flamingo-1Continuo canibalizando mi revista «The Economist» y les envio el artículo «Pluck a flamingo» («Despluma un flamenco») donde leeremos una interesante historia de los recetarios. Si bien la parte final de la historia es fuertemente anglosajona, hay datos muy interesante como: el contenido de los primeros recetarios, quien fue la primera persona en sistematizar las recetas,…


Pluck a flamingo
Dec 18th 2008
From The Economist print edition

What cookbooks really teach us
NIGEL SLATER dislikes recipes. In his cookbook “Appetite” he compares them to a straitjacket and a pair of too-tight cycling shorts. There is, he says, an enormous difference between following instructions—including his own—and learning how to cook. Mr Slater admits that his heart sinks when somebody praises a recipe because it always works. “A recipe must work? Surely there is more to it than that.”

Indeed there is. If the only purpose of cookbooks were to teach people how to create decent meals, they would take up no more space in the average home than do baby books. Instead, the shelves bend under the weight of Delia, Jamie and Nigella (or, in America, Julia, Martha and Rachael). Even a medium-sized bookshop contains many more recipes than one person could hope to cook in a lifetime. The cookbook section in the Los Angeles Public Library uses 1,200 feet (366 metres) of space.

 Although the recipes in one book are often similar to those in another, their presentation varies wildly. There are Lutheran cookbooks, Wiccan cookbooks, feminist vegetarian cookbooks (“The Political Palate”) and satirical cookbooks. There are instructions on cooking the food that Jane Austen, Sherlock Holmes and Thomas Jefferson might have eaten. Cookbooks have been written by French prisoners, the pop singer Tom Jones, the astrologer Nostradamus and the winners of the Miss America competition.

The reason for this profusion is that cookbooks promise to effect a kind of domestic alchemy. Although seemingly straightforward, they hold out the hope of liberation from a routine of leftover chicken and from children who refuse to eat food of any colour except white. To follow their instructions—or, as Mr Slater would prefer, to be inspired by them—is to turn a mundane task into an engaging, romantic process. Cookbooks also provide an opportunity to delve into distant cultures without having to turn up early at the airport or read subtitles.

The first Western cookbook appeared a little more than 1,600 years ago. “De re coquinara” (concerning cookery) is attributed to a Roman gourmet named Apicius who, legend has it, poisoned himself upon learning that he could no longer afford to eat fancy food. It is probably a mishmash of Roman and Greek recipes, some or all of them drawn from manuscripts that have since been lost. The editor was careless, allowing several duplicated recipes to sneak in. Yet Apicius’s book set the tone of cookery advice in Europe for more than a thousand years.

It has a decadent, aristocratic flavour. There are recipes for ostrich and flamingo, befitting the sweep of the Roman Empire. Apicius instructs cooks to add honey to almost everything, including lobster. He teaches them how to cook one dish so that it resembles another and how to disguise bad food. One recipe explains that stale birds should be cooked in a sauce of pepper, lovage, thyme, mint, hazelnuts, dates, honey, vinegar, liquamen (fish sauce), wine and mustard. Through that concoction it would be impossible to detect a stale smell, or indeed any smell at all.

As a cookbook, though, “De re coquinara” is unsatisfactory. Its instructions are basic, often more so than the flour-dusted notes that many modern cooks keep stuffed into the pages of a favourite book. A recipe for nut custard reads, in full: “Toast pine-kernels and chopped nuts, pound with honey, pepper, liquamen, milk and eggs. A little oil.” Joseph Vehling, a chef who translated Apicius in the 1930s, reckoned the author had been deliberately obscure, lest his secrets leak out.

A more likely reason is that Apicius’s recipes were written by and for professional cooks, who could decipher their shorthand. Western cookbooks remained vague for hundreds of years. “The Forme of Curye”, a 14th-century English manuscript, is full of instructions to “smyte” fish “in pecys” and “do hem in a panne”. There was no order to cookbooks: a cake recipe might be followed by a mutton one. But then, they were not written for careful study. Before the 19th century few educated people cooked for themselves. The wealthiest employed literate chefs; others presumably read recipes to their servants. Such cooks would have been capable of creating dishes from the vaguest of instructions.

The invention of printing, which might have been expected to lead to greater clarity, initially had the opposite effect. As words acquired commercial value, plagiarism exploded. A book by an Italian chef Maestro Martino, which explained how to concoct spectacular dishes like flaming peacock and pie with live birds, was copied and translated into Latin, German, English and French. Recipes were distorted through reproduction, as in a game of Chinese whispers. A recipe for boiled capon in “The Good Huswives Jewell”, printed in 1596, advised the cook to add three or four dates. By 1653, when the recipe was pinched by the author of “A Book of Fruits & Flowers”, the cook was told to set the dish aside for three or four days.

