On the Shelves of Elves: A Baker’s Dozen of British Cookbooks for the Christmas Season – Book #1

Even though traditional American cuisine is British to the core, with borrowings – not appropriations – from other cultures, the media lately has been full of commentaries such as this. In an attempt to put a more scholarly and rational spin on it, I am beginning by pointing out 13 relatively recent British cookbooks, all with a historical slant. Just in time for Christmas giving, BTW, these books well illustrate the vast and diverse and key source recipes that indeed formed the roots of what is called Southern, and American, cuisine. There will be one new book featured each week day, starting today, until all 13 have appeared here.

Every Christmas, my grandmother served Christmas pudding – plum, to be exact. Or figgy, if you prefer the caroling term. And she would lay it carefully on one of her cherished Spode plates, bone china made in England. I’ve always loved that china, in the Mayflower pattern. I own most of grandmother’s collection now, except for the bit she left to my cousin for about five minutes before my uncle, her father, sold it in a pawn shop in San Diego, California. But that’s another story for another day, OK?

I continue the Christmas tradition – at least the one where the flowers peer out from whatever Christmas dinner I manage to cook. Unlike my grandmother, I do not make plum pudding swimming in brandy and light it on fire, at least not while it’s sitting on one of those expensive Spode plates. You see, one year, she fired up the pudding as usual, but it erupted and the plate blew apart in the heat of the moment, so to speak.

So … yes, plum pudding is basically fruitcake, an example of a perfectly fine tradition turned upside in England’s American colonies. Which brings me to my major point here: English cookbooks. Not just Nigella’s and Jamie’s and Nigel’s and Delia’s, though their books are perfectly lovely. No, I’m talking about the ones illustrating quite obviously that English cooking lies behind a large percentage of American food still cooked – hopefully – in many American kitchens and served up in restaurants, diners, delis, and myriad frozen food sections. As early as 1330, as many as 1 in 100 people living in England originated from somewhere other than the island, so external culinary influences on English cooking were plentiful early on, including the offerings of many French and Norman people long before the infusion of French culinary fashion in the 18th century.

I’ve annotated and, at the same time, attempted a very brief analysis of some of the strong and weak points of each of these books, and compared them to their mates, something that I feel is vital to any such list, be it a full-fledged book – which is not always done, as was the case with a recently published tome, a superficial newspaper sampling or blog post. The deeper you get into any cookbook, asking the questions of where that book fits into the overall scheme of things, the more you will find the complexities of the lives and the history surrounding them. None are written in a vacuum, sterile and untainted.

As Florence White writes so truthfully in her “General Introduction” to Good Things in England, “England does not know her wealth” in the kitchen. And food writers today would do well to realize the incredible diversity and variety of the foods that fueled England, again yes, a place of empire builders, yeomen, tradesmen, and seafarers. That is the history and these books reflect that fact, a history which cannot be erased, one that was both violent and benevolent at times. Tragic.

But indeed rich in the ways of the kitchen.

Let the gifts begin!

First up is Florence White. Book #1.

1932

1. Good Things in England, by Florence White (1932): Written by the founder of the English Folk Cookery Association, Good Things covers over 800 years of English cookery with 853 recipes dating to the 14th century. Ms. White felt that English cooking was being neglected and thus garnered the recipes by advertising in newspapers and magazines, seeking old recipes from readers, as well as thorough research into old cookery books. Even if you don’t actually cook from the book, the recipes and the commentaries make for fascinating reading. Take the recipe for  Yorkshire “Woof or Ling Pie,” p. 204 of the Persephone edition. The contributor, described as “a Scarborough B.B.C. friend,” states emphatically that “woof” or ling is the only satisfactory fish to use. “It must be absolutely fresh. I would not buy it except on the coast where it has been landed.” Not all recipes begin with such remarks, more’s the pity, but given that the book first appeared in 1932, Ms. White’s comment that many of the recipes had been in contributors’ families for over 100 years makes this an incredible “oral history,” if you will. Think about, only 17 more years until 2032! Nearly 200 years gone. And here, too, you find this: “Our kitchen has more in common with America than with any other country. This is natural, as the foundations of both the English and American kitchens were the same up to 1620 … .” She spends some ink on denigrating France and French cuisine, as many cookbook writers of the past were wont to do, but concludes that there’s room for both the “famous French cuisine and our fine traditional English cookery.” Good Things is a goldmine for anyone interested in historical cookery. The recipes – arranged by meal types and not ingredients – are quite accessible, detailed ingredients in many cases, as well as methods. It would be wonderful if someone could annotate the book with explanations of who many of the personages were whom Ms. White mentions, as well as places and their importance, this of course for a modern audience, many of whom might not be British.

Check out all of the books in this series:

1. Florence White’s Good Things in England

2. Dorothy Hartley’s Food in England

3. Adrian Bailey’s The Cooking of the British Isles

4. Elizabeth David’s Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen

5. Jane Grigson’s Good Things

6. Katie Stewart’s The Times Cookery Book

7. Jane Grigson’s English Food

8. Laura Mason’s The National Trust Farmhouse Cookbook

9. Sarah Edington’s The National Trust Complete Traditional Recipe Book

10. Brian Yarvin’s The Ploughman’s Lunch and the Miser’s Feast

11. Mary-Anne Boermans’s Great British Bakes: Forgotten Treasures for Modern Bakers 

12. Heston Blumenthal’s Historic Heston

13. Mary Gwynn’s The WI Cookbook

Millers cabin Smithfield crop

© 2015 C. Bertelsen

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