Sitting at the Thanksgiving table last Thursday, I exclaimed (as usual), "This is SO good, Mom!" Who knows which dish I was talking about? It was all delicious. It might have been the yeast rolls at that moment. She started talking about the trick to the dish, and I commented, "You should totally start a food blog, too!"
"No," she reminded.
"Oh yeah. No," I agreed. Too much measuring and exactitude for her. She doesn't like to be bothered with recipes except as launching pads for her own creations. Only a very few of her trademark dishes have been documented in recipe form onto paper. The rest of it all is measured by "until it's right." Surely I learned the art of intuitive cooking from her. Who knows where I also got this love of recipes? Last summer I about drove her nuts trying to get the measurements for her fried fish batter. This will likely be the last time I chase her around with a teaspoon and a notepad.
Anyway, we started talking around the table about the "olden days" of cooking, a time before any one of us at the table was born, when measuring utensils were incidental if even present, and any written communication included such abstractions as "some," "a few," "enough," and "more." This is how cooking began, not with carefully calculated ratios and measurements.
I told my family that this reminded me of Serve it Forth, the first book by MFK Fisher, who is a hugely influential, idiosyncratic, and brilliant culinary writer. In this witty journey of culinary history, written in 1939, she presents cooking practices and recipes dating back to ancient times, along with her droll and wonderful commentary.
She quotes a recipe from The Harleian, a medieval cookbook, in which you are to "Take clean fresh brawn...and seethe it, but not enough." On this, MFK Fisher comments, "No step-by-step procedure for young brides here! It is rather the terse understatement of one expert to another." Later in this old cookbook, the reader is to "...take salt and vinegar, and cast thereto, and look that it be poignant enough, and serve forth." I'm guessing this is where the title of her book came from (If you are interested in culinary history, I hope you will read this book! I have not done it justice here).
So, back to the Thanksgiving dining room table. I mentioned this book as the mashed potato coma started to hit. I probably said something detailed like, "MFK Fisher's book talks about how they didn't measure food in recipes a long time ago!" I also tried to briefly describe Fisher's 1942 book, How to Cook a Wolf, as a cookbook for eating with dignity while keeping the "wolf at the door" during those lean times of war shortages.
Mom got the picture. Later that day she presented me with an old book, the one pictured above, called Food for the Hungry - A Complete Manual of Household Duties --compiled by Julia MacNair Wright, et al, and published in 1896. Mom had this book left over from her antique dealing days.
I was elated! Greedily, I opened the book near the middle. The first word I saw was "Oranges." This was to be the first course served on a breakfast menu. Here's what Julia et al had to say:
"As a preparatory course to the heavier business of breakfast, ripe, fresh oranges are held in high esteem. They are served whole, and eaten as individual taste dictates, either pared, then divided into lobes, which are eaten with or without sugar, or cut in half, without paring, and scooped from the shells with a spoon. Finger bowls and doilies are set on with them, and every vestige of this course is removed before the next is brought in."
At this point I called Mom over to check this out. "Doilies and finger bowls???" We started to laugh. "This is probably intended for people who could afford servants at that time," Mom observed. After all, who has "brought in" the next course? So, the title Food for the Hungry doesn't exactly parallel How to Cook a Wolf, does it? This was a clearly a different kind of hungry.
I'll bet you want to know what the whole menu of that breakfast was. I know I did. Here it is:
No. 32. Breakfast.
Pork Chops, with Tomato Sauce.
Crumb Griddle Cakes. Maple Syrup.
Toast. Brown Bread.
Meringued Cafe au lait. Tea.
I'm just curious: are you getting the same nostalgic longing that I have when I read this? Who would have eaten this meal? What was it like to have servants, when it apparently was a more common, no-big-deal thing? What was it like for the servants? Who actually did the cooking? How precious were oranges then? How about maple syrup? What is the deal with serving both toast and brown bread? May I have a meringued cafe au lait, please?
I am seriously tempted to serve pork chops with tomato sauce for breakfast one morning and see what that's like. To follow the recipe in this book, all I'm lacking is a "potato beetle" to pound the chops flat.