Book Review: A Hastiness of Cooks, by Cynthia Bertelsen

Published by Monday, August 12, 2019 Permalink 0

Book Review: A Hastiness of Cooks

by Margie Gibson

I’ve flirted with historic cooking for years, but somehow, the relationship never took off. I would get frustrated by arcane language and ingredients and turn to something more familiar and easier to cook. Cynthia Bertelsen’s new book, A Hastiness of Cooks, has provided the catalyst that just may spark a beautiful relationship.

This slim volume’s subtitle, A Practical Handbook for Use in Deciphering the Mysteries of Historic Recipes and Cookbooks, For Living-History Reenactors, Historians, Writers, Chefs, Archaeologists, and, of Course, Cooks, precisely summarizes the book’s aims and audience. Courtney Nzeribe’s many illustrations remind the reader that the book’s ultimate subject is food and its preparation.

Bertelsen has provided the organizational structure and clarity that will help the reader analyze recipes from earlier centuries. This volume concentrates on the food on European tables from the Middle Ages to the 1700s. Spanish and English recipes get prime attention—after all, the territories that Spain and England conquered were huge and were the source for a steady stream of new foods entering the European repertoire. Interestingly enough, England, whose early cooks were influenced by France, Italy, Persia, the Iberian peninsula, and Turkey, led the way in the production of manuscripts on cooking—which suggests to me that British cooking may have gotten a bad rap in the years since World War I.

Why bother with early recipes? We already have plenty of easily accessible recipes based on ingredients that we can source easily from the farmers’ market or local supermarket. As Bertelsen explains, cookbooks contain a wealth of information beyond ingredient lists and instructions for preparation. Cookbooks can also provide clues to social, economic and political circumstances. They shed light on what farmers were producing as well as on trade relationships. They provide insight into the lives of ordinary people, something often ignored in historical studies that focus on the wealthy and powerful—and for the most part, on men. Cookbooks, particularly as they progress to the 17th and 18th centuries, illuminate women’s lives, which were generally ignored as being less interesting than their male counterparts.

A Hastiness of Cooks also illustrates how early cookbooks were used. Food and medicine were intertwined and many early cookbooks contain recipes for the sick and infirm, which give insights into medical beliefs. Also, earlier books were intended for those in charge of managing wealthy households or the kitchens for abbeys and universities, so we are able to get downstairs insight into the mechanisms that fed large numbers of people.

Luckily for us, many of the early cookbook writers plagiarized . . . er, borrowed and shared . . . recipes during a time when European cuisines were not strongly differentiated from each other. Today, this is especially useful if a recipe in one book doesn’t make sense. By searching for similar recipes in other cookbooks, modern cooks can reconstruct the holes and lapses in earlier books.

In another very useful chapter, Bertelsen provides tips on how to begin recreating old recipes. She sets up a framework for analyzing the recipe, which helps resolve the questions and problems that might otherwise discourage the modern cook. She also describes cooking techniques, such as cooking on a hearth or in a fireplace, that have been lost in the modern kitchen. Anyone trying to create a living history cooking program at a folklife museum or colonial-era home would find a wealth of information here.

Perhaps best of all, the book explains how all these early resources can be interpreted for today’s kitchen. In Part IV, Bertelsen presents five Spanish and five English authors of cookbooks with a fictionalized, first-person description of the writers’ lives. These short blurbs are followed by an original recipe, as well as a transcription of the recipe. She uses her framework to analyze the text and produces a recipe that could be cooked in a modern kitchen.

Reading about these early authors, one sees how they influenced each other and how they were influenced by the Age of Exploration when so many new foods appeared in Europe. By the time I finished the final section about Hannah Glass’s book, I understood the analysis process and thought I could try my own hand.

Of course, I know there will be inevitable questions and roadblocks in my efforts. So for further perplexing problems that may vex the modern cook, the book concludes with a discussion of the importance of bibliographies and provides a rich selection of on-line resources for further reference.

I highly recommend this book, which is not only a fine instructional text but will be an excellent reference for questions that arise as I delve deeper into old recipes. In short, A Hastiness of Cooks is a goldmine that I fully expect to explore further in this developing relationship with historic cooking.

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Relaunching of The Rambling Epicure E-zine

Published by Wednesday, April 25, 2018 Permalink 0

I launched The Rambling Epicure e-zine, this website, nearly ten years ago as a literary culinary electronic magazine with a host of well-known food writers and photographers, all of whom are still active members of the related Facebook groups Culinary Travel and Mastering the Art of Food Writing. Editing and publishing this on my own required an incredible amount of gratifying work and because I was busy with my personal projects, I have left it semi-dormant for the last year or two. Today, I would like to relaunch it in a different form as part of an effort to encourage conversation about food, cooking, and writing.

My primary goal is for The Rambling Epicure to become a wellspring of enlightening epicurean essays and culinary fiction. We all have captivating personal and family tales about what we cooked and what we ate through many generations, during good times and bad. These memories are part of our food culture—and our food heritage—and should be an effective way to transmit our experiences and values beyond our front doors.

But my ambitions are greater than just memoir: I’m also interested in publishing articles and essays related to historical research in the field of gastronomy and in reviews of food books.

I would like to make this a cooperative effort that opens the door for us to share our potential as cooks, diners, and writers. Together, we will create a literary culinary site unlike any other, with information and stories that can be passed down to future generations.

Continue Reading…

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Unforgettable: The Bold Flavors of Paula Wolfert’s Renegade Life

Published by Friday, April 20, 2018 Permalink 0

TRE Book-a-Month: Unforgettable: The Bold Flavors of Paula Wolfert’s Renegade Life

NOTA: For technical reasons (I am not sure to have WiFi for the next week or so), I have moved the dates to May 10 through May 31. Do you have any particular topics you would like to bring up in the discussions?

Join us in our Facebook group The Rambling Epicure, Mastering the Art of Food Writing, from May 3 to May 17 for the TRE Book-a-Month reading, discussion and, if you like, cookalong, of a biographical cookbook about legendary food authority Paula Wolfert, which includes 50+ recipes, by Emily Keiser Thelin.

“All recipes are, in some way, an exploration of the link between food and memory. We cook the food we remember loving and, in so doing, make new connections and bonds. The amount of love, through food, Paula has given so many over the years makes this biography-cum-cookbook a truly wonderful project. — Yotam Ottolenghi

“Every serious food person knows that Paula Wolfert changed our world, but in this book we learn what a fascinating time she had while she was doing it. Part biography, part cookbook, part history, Unforgettable introduces our greatest cookbook writer to the wider audience she deserves. There has never been a book quite like this one. — Ruth Reichl

“Unforgettable is a brilliant summation of the resilience, exuberance, and expertise that we know and love of Paula Wolfert. — Mario Batali

“We’re all truly indebted to Emily Kaiser Thelin, Eric Wolfinger, Andrea Nguyen, and Toni Tajima for capturing these beautiful, inspiring, and very important memories of Paula’s life and travels. — April Bloomfield

 

“Unforgettable is the story of the exacting, passionate, genuine, driven and indefatigable Paula Wolfert, the ultimate expert on the cooking of the Mediterranean. Emily Kaiser Thelin’s well-written and poignant narrative recounts the tale of this true pioneer of American culinary history. — Jacques Pépin”
 
Excerpts from Goodreads
 

 

 
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