The dominant note in Renaissance cookbooks was order. Books combined recipes and household advice, on the assumption that a well-made dish, a well-ordered larder and well-disciplined children were equally important in God’s eyes. The 16th-century Russian “Domostroi” contained advice on whipping servants as well as cooking turnips. A book published on the eve of the English civil war referred to the master of the house as the “Soveraigne”.

Cookbooks were thus a bulwark against the tumult of the times. They hardly seem to have been affected by the Reformation, the Thirty Years War, the English civil war or the revolutions in America and France. One French book endured the tumultuous 19th century simply by changing its title from “Le Cuisinier Imperial” to “Le Cuisinier Royal”, then to “Le Cuisinier National” and back again to “Le Cuisinier Imperial” as the political winds changed. But then, revolutionaries tend not to go in for cookbooks. They seem to believe women have more important things to do than slave over a stove.

The rise of measurement
The great revolution in cooking advice was launched in one of the world’s least revolutionary nations. In the 1850s Isabella Beeton, aged 23, began writing a series of supplements to the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine, which was published by her husband. Like earlier cookery writers she plagiarised freely, lifting not just recipes but philosophical observations from other books. If Beeton’s recipes were not wholly novel, though, the way in which she presented them certainly was.

flamingo-2Every recipe in “The Book of Household Management” opens with a list of ingredients, specifying quantities even of salt. Beeton mentions how substantial the result will be: “sufficient for 7 or 8 persons”; “sufficient for a small dish”. She explains when the chief ingredients are most likely to be in season, how long the dish will take to prepare and even how much it is likely to cost. At the end of her book there is an “analytical index” of ingredients.

Earlier cookbook writers had experimented with some of these innovations, but none had combined them so rigorously. Beeton’s precise, systematic recipes were well suited to her times. Two centuries earlier, knowledge of rural ways had been so widespread that one writer could advise cooks to heat water until it was a little hotter than milk comes from a cow. By the 1850s Britain was fast industrialising. The growing urban middle class needed details, and Beeton provided them in full.

Within a few years Beeton’s methods had spread widely. In 1861 Elena Molokhovets published the similarly practical “A Gift to Young Housewives”, which remained popular in Russia for half a century. Molokhovets wrote for grander households than Beeton, although ones that were perhaps more constrained than in the past: 1861 also saw the abolition of serfdom. During the Soviet era the book came to symbolise pre-revolutionary plenty—a kind of road map to a lost world. Exiles in France and America kept it in print.

In France, cookbooks were fast becoming even more systematic. Compared with Britain, France had produced few books written for the ordinary householder by the end of the 19th century (and one of those was written by Alexis Soyer, who had decamped to London to cook for the Reform club). The most celebrated French cookbooks were written by superstar chefs who had a clear sense of codifying a unified haute cuisine. In 1902 Auguste Escoffier succeeded in this task. The 5,000 recipes in his “Le Guide Culinaire” might as well have been written in stone, given the book’s reputation among French chefs.

What Escoffier did for haute cuisine, Fannie Farmer did for American home cooking. Head of the Boston Cooking School, she not only synthesised American cuisine; she elevated it to the status of science. “Progress in civilisation has been accompanied by progress in cookery,” she breezily announced, before launching into a collection of recipes that occasionally resembles a book of chemistry experiments. Farmer provided a recipe for “hygienic soup” and listed the precise quantities of fat, protein, minerals and water to be found in various cuts of meat.

Farmer was occasionally finicky. She explained that currants should be picked between June 28th and July 3rd, but not when it is raining. And she had some odd views, believing fish to be bad for the brain, for instance. But in the main her book is reassuringly authoritative. Its recipes are short, with no unnecessary chat and no unnecessary spices. Farmer wrote for ordinary middle-class families, addressing herself to “the young housekeeper” and giving advice on economising.

During the second world war the nutritionists took over. Margaret Pearson, who wrote “Cookery Under Rations” in 1941, praised vegetables and informed her (probably rather cross) readers that the scarcity of just about everything else was not such bad a thing. “Elaborate sauces are out of the question in these days of economy,” she declared, although one rather suspects that Pearson disapproved of elaborate sauces even before rationing. Typical of the book is a recipe for “brown rice”, which involves nothing more than rice, Marmite, dripping, onions, stock or water, pepper and salt.

Pearson conceded that rationing was likely to tighten, rendering even some of her sparse recipes impossible. She was right about that. By 1944 Irene Veal was advising women how to cook with dried eggs or even with no eggs at all. Her recipe for mayonnaise is one of the most heartbreaking passages ever written in English:

Melt 1oz of margarine in ½ teacup milk, and when the mixture is warm put through a cream machine—the five shilling kind which many of us bought before the war and still, I expect, possess. In about 2 or 3 hours’ time add very gently to the cream 1 teaspoon made mustard and 1 tablespoon each salad oil and vinegar. Beat well and serve. If the oil is not available, it does not greatly matter…”

In that brief aside “I expect” is summed up the misery of wartime cooking.

