Thursday, August 2, 2007

The apple, the bee, and me (An introduction)

Let me explain how this plan came about.

I'm a fiend for anthologies (welcome to the confessions of a former English student), love cookbooks as much as the next (but considerably less than some -- from what I've heard, we're talking postage stamp collection-level obsession), and enjoy the sort of all-day cooking challenges that climax with six pots competing for a four-burner stove, flour gracelessly clumping in hair, and plenty of “ooh'ing” and “ahh'ing” guests who will pretend to buy my pseudo-modest cries of "Oh, it was nothing, really."

And so when I brought home a copy of American Food Writing: An Anthology with Classic Recipes, edited by Molly O'Neill and published in March, I brimmed with the excitement of a new crush.

It’s like Ms. O'Neill had written me a 5-pound love letter. It has it all: beautifully printed old (and new) recipes as comforting to simply pore over as a Little House on the Prairie-inspired cookbook I had as a child, a clever gingham and half-sleeve cover design that reminds us of the sweet old Gran we never had, flawless food writing from all the greats of the genre, a few literary nods (a poem from Virginia, musings on soul food from Langston), and even a few pages of David Sedaris.

Seriously, Ms. O'Neill: if you're asking, the answer is yes.

What intrigues me most about the book are the recipes. The dear ol' thing begins with a how-to on ice cream from Mr. Thomas Jefferson (yeah, that one), plunges ahead to the foodstuffs of a pioneering nation (when ovens were "good and hot," not 425 degrees Fahrenheit ), and meanders through the days of milk, honey, and plenty of both.

A recipe for apple butter begins with an "apple bee" when neighbors from nearby farms get together for a day of peelin' and corin' and the hardest-working bachelor gets first dibs on a dance-partner when the mess is cleared, the sun dips low, and the fiddles made to sing.

There are reminders, too, of sparser times: a 1924 recipe for "Nut Loaf" serves ten and is recommended as a "meat substitute." Reading the recipes, I felt a connection to the past that I've never gotten in a history class.

I started making lists of the recipes I wanted to try and it quickly became clear that I wanted to cook all of them, except the ones that seemed impossibly intimidating: all-day affairs that assume one has access to bushels of tomatoes, a wood-burning stove, and even an “Indian guide.”

And then it came to me: what I had before me was a challenge handed down to me by ancestors (not necessarily my own) through the hands of Ms. O’Neill.

A challenge I have accepted.


GenaBoBeana said...

WOW THIS IS AWESOME!! A great mix between your two favorite things, (cooking and writing) a "subscriber" for sure! Nora, I am so proud to see you with these ambitions. Who knows, maybe when this is over, you'll be our VERY OWN food writer!?!?! Lets hope so. But Lets Not Jinx Ourselves!!!! (Hahahahaaha!) Darling, I'm going to say this simply; YOU GO GURLLLLL!! historical cooking TO DA MAXX!!! Just kidding, but for seriously, props this is a GREAT TOPIC and stuff!!!


Anonymous said...

hi nora, could you comment something on the chapter corresponding to herman melville and his clam chowder?

Happiness for your wonderful blog.