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The Ways of an Old Cookbook

I spent most of my childhood in my grandmother’s house, where one of my favorite things to do was to browse through her collection of cookbooks. The Good Cook series, published between 1978-1980 by Time-Life Books, is a treasury of techniques and recipes, covering everything from hors d’oeuvres, pasta, fish, meat and dessert. My grandmother owned about ten of these books. They’ve been damaged by a horrible flood, some beyond repair, yet I cling to them because of her, and out of nostalgia for what it really means to be a cook.

I have three books for safekeeping: Pork, Eggs and Cheese, and Cakes. Salads, and Preserving were my least favorite ones, but people change, and now I hope those two are still in my parents’ house.

The books are extensive on each subject, and talk at length about the origins of ingredients and techniques. The books I have delve on unexpected stuffings, the importance of basting, and preparing a crown of loin at home. There are guides to pork cuts, soft and hard cheese, how-tos for cooking pork with sauerkraut, pastry doughs, cake decorating basics, strudel, and even, “how to deal with a suckling pig”.

Eggs and Cheese talks about aspic (poached eggs in an “amber” jelly) in a way that foodies would eat up, describing it as a trembling jelly moist enough to melt on the tongue.

Here’s the preparation of a pear tart.

There are phrases like: A tiered assemblage (meaning, a cake). But it makes up for all this seriousness with lots of photos. Some have a beautiful moodiness that is ahead of its time, but most are simple, with just the food, a copper pan, a knife, a chopping board, and the seasoned hand of the cook.

Each book has an anthology of recipes from the likes of 18th-century cookbook writer Hannah Glasse, Dorothy Hartley, the famous Troisgros brothers, and Jacques Pepin. But there are also recipes like the humble Adobo from the Philippines in page 128 of Pork that is spot on. Sausages in a bed of batter (Jamon is begging me to make this).

And endless tips. Here are a few:

Serving pork: “However you choose to serve the meat, you should give some thought also to what you will drink with it.”

Making stock: “The stock should simmer for at least 3 hours, to draw out all the flavour of its ingredients.”

Meat for grilling: “Young, tender-fleshed meat is the most appropriate choice for successful grilling or roasting.”

Meal planning: “Extended by some starchy element, a modest amount of pork can become a generous family meal.”

Tarts: Don’t be limited by your baking pans. “You can create a free-form tart as small as you wish or as large as your oven will hold.”

The perfect rolled-omelet: “Beating is best done immediately before cooking; if you set the beaten eggs aside they will separate and you may have to beat them again.”

Storing cheese: Always keep cheese wrapped in their wrapper or aluminum foil in the refrigerator to avoid them drying out.

Serving cheese: “For a full range of choice, combine a semi-hard cooked cheese such as cheddar, Cantal or Gruyere, a blue cheese, a goat cheese, a very soft fresh cheese, and a semi-soft cheese of the Camembert variety.”

On fresh eggs: A new laid egg placed in water “sinks and lies flat on the bottom”, while 2-3 week old egg will “stand upright in the water.”

A soggy pie base: You can scatter bread or cake crumbs over the dough, brush a film of egg whites there, but the most effective method is to “pre-bake the case before it is filled.”

I love these books because they embody the essence of being a cook, and hark back to the time when cooking was not a hobby, but a way of life. You didn’t have to be a chef to have such a wealth of culinary wisdom and expertise. The same things were expected of the home cook.

No matter how simple your food or how small your kitchen, cooking should be the way it was: a treasured, fervent occupation from which joy emanated. The kind of joy that spills over to our tables, where we should gather, unhurriedly, at least once a day, to enjoy a lovingly-prepared meal.

I will be scanning the books I have for further safekeeping, and working on my “assemblage”. Also, I don’t believe there are many of these books left in the world, so you might want to check them out here.

And thanks for reading!

*first photo by Ina Amor Mejia

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  1. When you come back to the old hometown, come by and browse through our massive collection. You will be enthralled with the humor and wisdom of those that wrote the different tomes of cookery.

    I also see an inverse correlation between the quality of literacy and the imagery.

    March 9, 2015

  2. Tito, you owe me that sweet n sour sauce!

    March 9, 2015

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