Sometimes you’ll hear someone quip, “Don’t behave as if you live in a cave,” a snarky way of saying how out of touch a person can be, perhaps a wee bit wild and savage. A tad ill-mannered, too. Of course, you don’t live in a cave (do you?). But in the case of British food writer Jane Grigson, she actually did live in a cave, in Trôo, France, where she discovered the joy of cooking and wrote her famed book on charcuterie. Not ill-mannered at all! And, to boot, she also became an advocate for local foods, long before it became à la mode.
And so I now give you book #5.
5. Good Things, by Jane Grigson (1971): Jane Grigson’s introduction to Good Things reveals that truth of the old adage from Ecclesiastes 1:9 – “And there is nothing new under the sun.” Here she is, in 1971, writing of English food in relation to the antipollution movement, “small and medium-sized farms” producing better food, and “country run restaurants specializing in locally produced food.”
No surprise, then, that eminent British writer Nigel Slater, who currently occupies Ms. Grigson’s former position at the Observer, salutes her as a pioneering revolutionary of the local foods movement. Mr. Slater considers Ms. Grigson’s Good Things to be her best book.
It’s one of her better books, yes.
Championed by none other than E.D. herself, Ms. Grigson made a huge, if now unacknowledged, contribution to global food writing, not just British. Her daughter, Sophie Grigson, is carrying on that legacy in her own right.
Ms. Grigson wrote articles on cooking for the Observer Colour magazine and Good Things is a compilation of those articles, with their accompanying recipes, more than 250 of them. Four major sections offer short chapters focusing on specific ingredients: Kippers and Other Cured Fish, Snails, Carrots, Parsley, Spinach, Apple and Quince, Prunes, Walnuts, etc. Like Florence White, Ms. Grigson includes many recipes taken from myriad historical sources, as you’ll see in the scrumptious chapter, “Salting Meat,” where she mentions Lady Llanover’s 1867 tome, Good Cookery and a rather simple recipe for salt duck, with two ingredients. You guessed it: 1 duck and 1/4 pound of kosher salt.
Yet Jane Grigson imbued Good Things with a goal other than just recipes:
This is not a manual of cookery, but a book about enjoying food. Few of the recipes in it will contribute much to the repertoire of those who like to produce dinner for 6 in 30 minutes flat. I think food, its quality, its origins, its preparation, is something to be studied and thought about in the same way as any other aspect of human existence. (p. ix)
The many brief and well-written commentaries about the recipes add a great deal to the reader’s enjoyment of this book, and the food. The emphasis is usually on British food, although she does include five recipes for French cakes … and numerous other recipes not usually associated with Britain, tasty but not out of place among the meat pies, the kippers and the quinces. Little known today, especially among younger readers and cooks and chefs, Ms. Grigson’s work deserves another look, I think. She wrote books about mushrooms, charcuterie, vegetables, fruit, and English food. And like E.D., she lived a rather unconventional life, once she met the prolific poet and writer Geoffery Grigson, including that stint in the troglodyte cave they bought with a small inheritance of Ms. Grigson’s.
Jane Grigson’s insightful and authoritative comments open up a world that is imbued with tastes influenced by other climes, other cultures, a state of affairs not unusual in a place where throughout their history people have avidly welcomed spices and all manner of different culinary goods.
Book #5 is one of Ms. Grigson’s most readable books. It’s also a trial run for her highly popular future books, Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book (1983) and Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book (1978), both of which still offer invaluable information. Both illustrate the fact that British cooking for centuries has focused on fresh, wholesome food, locally grown, a philosophy transferred across the Atlantic to the gardens and fields of the New World, particularly the American South. Recall all the publications and seed catalogues that emerged from the excitement generated by scientific discoveries in the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly in the American South with its long growing season.
“And there is nothing new under the sun.”
If you don’t usually give gifts at Christmas, this book may change your tune. Consider this passage, where Ms. Grigson extols the pleasures of lemons, which of course are not British, but have been adopted for so long and with such enthusiasm that they might as well be:
In the food trade, in cooking, lemons came into their own far north of the Alps before and especially after Mrs. Beeton’s day. Italian lemons rolled into Britain (no longer possible to be ’12 miles from a lemon,’ as Sydney Snith had once complained when he began living in a North Riding rectory). British cooks diversified and improved on old recipes for such things as ‘lemoned honeycomb’ (which was in the edition of Hannah Glasse’s cookery book of 1767) or lemon cheese cake; they borrowed, they invented new lemon puddings, new lemon desserts and ices, preserves, and drinks. (p. 277)
Ms. Grigson follows those remarks with nine recipes using lemons, from savory to sweet, including Snowdon Pudding.
It’s enough to send you searching for that lemon squeezer burrowing in your cupboard.
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
© 2015 C. Bertelsen