Like rationing, this dire, utilitarian approach to food could persist only for so long. By the late 1940s Britons were ready for something more exotic. The answer to their wishes was a peculiar volume by a virtually unknown writer. Two books can be said to have launched revolutions in cooking advice. Beeton’s “The Book of Household Management” is certainly one. The other is “Mediterranean Food” by Elizabeth David.

 It proceeds like a combination of cookbook and travelogue. David quoted other writers as freely as Beeton had done, although unlike Beeton she acknowledged her sources. In some ways “Mediterranean Food” recalled even older cookbooks. David’s discussion of raito, a Provençal dish, could have been written by Apicius: “It is a ragout made of onions, tomatoes, garlic, pounded walnuts, thyme, rosemary, fennel, parsley, bay leaves, red wine, capers and black olives, all simmered in olive oil. In this sauce either dried cod or eels are cooked.”

The smells and noises that filled David’s books were not mere decoration for her recipes. They were the point of her books. When she began to write, shortly after the war had ended, it was hard to get hold of cream, let alone capers. She understood this, acknowledging in a later edition of one of her books that “even if people could not very often make the dishes here described, it was stimulating to think about them.” David’s books were not so much cooking manuals as guides to the kind of food people might well wish to eat.

The American culinary cognoscenti received “Mediterranean Food” just as rapturously as British readers. But David failed to conquer the American kitchen. Cooks who were curious about European food plumped instead for a woman whose first book opened with an implicit rebuke to the British writer: “We have purposely omitted cobwebbed bottles, the patron in his white cap bustling among his sauces, anecdotes about charming little restaurants with gleaming napery, and so forth.”

As Julia Child knew, Americans had no need to dream. The nation had endured much less severe food shortages than Britain and emerged from the war as the world’s great power. Child’s breezy, confident air, which she maintained even in the midst of complex recipes like fish mousse and chicken livers in aspic, was much better suited to the prevailing mood. Child rejoiced in inventions like frozen spinach and declared that good meals could be created by anyone who had access to a supermarket. America can do anything, she implied—even French food.

This cultural divide persists. American cookbooks still tend towards the plain and encyclopedic, while British cookbooks have become increasingly conversational and evocative. As a result, each country has its own household names. Few Americans have heard of Jane Grigson, Nigella Lawson or Delia Smith; equally few Britons have heard of Julia Child or Craig Claiborne. If Britons have heard of Martha Stewart it is more for her dodgy financial dealings than for her gingerbread.

Britain and America are the two great cookbook-writing nations, which is not the same as being nations of great cooks. It is precisely because neither country can boast a coherent, admirable, traditional cuisine that cooks have such need of guidance and distraction. Nations with grand cooking traditions produce fewer, simpler cookbooks. Yet things are changing.

France still churns out cookbooks that resemble textbooks, both in weight and charm. But the rise of women’s paid work has forced publishers to adapt. Modern French cookbooks have titles like “La Bonne Cuisine de nos Grand-Mères”. They contain homely recipes that women once presumably knew by heart but have now forgotten because they spend too much time staring at spreadsheets. In an even greater concession to contemporary mores, French bookshops carry works written by Jamie Oliver, a chipper television chef from Britain, of all places.

Cookbooks are becoming more common in China, although they are hardly more helpful to the inexperienced. Few dishes, whether native or foreign, are believed to be so complex that they cannot be reduced to three or four simple steps. One guide to French food zips through a recipe for baked sea bream with almonds in just 129 Chinese characters. The subtle, tricky things about Chinese cooking—how to balance strong flavours, how to fry vegetables so they are cooked but still crisp—are assumed to be so well understood that they require no explanation.

Indian recipes assume a similarly deep knowledge of cooking, although they splendidly combine brevity with the sort of florid touches that David admired. Books by K.M. Mathew, Kerala’s premier cookbook-writer, are full of injunctions such as: “fry it little by little” and “do not use your hand to take flour”. Indian cookbooks also assume an attitude to ingredients that was lost long ago in Europe and America. As recently as 1992 a Goan cookbook instructed its readers: “Cut live chicken and take out 5 tbsp fresh blood.”

Indian cookbooks are frankly written for women. In 1978 a cookbook sponsored by Dalda, a cooking oil, had a specific woman in mind: “Once you are married you are faced with the prospect of being cook, companion and wife to your husband—and competing with memories of his mother’s home cooking.”

Although more recent cookbooks do not put it so starkly, they hint at the same alarming scenario. The promise of dramatic improvement in domestic relations, implicit in nearly all cookbooks, is made clear in India.

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