Wednesday, 30 September 2015

When a cook book becomes a bit of our collective past

Ricotta cheese, eggs, sugar and candied peel  with a lattice of pastry, 2010
I won’t be alone in having several bookshelves filled with cook books.

Most remain unopened from one year to the next and only come down to be looked at for the pictures and the carefully written stories.

Not that there is anything wrong in that but that doesn’t make them cook books.

To qualify for that status the book has to be much thumbed, with more than a few cooking stains and fall open at old favourite dishes many of which you know off by heart anyway.

And these books will all come with a history.

That history might be the book given as a wedding present or as a going away manual for the son or daughter about to set up their own home and they also will be full of recipes that reflect the eating habits of the past.

A fished Meta display, 1947
We still have mum’s two volumes of Meta Given’s Modern Encyclopedia of Cooking first published in the USA in 1947.

In its time it was as essential as Mrs Beaton’s guide to household management and followed a tradition which can be traced back to the monthly periodicals issued during the 19th century and the stylish recipe books of the century before.

I think the two volumes were given to mother soon after she settled down with my father and they have been part of my life since.

Not that she used them over much.  They have American measures and many of the foods listed would not have been available in those post war years when there was still rationing.

Here are appetisers like Apple Tempters and Shrimp Cocktail, traditional main courses of liver and onions, broiled, fried or roast chicken and a host of puddings.

Some do tempt me but others like Italian Style Liver Marconi and Tomatoes followed by Baked Pears with Marshmallows I am happy to leave alone.

Met's take in stuffed peppers, 1947
But they reflect that immediate post war period when the growing prosperity of the USA set it apart from Britain.

That said we did have Coronation Chicken that 1953 dish first served at the Queen’s Coronation meal which was a mixture of cold chicken with mayonnaise and curry.  It sounds quite tame today but against the backdrop of years of rationing I reckon it would have been pretty exotic.

I have dipped into Meta Given but it is a world away from what I am comfortable with eating.

So my manual of choice is the Silver Spoon which first appeared in Italy in 1950 and like Meta was meant as the ultimate guide to food, cooking and all you wanted to know about both.

I came across it  a decade ago and saw in it an opportunity to reproduce the meals which Rosa cooks when we go home to Italy.

Now family dishes are not learnt from cook books but handed down and in the case of Rosa’s cooking reflect her upbringing in Naples in the 1940s and early ‘50s when food was in short supply. So most of what we eat is weighted to the food of southern Italy with just the odd nod to the heavier dishes of the north, which means plenty of vegetables, fruit and fish and only small amounts of meat.

Rosa's fish stew, 2010
Of course the Silver Spoon includes the lot but I have to say I slide towards the south and fall back on Rosa’s favourites many of which come with a family story.

Like the one about the about making passata which began with the raw tomatoes and ended with the bottling of the finished stuff which was stored away in the garage and pretty much kept them going all winter.

It was a collective affair with uncles and aunts joining the kids, Simone and Rosa and lasted the day and was as much about getting together and retelling old tales as it was about making food.

Sadly the Silver Spoon leaves out the stories which are a shame and set me off thinking that perhaps it’s time to produce that family cook book which will offer both the workaday meals we remember with a bit of the family history.

We shall see.

Picture's Rosa's Easter tarts and fish stew 2010 and dishes from Meta Givern, 1948 from the collection of Andrew Simpson

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