Forgotten Recipes and Forgotten Cooks

If you think that real cooking needs to be resurrected, you’d be right. You can’t exist on McNuggets alone, as the film Super Size Me proved.

But if you think we should all go back to cooking everything just like our foremothers (and sometimes forefathers) did, you’d be a bit misguided.

Romantic, yes, and it’s not hard to be romantic about days that seem simpler as you struggle to get e-mail answered, peer at the Tweets streaming endlessly into your iPhone, and talk to your mother as you zoom along the interstate at 75 miles an hour.

Who wouldn’t want to trade that picture for an idyllic country cottage redolent with the soothing scent of a meaty rabbit pottage? (Read The Garden Cottage Diaries: My Year in the Eighteenth Century, by Fiona J. Houston, the next time you get a hankering for living the simple life.)

Cotswold cottage

Rachel Laudan, a prize-winning historian recently mentioned in the New York Times for her prescient article, “Why We Should Love Culinary Modernism,” and a historian who uses food issues to examine the past, included an important link in a recent post on her blog. I think more people should know about Rachel’s blog, so go ahead and visit her there. You will be delighted. And challenged, healthily.

Rachel’s post intrigued me. It’s about a Web site that looks at some forgotten recipes in Venezuela and includes a song,” La Cocinera” (The Cook), about a cook who longs for freedom from the drudgery of everyday cooking. This reality slaps down the nostalgia so many (including me) feel in their yearning for the “simplicity” of old ways of doing things:

If the cooks could speak from the days we consider nostalgically, no doubt they would sing the same tune. But their gender and their illiteracy banished them from the historical record.

Taken from the Web site Las Recetas Olvidadas, by Jean-Luc Crucifix, this material is based on the book of the same name, available in English, Spanish, and French. Be sure to go the Web site and look at all the photos and commentary.

Las Recetas Olvidadas in some ways resembles work done by cookbook author Diana Kennedy in Mexico. Kennedy does not place  the recipes in much historical or social context; instead, she basically catalogs them, raising our awareness of the richness that could be lost without her diligence. Kennedy’s latest book, Oaxaca al Gusto: An Infinite Gastronomy (William and Bettye Nowlin Series in Art, History, and Culture of the Western Hemisphere) , is particularly valuable for this reason.

No doubt we will be seeing a lot more of this kind of work in the future, as writers and publishers recognize the increasing loss of food knowledge as old cooks die and leave no record of their powers in the kitchen.

Some recent books point to this trend.

Anne Mendelson pioneered the way with Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages (2008).

Then Darina Allen published Forgotten Skills of Cooking: The Time-Honored Ways are the Best – Over 700 Recipes Show You Why (2009) and Ken Albala and Rosanna Nafziger wrote The Lost Art of Real Cooking: Rediscovering the Pleasures of Traditional Food One Recipe at a Time (2010). Allen’s book is far more comprehensive in several ways, while The Lost of Real Cooking presents material in a personal style that people who read blogs will find comfortable.  Both of these books gather information that is readily available, but widely dispersed across the Internet, in old cookbooks, and via oral history.  The chief contribution of both of the latter volumes is to gather together in one place many of the old cooking methods, making them more accessible to modern readers.

This whole discussion of cooking, feeding, and growing food seems like something new, but humans have been arguing the merits of many approaches to food since antiquity. (For example, take a look at Michael Beer’s Taste or Taboo: Dietary Choices in Antiquity if you think the locavore movement is a brand new reaction to the industrialization of food production and preparation.)

Thanks to Rachel Laudan, for raising the questions and providing some of the answers and interpretations.

© 2010 C. Bertelsen

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30 comments

  • Hi Cynthia and Kathy –

    I plan to try the recipe this week; however, I have a questions about canning. Last week I made a batch of spaghetti sauce. I water bathed them in pint jars, and when I first took them out, the lid did not pop. After a few minutes, each one popped once when I pressed the lid, and since then have not at all. Hopefully they should still be good?

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  • I honestly believe that cooking is a wonderful thing.It shouldn`t be about men or women.We can all cook.You just have to find a recipe that you can handle.It`s not rocket science.You just have to add some flavors and a lot of passion.You can`t take your date to KFC and expect her to fall in your arms.Be more romantic.Show her that you care.

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  • I just stumbled across you blog and felt completely intrigued and inspired! As I am a food blogger myself, I can definitely appreciate the power of cooking, eating and entertaining in my life. Food has the power to heal, and bring people closer to their roots and one another. The day we lose sight of a true passion for real foods and honest eating, is the day we give up on enriching and empowering ourselves. What we put into our bodies greatly affects us, and it’s great to read about someone who is so aware.

    I’ll be back for more!

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  • I think one of the reasons we’re seeing so much interest in the old ways and farmers’ markets is that it gives some control, maybe not a lot but some, over what we put into our bodies. With big agriculture that’s not possible. Yet, without big ag we’d never be able to feed as many people as cheaply. But then we see where that’s gotten us, with ever-increasing obesity crisis. So there’s a lot to learn from the old ways, but we can’t really go back to that; it’d be like putting the toothpaste back in the tube. America will never be predominantly rural again, for one thing because of land prices, if nothing else.

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  • I love fresh tomatoes and I used to make mayonnaise from scratch — wonderful taste, Hellmann’s just not the same. And cast iron — I won’t get an induction cooktop ever because I couldn’t use those marvelous pans. Yes, food, family, memories …

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  • Here’s my favorite fresh tomato sauce
    Fresh Tomato Spaghetti Sauce

    ¼ cup olive oil
    2 tablespoons minced garlic
    2 onions, chopped
    3 stalks celery, chopped
    2 green bell pepper, chopped
    2 medium zucchini, chopped (substitute 1 zucchini with 1 yellow squash)
    14-16 tomatoes, chopped
    2 bay leaves
    2 26.5-ounce cans spaghetti sauce
    2 12-ounce cans tomato paste
    ¼ cup sugar
    Salt and pepper (to taste)

    1. In large cooking pot, heat olive oil. Add garlic, onion, celery, and green pepper. Cook on medium heat 3-4 minutes. Add chopped zucchini (or zucchini and yellow squash) and cook until vegetables are soft.
    2. Add chopped tomatoes and bay leaves. Cook sauce slowly on low about 2 hours, stirring regularly, to reduce liquid.
    3. Add spaghetti sauce, paste, and sugar to increase bulk. Cook slowly, stirring regularly, about another hour. Season to taste.
    4. Serve over hot pasta.

    Special notes
    * Add browned ground beef or meatballs for a heartier meal.
    * This recipe makes about 6-8 quarts of sauce. Freeze or can extras to enjoy during the midwinter

    You can find more recipes at http://www.tomatodirt.com/tomato-recipes.html.

    Bon appetit!

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  • I know that the reality of old and new ways of cooking are a mix somewhere in the middle – at least in my kitchen anyway… where I still use a hand mixer and hand coffee grinder and where I have a blender I never use and there is no microwave. I still light the wood cookstove to cook the meals when the power is out – though for insurance reasons, it is in an outdoor covered courtyard NOT the house.

    As we munch on big fat red tomatoes from our own garden – sliced thick with fresh basil, sea salt and hand ground black pepper on homemade oat and honey bread, I know the goodness of FRESH. (I share with you my post from today “Big Fat Red Champion” http://creativepotager.wordpress.com/2010/08/17/big-fat-red-champion and its 3.5 inch girth.)

    Still, I don’t make the mayonnaise from scratch and I do have a dishwasher – purchased last year at the insistence of my husband… I think he was tired of washing the dishes.

    But my five cast iron pans and two pots are well seasoned and ready for use.

    You see, it not so much on principle of old or new but out of love for food and out of love for family and out of love for memories that I do what I do the way I do it. Great Post! Thank you Terrill Welch

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  • I think even a small amount of time spent doing things simply makes a difference – a few vegetables in the garden, picking a handful of wild blackberries – we can celebrate the past and the modern world at the same time!

    Delighted to have discovered your blog btw.

