Friday, June 8, 2007

The Form of Cookbooks

We have already noted the tendency of cookbook writers to be optimists. They also tend to be deeply romantic with a tendency towards the pastoral.

Their imaginations are filled with villages and farmers living off the land; cows and herdmen; folk foraging for herbs in the wild; a mythical sort of Arcadia harking back to some unstated golden age of food making.

Reality is seldom so kind.

Where they have you visualize the gentle mooing of cows in a grass-spread expanse, is really earth-shattering methane-laden farts for anyone who has actually visited a farm. Where they would have you picking herbs along Mediterranean coasts should be counter-indicated with the brutal and vicious poverty that lines those lands, along with a deep distrust of strange foreigners who invade wanting to talk about food.

Recipes too are not just procedural. They contain obvious and hidden metaphors, as much about tantalizing the reader's sense of space ("Ah, Firenze!"), light ("sunrise over the Adriatic"), time ("once when we were young"), and sense ("wafting aroma from a colorful melange"), as they are about the actual execution ("try it! you know you want to!")

It is this romanticization that partly explains why certain meals tend to linger in our imagination.

Sentiment here freely mixes with nostalgia ("my mother's recipe"), transports us ("eating mangoes with juices dripping"), allows us to live vicariously in both space and time ("the royal chef prepared..."), and allows wild optimism to turn into outright absurdity.

Jane Grigson tried to imagine a neo-pastoral world: "Now we might extend the picture to include high-rise blocks, patched with vegetation on every balcony - Marmande and plum tomatoes in pots, herbs in window-boxes, courgettes and squashes trailing round the doors. Inside, there could be aubergine, pepper, chilli and basil plants on the window sill, jars of sprouting seeds, dishes of mustard and cress, with mushroom buckets and blanching chicory in the dark broom and airing cupboards."

The CC thinks we can safely say, in retrospect, that the problems of inner-cities do not emanate from the lovely odors of freshly growing herbs (a different kind of herb, maybe!)

Escapism also plays a role.

How many can truly afford a life of leisure traipsing along the Mediterranean, stopping for an omelette and a glass of wine here, and sampling onion jam there? And wouldn't it get boring after the first few weeks?

Elizabeth David freely admits this about her books written just after World War II with rationing in effect. The chances that her readers could even obtain a handful of those ingredients was negligible. The books are explicit escapist fantasies in a troubled world (however excellent the recipes might be.)

The seduction of this mythical past where food was unadulterated by chemicals, and presented without sham or pretentiousness is a heady mix, and hardly anyone is immune from the potency of the image.

These books are truly the last gasp of the Romantic movement. They provide a concentrated sense of drama in a short space (a recipe is as brief as a sonnet,) and the allure of heaven.

If only we too had the right ingredients, and the right company in the right setting, then we too could be gambolling around like fox cubs in dappled sunlight.