potatoes au gratin and green salad.
More and more people are learning the fun of creative cooking as is seen in many of our new kitchens. The kitchen is becoming one of the most interesting, as well as expensive, rooms of our homes, as it is a place where families can have an adventure together.
The devotees of food as culture are a merry company. You find them everywhere—some are rich, some are poor, some are in cities, some in little town or in the country. A few are young—many are older, for the gourmet attitude seems to increase with the mellowing effect of years—which is another way of saying, experience. The type of culture seems to thrive among warm-hearted kindly folk. This makes it all the more fun to be one of them.
I’d like to tell you about some of the books and periodicals we have read that started and has increased our interest in experimenting with food. I’ll admit that Bill is the one that purchased our books and read them first and then whetted my interest enough to read some of them. Some of the periodicals that we feel are well worth subscribing to are:
- Gourmet, which is a monthly publication and always has several articles on the history of different foods, some points on making cooking easier as well as tastier and always has reliable recipes.
- House Beautiful, its editor, Elizabeth Gordon, is a true gourmet and there are always some food articles and generally good recipes. It gives you much food for thought.
- The Wine and Food Quarterly, put out by the Wine and food Society in London, which is an organization for man only and does much to stimulate their interest in food. This makes cooking a lot more fun for women if their menfolk are appreciative of their efforts. It features experiences in gastronomy and has a section on Memorable meals which comments in detail on certain meals and menus. It also gives the menus at the different meetings of the Wine and Food Society Chapters around the world. It reviews the old and new cookbooks as well as other articles on food.
- House and Garden, also has a section relating to food. It will take one subject, like meat, and spend the entire chapter on it.
- Sunset is another magazine to take as the recipes are dependable but perhaps not as classic or fine as some of the others.
Have you notices how many magazines are adding food articles that have never had them before these last few years, like Vogue, Glamour, and some of those?
Books that really can tell you why cooking is a real art and should be treated as such, and yet, are most interesting reading are:
- The Art of Eating by M.F.K. Fisher. It is a book of observations with a few recipes. What I especially enjoyed was the history of food from 3000 BC to now, as well as her clever stories on places and people she’s known in various restaurants or who were cooks.
- The Art of Good Living by Andre Simon. The flyleaf says that this is a book to shape the mind and not one of action. Simon tells why he feels gastronomy is so vital to our well-being as an enjoyable art. He is the founder of the Wine and Food Society.
- The Physiology of Taste by jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. Brillat-Savarin was a French lawyer, politician and writer of the 18th and 19th centures. He is still a noted reference as an outstanding gourmet. A couple of his quotations are: “Tell me what you what and I will tell you what you are.” “The man who gives a dinner for a group of his friend and takes no trouble over what they are to eat is not fit to have any friends.” “The discovery of a new dish does more for the happiness of mankind than the discovery of a new star.”
- Trader Vic’s Kitchen Kibitzer by Vic Bergeron. This is a humorous book on food with recipes by a man with whom we are all familiar.
- The Unprejudiced Palate by Angelo Pellegrini. Mr. Pellegrini is a teacher of English and Literature at the University of Washington. He says his book is a philosophy of cooking and that the discriminating eater is seldom a sour puss. This is a cleverly written guide to good living.
Outstanding well-rounded cookbooks that are good to use regularly. Whenever I wish to find a different way of preparing a dish that I haven’t tried before, I go to these first.
- Gourmet Cookbooks, Vol. I and II. These books have the simplest to the most complicated recipes and cover every range of food. They are expensive but worth it.
- Complete Book of Outdoor Cookery by Helen Evans Brown and James Beard. This is much more than just a barbecue book and is especially good for our western type of living. My pet!
- Cooking a la Ritz by Louis Diat. This is a good basic cookbook as is Diat’s French Cooking for Americans.
- West Coast Cookbook by Helen Evans Brown. This is one that has good recipes and also is fun to read the little quips she writes about some of the recipes and how we westerners got them.
- Fireside Cookbook by James Beard
There are many, many more books that I use regularly but more as references.
- Escoffier Cookbook by Escoffier. Most often quoted author today as this book is regarded as the Bible of Culinary Art, the one indispensible book on fine cooking. Escoffier says it is not a book for beginners but I disagree as it has helped me answer many questions pertaining to food.
- Concise Encyclopedia of Gastronomy by Andre Simon. A dictionary type of reference on everything.
- Game Cookery in America and Europe by Raymond Camp, for the hunter’s wives whose husbands were lucky on their last pack trip.
- Madame Prunier’s Fish Cookery Book – Translated from French. This is still the most noted fish cooking book.
- Sauces by Louis Diat. The most complete and authoritative book on this subject.
- The Epicurean by Charles Ranhofer (formerly chef at Delmonicos). This gives detailed instructions of cutting meat, vegetables, cooking and serving. It has pictures and drawings to illustrate techniques.
- Modern Culinary Art by Henri Paul Pellaprat, who was formerly head instructor at the Cordon Bleu School of Cookery in France. It is also a complete book for decorative foods.
Then we have books that are just fun to read that are as interesting and as entertaining as a novel.
- Scot’s Kitchen, It’s Tradition and Lore by F. Marian Mc’Neill
- Scot’s Cellar, It’s Tradition and Lore by F. Marian Mc’Neill.
- Food in England by Dorothy Hartley
- By Request by Andre Simon that is an autobiography. Simon has many books that are most interesting and informative.
- Paris Cuisine by James Beard and Alexander Watt
- Fine Bouche by Pierre Andrion. A history of the restaurant in France.
- The Gentleman’s Companion. Two sets of two volumes. First is Exotic Cookery and Exotic Drink of the World. The other set is South American food and drink.
- Last of the ones I’ll mention, but not the least, is the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise which is a weekly paper from Virginia City, Nevada that always has a good food article, has advertisements of every known restaurant in the United States and is most entertaining reading about the town of Virginia City.
Authors to look for while reading that can be depended to have something of interest to say and fine recipes.
- Andre Simon, a grand old man in his 80’s whose life has been spent in learning and teaching good food.
- Helen Evans Brown, an American of today who writes for many magazines like House Beautiful, Sunset and Virginia City Territorial Enterprise and whose books are the absolute best concerning Western living.
- James Beard. Also a noted present day authority. He has an excellent fish book and barbecue book out. This last weekend I read he is publishing another book right away.
- Louis Diat, writes regularly for Gourmet. He has an article each month for beginners.
- Escoffier. Any reference to him is like taking a case to the Supreme Court. Cooks use his works as law.
- Vic Bergeron. Always fun reading and has recipes for good eating of all kinds.
- Frank Schoonmaker, a noted wine expert and cook of today.
These are just a few of many good cookbooks that are fun as well as practical. However, I want to point out that the vast majority of cookbooks are a complete waste of time and many, as too many are written by unimaginative and unauthoritative cooks. When you take the time to look up something, you want to know it is the very best.
It is standard practice in our home to try a new recipe each dinner. I’ll have to admit, it has added a great deal more pleasure to the cooking and to the fun of eating for our entire family.
In closing, I’d like to read the last chapter of Andre Simon’s autobiography, By Request. It gives in his words the joy he has had in finding that food is culture.
[The chapter is not quoted. Grandma must have read it from the book.]