Sunday, July 15, 2012

Cookbook Review: Buffalo Cake and Indian Pudding

This small 77 page book is part  of the Penguin Great Food series. This one is written by Dr A.W. Chase. While I have read a few titles in this series, this is the first one that I am writing about because it is an older cookbook (1896).  I am quite interested in the evolution and future of cookbooks and I have written a post On Recipes a while back that talks a little about this.

This book has a few sections that open up with some general remarks and comments.  This is the same style that is employed in Joy of Cooking or Fannie Farmer.  If you ever get a chance to get an earlier edition of these two classics, it is helpful to look at them.  The history of entertaining could easily be traced from following these cookbooks notes.  The earlier ones have helpful information on how to dress and cook game. Even though these type of general comments are very helpful, the recipes themselves provide plenty of illumination about cooking around the turn of the previous century.

These recipes are short paragraphs without the current form of ingredients followed by instruction.  Instead they are an interspersion of ingredients with notes and short items to complete the cooking.  Since cooking was often done on wood stoves, the instructions are more vague in a way but more concrete in another.  There is a description of how the recipe should come out including great descriptions of what a final product is.  There is an expectation that the person reading the recipe knows how to cook but not how to do this recipe. Often, there is homespun advice alongside the recipe. For instance;

On St. James' Stale Bread Pudding : "The author feels very sure that you will ask St. James to call again."

On Bread Pudding, Aunt Rachel's : "This is like what my wife used to make, except she used to put the raisins in whole, to which I should never object; nor did I, as above remarked. 'ever see the family taste rebel against it'"

On Apple Fritters: "These instructions are from Miss Arabell, of Knox City, Mo. I say Miss because, as she gives no 'sir' name, I take it for granted she had not found the 'sir.'"

At the end of the pie section: "If this new plan is done carefully you will be pleased with the result. If not, you can take the old crusty, mushy way again; but I know you will not."

There is just such a forcefulness and surety in these comments by the good doctor. The strange thing is that he's right. If you have cooked enough, you will recognize some of these old fashioned hints as being fairly true, even in today's cooking.  The recipes are so plain that they cut to the bone and you can begin to understand how to build and embellish on top of these skeletal recipes.  It does begin to show how many new cookbooks are just flipping in new flavours to old favourites.

After reading and using cookbooks for so long, I feel like Dr. Chase that "I know as quick as I read recipe whether it is reliable or not. At least, for several years past, I have tested but very few recipes which proved a failure; while, in my earlier experience, the failures were frequent. Such I now throw aside on their first reading."

It is refreshing to hear a cookbook say that you are going to fuck up sometimes but it may the recipe.  Just work at it and you'll figure it out. This book is a curiosity for most, an interesting historic document for others.  I am going to read other volumes in the series for the fact that I am intrigued about how food has been written about and thought about. I am sure that if you are an attentive cook that you could even make most of these recipes without too much trouble.  A few may even become instant classics in your household.

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