Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Classic Cookbook Review--Honey from a Weed

I'm constantly reading reviews of the latest and the greatest cookbooks on various blogs and foodie sites, but no one seems to be paying much attention to the old classics. That's too bad, because there are just hundreds of great old cookbooks rattling around out there at used book stores (both brick and mortar and online), and you can stock up on wonderful food writing for three, four, and five bucks a shot. Don't wait for re-issues. Go back to the originals. They're great.

Anyway, that's a brief intro and justification for a series of posts I'm going to dedicate to reviewing classic old (call'em vintage, even) cookbooks in my collection. I had a serious used-bookstore addiction during my line cook days and, much to my wife's chagrin, my books got shuttled around in boxes for a while until we had enough shelf space to accommodate them.

Some are classic, in the true old-school French sense, some are funny in the 60's-70's what-were-they-thinking sense, and some are just as on point and topical today as they were when they were written. This review falls into that latter category.


Honey from a Weed; Fasting and Feasting in Tuscany, Catalonia, The Cyclades, and Apulia, by Patience Gray.

This book was originally published in 1986, and it details twenty years of the author's life that she spent living in various locales while accompanying her sculptor husband as he went to work where he could find certain stones; "It is of course entirely owing to the Sculptor's appetite for marble and stone," she writes, "that this work came into existence in the first place, and that I am held in the mysterious grip of olive, lentisk, fig, and vine".

Gray is British and the book chronicles her experiences eating and cooking while mostly living in very rustic areas during the 60's and 70's, far from any sign of tourism or modernity. She often cooks over open fire, without the benefit of refrigeration, and describes some very challenging situations. The food, therefore, is rustic. It's the everyday fare of the peasants, farmers, fishermen, and others who she encounters, and, for this reason, the book is not only a cookbook, but a reminiscence of the people she meets and gets to know and, even more, for their lifestyle, which, even 30-40 years ago, Gray was insightful enough to recognize was in danger of being forgotten as more and more harbingers of modern, industrial life crept in.

Poverty rather than wealth gives the good things of life their true significance. Home-made bread rubbed with garlic and sprinkled with olive oil, shared--with a flask of wine--between working people, can be more convivial than any feast. My ambition in drawing in the background to what is being cooked is to restore the meaning. I also celebrate the limestone wilderness.
If I stress the rustic source of culinary inspiration, it is not in opposition to the scientific...
In my experience it is the countryman who is the real gourmet and for good reason; it is he who has cultivated, raised, hunted, or fished the raw materials and has made the wine himself. The preoccupation of his wife is to do justice to his labours and bring the outcome triumphantly to table. In this an emotional element is involved. Perhaps this very old approach is beginning to once again inspire those who cook in more urban situations.
In my view it was not necessarily the chefs of prelates and princes who invented dishes. Country people and fishermen created them, great chefs refined them and wrote them down.

This book is way ahead of its time. Gray presages recent trends of nose-to-tail eating, eating seasonally, foraging, all-things-pork, local eating, and canning/preserving. Of course, that's because these "trends" aren't really new or trendy at all, but are simply an indication that within our modern urban enclaves, we've become so removed from these centuries-old building blocks of cuisines, that the re-introduction of them by current chefs within the context of contemporary restaurants appears novel.

It's a painstakingly thorough book as well. There are ten or twelve chapters dedicated to specific dishes or foodstuffs ("Beans, Peas, and Rustic Soups", "Edible Weeds", "La Polenta"), but there are also chapters that focus on equipment ("Pots and Pans") or techniques ("Chopping and Pounding"). There's also a massive bibliography and a great cross-referenced index. There's a ton of information here.

And it's good stuff, but the real lure is Gray's celebratory prose, which really serves to get at the root of these cuisines, to allow the reader to understand terms like cacciatora and marinara in terms of where they came from, and how the dish evolved directly from what the people who prepared it were doing all day. Classic French provincial cuisine, Tuscan cooking, Catalan cuisine--these traditions all came directly from centuries of people living and working in these regions, and Gray lived and worked among them.

The princely life of the Mantuans has been obliterated by time, malaria, and the Austrian occupation, leaving only its shell. Oblivious to this, farmers from the countryside come into town and are found imbibing a dense bean soup at ten in the morning in the trattorie underneath the arcades of the Palazzo della Ragione which towers over the marketplace.
The shops are stuffed with gigantic hams; every kind of smoked and fresh sausage; coppa, smoked loin of pork in the form of a large sausage closely bound with string; bondiola, a smoked boiling sausage round in shape; musetti con lingua, made from pig's snout and tongue; lardo, salted pig's fat cut from its rump; capelli dei preti also called
triangoli, small triangles of stitched pork skin stuffed with sausage meat, then smoked, for boiling; and nuggets of smoked pork strung together to be flung into the soup.
In agricultural areas where communications are spasmodic, the pig figures as the winter saviour of mankind. Its products can be kept at hand without deterioration, and, if not of domestic manufacture, can be acquired on weekly trips to town.
The fact that pork is indigestible gives a greater significance here to game in autumn. It also throws vegetables into a relief, the green leafy ones, spinach, spinach beet, cicoria 'Catalogna'; the astringent artichoke and cardoon; and most particularly, those root vegetables whose virtue lies in a certain bitterness--root chicory, salsify, scorzonera, and black radishes. All are ritually prepared to offset the ill effects of the delicious products of the pig. One can cultivate a better acquaintance with these roots by growing them.

At its heart, this book is more a monument to a more simple lifestyle than it is a condemnation of our current-day lives of everything-all-the-time excess. But as someone living in a large city, eating in ever more impressive restaurants, and especially with the advent of the internet broadcasting (and selling) the biggest and best of everything 24/7, it's hard to read about these simple rustic ways and not come to wonder if this sort of excess (and excess to the point that we've become blase about it) isn't detrimental to our physical and mental well-being.

She touches on this phenomenon as well, which, even then had begun to rear it's modern head, alluding to the recent trend of looking at stare bene--the concept of living well--as being more tied to income than quality of life, and noting with wonder the availability of out of season vegetables and "industrially reconstituted protein", relegating them to the stuff of Marie Antoinette-level luxuries.

And, as in much of the book, she manages to distill this idea down to one pithy local saying. In the midst of her "parting salvo" about the current and future state of food, Gray describes an anecdote about what people who come to Spigolizzi in the summer can be heard to exclaim:

'Qui c'e un vero paradiso' (Here is a real paradise) and the locals reply 'Ma l'inferno purtroppo e tanto piu comodo!' (Yes, but Hell is so much more convenient!)

Patience Gray died in 2005, but she left behind an amazing and timeless memoir, cookbook, and treatise on food in the form of Honey from a Weed. Buy it instead of that Rachel Ray book you might impulsively grab the next time you're at the bookstore.

No comments: