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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