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Delicacies to savour

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hese beautifully produced little books, comprising extracts from some of the best food and cookery writers (and some, like Samuel Pepys, who are neither, but write about enjoying their food with such gusto that they couldn’t possibly be left out) are an excellent publishing wheeze. Who could fail to be charmed by a slender volume with Charles Lamb’s essay, “A Disquisition on Eating Pig” in it, or a collection of recipes by the late-eighteenth-century Eliza Acton, the first cookery writer, or the delicious, sunshiny salads of Alice Waters, California’s 1980s “food guru”?


Some are more recipe books than food writing, some the other way round. The receipts of William Verrall, the eighteenth-century owner of the White Hart Inn in Lewes, tried to bring fine French cooking to the Sussex Downs. But the really interesting thing about his volume is the inclusion of the scrawled comments by Thomas Gray (of Elegy in a Country Churchyard) that annotated the

poet’s copy of the book – among them a note of how to dress a dish of minnows with cowslips. There are some familiar old favourites:

Pepys burying his Parmesan cheese in the garden to protect it from the Great Fire; and the oddly humourless Alice B. Toklas and her famous recipe for hashish cookies. Some of the volumes here are period pieces – you wouldn’t perhaps want to read them straight through but they do give a flavour of their times. I’d never heard of Dr A.W. Chase, whose writings make up Buffalo Cake and Indian Pudding, but in nineteenth-century America he was a publishing sensation. He travelled around the United States in a covered wagon, selling snake-oil remedies, and along the way collecting household tips and recipes which he compiled into best-selling books. His curiosity (he ponders mightily on why it is that the labourers building the Brooklyn Bridge habitually drink oatmeal with water) and stern advice are infectious. Colonel Wyvern’s 1878 Notes from

Madras is another example of the accidental atmosphere that can be evoked by an otherwise unpromising guide to technicalities. The colonel’s solid instructions to the English newcomer to India on cooking under camp conditions bring a historical moment to brilliant life in a way he could hardly have anticipated. “With a ‘Lang Lamp’ ”, he writes, “you can make a cup of tea or coffee on the train, by the side of the road, on arrival at a public bungalow or under a tree whilst the lascars are pitching your tent: and by its aid, and that of a small frying pan, you can devil a biscuit, fry a rasher, poach an egg, or cook a kidney, to accompany the tea or coffee.” In the best food writing, food itself,

however obsessively it is chronicled, is the starting point for reflections on pretty well everything else. My absolute favourites in this collection are two writers who do this to perfection, both American. The essays of

26 | THE TABLET | 17 September 2011

Detail of Halt on the Chase by Charles-André van Loo (1705-65), 1737, from Food in the Louvre by Paul Bocuse and Yves Pinard (Musée du Louvre

Editions/Flammarion, 80pp, £9.95)

M.F.K. Fisher and Calvin Trillin are masterpieces of those disciplined rambles round big subjects. In 1927, Fisher took a trip on a train with her Uncle Evans. From this, she spun a sparkling disquisition on growing up, on failure, on disappointment and ambition, and learning how to live – kicking off with the words “The test of a good breakfast place is its baked apple.” And I defy you not to read on after this opener: “I once met a young servant in Burgundy who was almost frighteningly fanatical about food.” My other favourite, Calvin Trillin, a New

Yorker writer of the 1980s and 1990s, was new to me and I was delighted to discover him in this bite-sized selection. He’s more of an investigative journalist than Fisher but he is a discreet one, disguising an examination of how fast food franchises are blanding out regional differences, for example, as a discursive roam into the last eateries in Kentucky where you can still sample the state’s famous barbecued mutton. An exploration of the origins of Buffalo fried chicken wings – deliciously fatty and ubiquitous, spicy, moreish finger food served with blue-cheese dipping sauce – becomes, along the way, a look at America’s tendency to confer an overnight national mythology on popular cultural phenomena – even when, as in the case of Buffalo wings, they date as far back into the mists of time as 1978. Trillin is no food snob – far from it. He tries just about everything: swamp cabbage and gator tail on one occasion, and on another, wonderfully, Cajun boudin, “a soft, spicy mixture of rice and pork and liver and seasoning which is squeezed hot into the mouth from a sausage casing, usually in the parking lot of a grocery store and preferably when leaning against a pick-up”. There’ll be something in this collection

for anyone you can think of. I can’t wait for the next lot. Lucy Lethbridge

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