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  • I guess it’s all how one defines simplicity, isn’t it? To me, it would be anything but simple to sail a boat! Sounds marvelous, though. And you have Internet connectivity? In port or out at sea?

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  • Thank you, what a thoughtful and informative blog, I am delighted to have discovered you.

    Certainly the ‘simple’ life can be a bit of a misnomer! I live on a boat traveling the world and my days are filled with the simple task of living. I guess the difference from the past is that we have made the choice ourselves, it has not been forced upon us and we tailor it to fill our own philosophies.

    I make bread, bottle and preserve, catch fish…and it all takes time, lots of it! However I see it as pleasure and not a chore.

    To me simplicity is the greatest form of hedonism!

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  • Great Post! It’s somehow amazing how things have changed a lot in the field of cooking. Though things change for the advancement, but still I would prefer the way people cooked things before. All natural and free from preservatives.

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  • And I also appreciate the convenience of being able to buy what I need (like tomato paste, etc.) without having to spend the time making THAT from scratch. As you can probably guess, I love to cook.

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  • For those blanched tomatoes:

    This recipe renders a good, basic sauce that can be doctored up any way you see fit.

    Red Sauce (Salsa Rossa)
    Makes 6-7 cups

    1 28-ounce can whole plum tomatoes
    1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
    ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
    4 T. onion, finely diced
    3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
    Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
    8 fresh basil leaves
    ¼ t. dried oregano

    Heat oil in stainless steel or other non-reactive pot over medium-low heat. Add onion. Sauté for about 5 minutes until translucent and not brown. Toss in garlic, cook for a scant 30 seconds. Stir in tomatoes, salt, and pepper. Raise heat and bring to a boil. Add basil and oregano. Reduce heat immediately to a simmer and cook uncovered for about 1 hour. Adjust seasoning. Sauce keeps well tightly covered in refrigerator for a week. Freeze for up to 4 months.

    Note: Blanching vegetables before cooking in red sauce allows them to become soft; otherwise the acid of the tomatoes hardens the cell walls of the vegetables and they don’t really become tender.

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  • Oh, I totally agree that people don’t realize how hard it can be to live simply. I mean, who really wants to pull weeds when it’s 100 degrees outside? Everyone I know who waxes poetic about living this lifestyle gets an invitation to spend a week doing what I do. For some, they instantly regret it and want to go back to their 40+ hour work week. Others think they’ve never had it so well.

    I think so much of it is about what kind of community you have around you. If I had to do everything on the farm myself and then cook for just myself, I’d probably give up. But when I get to turn turkey slaughter day into a party and a feast with family and friends, I just can’t see going back to the daily grind of modern life.

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  • I am currently blanching my tomatoes to can spaghetti sauce. Do you have a good recipe for this? We have quite a large garden: over 100 sweet potato plants, popcorn, watermelon, raspberries, strawberries, potatoes, peppers, cucs, zucs, etc. I love eating and serving food knowing exactly how it was prepared.

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  • There’s a certain element of satisfaction in cooking that might be considered nostalgic, I guess, like seeing people enjoying food you’ve cooked. Many old recipes are indeed a delight.

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  • I think that a lot of people don’t realize just how hard the “simple” life turns out to be. So I wouldn’t call it stigmatizing people; rather it’s about increasing their awareness of just what it entails to live the so-called simple life. Yes, it’s about choices (as all of life is). The temperature in Burkina Faso when I lived there got to be 120 F in the shade. I chose to run the AC when we could!

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  • Nice post. I’ve been discussing the same types of things over on my blog. I think the conclusion that I’ve come to is that it’s the choices that we make that are most important. Looking back through time, you see women (and some men) tied to the kitchen because that was the only option available to them. It’s important that we find ways to release those who are still bound to that life, if that’s what they want, but it’s very important not to stigmatize those who choose to return to a “simple life.”

    I also think it’s important to remember that we don’t have to take the whole package back when we reclaim certain aspects: I’m happy to raise and kill my own chickens but I’m not prepared to live without air conditioning (I don’t run it all the time or super cold, but I’m not giving it up unless I get an offer to move to rural Africa).

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