Red. White. Blue. The tricolor, in other words, hues of the French flag. Tattered now, the book’s stained cover testifies to its years and its travels, especially the six weeks it languished on the scorching humid docks in Dakar, the sun a fierce yellow eye glaring down at the corrugated shipping container destined for Ouagadougou.
Simple French Cookery*, the very first cookbook I ever bought for myself, now sits on a rattan bookshelf among dozens of French cookbooks, souvenirs of another of life’s chapters. Snug between the covers of Robuchon and Alain Ducasse’s Grand Livre de Cuisine, it’s hard to believe that this small book forms the nucleus of my immense cookbook collection.
Sometimes it takes the proverbial mustard seed to move the spirit. And so it happened that – without really realizing it – I became obsessed with cookbooks and cooking. This passion permeated my life, so much so, that in remembering all my travels I recall not the monuments, but rather the food, the markets, the cooks, and yes, the cookbooks that I have lugged from place to place, across oceans and deserts and mountains. But my cookbooks provide more than just memories. For me, cookbooks became the key to understanding the myriad cultures of the world.
Long disdained as nothing but recipe books, as an unenlightened gentleman librarian once sniffed at a meeting about collection development, cookbooks offer a richness of information only now being recognized. Cookbooks are primary sources for the study of culinary history, even though some writers have said – wrongly – otherwise. Yes, sometimes these sources can be faulty, but what primary sources are perfect?
I intend to spend a great deal of time this year on the task of examining cookbooks globally from a number of angles, some of which I list below:
- Social structure (class, gender, household, etc.)
- Cooking techniques and practices
- Medicinal practices and beliefs (nutrition, etc.)
- Material culture (equipment, etc.)
- Trade, markets, shipping
Journeying with cookbooks, I cannot imagine anything more fun. And enlightening.
*Compiled by Edna Beilenson and published by Peter Pauper Press in 1958. The very first recipe, for Moules Marinères, calls for 1 cup Hollandaise Sauce, but gives no recipe at all for it. There’s no index, but the recipes are indeed quite simple, calling for very few processed foods other than canned tomatoes and – occasionally – canned mushrooms. And this book appeared three years prior to Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The size of a mass market paperback, the book could easily fit in an apron pocket or a purse.
© 2014 C. Bertelsen