A Nibble Of History

These cookbooks offer a casserole of intriguing recipes and compelling history.
We foodies who are inclined to guilt pangs occasionally temper our cookbook obsessions by expanding our spheres of interest (in addition to our waist lines). One way to do so, I've found, is to claim that one is doing historical research, rather than simply pigging out.

I used that excuse, for instance, when I bought A Mediterranean Feast--even though the title was a dead giveaway. It's subtitled "the story of the birth of the celebrated cuisines of the Mediterranean, from the Merchants of Venice to the Barbary Corsairs, with more than 500 recipes" (William Morrow, 1999, Clifford A. Wright, $35). I tell myself I'm learning valuable information about the role of the eggplant in Italian cuisine, the first reference to foods cooked au gratin (Provence in the 1600s, in case you were wondering), and the culinary history of Morocco's famous pigeon pie. The fact that the book has the best recipe I've found for baba ganouj (an eggplant-tahini dip) is purely coincidental.

The history is a bit more heavy-handed in A Drizzle Of Honey: The Lives And Recipes Of Spain's Secret Jews (St. Martin's Press, 1999, David Gitlitz and Linda Kay Davidson, $19.95). A more descriptive title might be "favorite recipes of the Inquisition," but I suppose the book wouldn't have sold as well. Here's the hook: the authors examined testimony against people accused of being "secret Jews" in the years after their 1492 expulsion from Spain. Because dietary habits were a key clue (such as eating chicken during Lent and avoiding pork), there's plenty of trial evidence that sounds remarkably like cooking instructions. "Chicken stewed with dried fruits" does sound tasty, even if the original cook was burned at the stake for eating it. The book has real historical importance, because it records what "ordinary" people ate during a time when the only extant cookbooks were for royalty. (Still, I can't bring myself to cook any of the recipes.)

At the other extreme is The Gallery Of Regrettable Food (Crown, 2001, James Lileks, $22.95), which examines the brand-name cookbooks published during the 1940s and 1950s by such outfits as Heinz, the North Dakota State Durum Wheat Commission, and Spry vegetable shortening. (Just how regrettable are these recipes? Ketchup-Pistachio Cake. I rest my case.) The entire book is available online, but I don't regret the cash purchase. This is bathroom reading at its finest. Describing a photo of "Jose Sturbi's Spanish Steak," the author comments, "This is some of the most tortured, attenuated garnish a steak has ever had; it looks as if El Greco had attempted to paint the mask from the Scream movies."

My plan might have backfired. I've found that instead of controlling my cookbook habit, the "history" angle is just extending it. I've found myself fondling The History Of Food in a bookstore, and Loyal Readers will have already discovered me lurking too-innocently next to Wine And War. But I can quit any time I want to. Honest.

Esther Schindler is InformationWeek's site editor, and she stopped counting the cookbook collection after it exceeded 120 volumes. Meet her in the Water Cooler if you want to feed her habit.

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