This is the end of an era my friend, only rare people buy rare books. Woody Allen, Fading Gigilo
There is a stack of books in my study catalogued as “books that I want to read.” This stack of books has existed as long as I can remember – as a young girl it was a mental list – over time, the stack of books has steadily increased. After all , the more we read, the more we want to read; the older we become, the more books we collect. I refuse to shelve books that I have not read; so I have resorted to different stacks – fiction and nonfiction for instance. One stack next to the bed, another in the kitchen . . . the neat stacks have grown into piles of books. You see, last year, most of my reading was devoted to rather feeble attempts to understand internet publishing. As the stacks grew, so did my longing to linger with a book. At long last, I have taken the time to rest, relax and read. One of the first books that captured my attention was The Margaret Tarrant Christmas Book. I surmised that I would quickly go through the illustrated treasure and then properly shelve it with Christmas Books. But then I stumbled upon a poem titled, Immanence by Evelyn Underhill. I was taken aback – and then way back to an undergraduate research project on mysticism. You might say, that Evelyn Underhill wrote THE book on mysticism.
More than any other time of the year, this is the time when we throw open our doors to welcome friends and family . . . with cookies, spirits and other fancies. This generosity of spirit is the very essence of the yuletide season. The traditions of Christmas have changed over time, ever since young men and women left their village to marry.
Celebrating Christmas as a new bride, I was surprised that we did not share the same rituals. For example, the tree. In his family, the tree was decorated on Christmas Eve, none of the children participated in trimming the tree. Late on Christmas Eve, the children came down the stairs to see the spectacular sight – a tree aglow wit candlelight. And it is true, there is nothing quite like seeing a Christmas tree lit only with candles. It is soft and ethereal. But . .
There are books and then, there are covers or dust jackets for hardbound books.
I recently came across quite a few books published in the late 1940s with dust jackets intact. They are intriguing, interesting and nice to behold. Can we judge a book by its cover, maybe not. But we can quickly get an idea about the book. . . . see what you think. How much do we know judging from the covers?
Lately, I have wondered about the life of a miner. This comes as no surprise since Putnam and Speedwell occupies a house that was once a home for a miner and his family at Eclipse Company Town. The houses are cute; but they are small, it seems to me, for a family. I wonder about life without privacy and shared beds, even though I understand that family life was different for most of history. Thinking about the holidays has fueled my curiosity. My first stop on this journey was A Christmas Carol.
The classic work by Charles Dickens still stirs emotion if not a few tears. The meaning of life is revealed to Scrooge in a series of glimpses into the lives of other people who do not possess his great wealth but enjoy happiness surrounded by family and friends. The miner’s camp is one of the scenes, they are gathered together enjoying the Christmas festivities. The importance of the gathering is the sense of community shared by these men who “labour in the bowels of the earth.” As Dickens wrote, “So surely as they raised their voices, the old man got quite blithe and loud; and so surely as they stopped, his vigour sank again.” The old man was sustained by the camaraderie in the coal town – as were other miners across the globe.
Many early academics and government officials missed the sense of community. Their studies stressed the squalor and poor health among the miners, while recent research and personal accounts emphasize that life in a coal camp “was not always drab” but rather “it could be fun.” (1) Elizabeth Ferguson Brown writes that, “The brightness of these homes comes from within.”(2)
I must admit that I had accepted the dismal portraits of coal mine towns and missed the light that comes form within. Along with Scrooge, I recognized the generosity of spirit in the faces of miners and their families. The miner’s house that we occupy as tenants is not the same place; but, we will do our best to let the light shine – especially for the Holidays. Let the merriment begin!
A Christmas Carol, Stave 3: The Second of the Three Spirits
Easter Morning. After a long winter, it feels like spring. The sky is
blue bright blue. The birds are back – even a heron – and they are happy because the cat is very busy with her new brood. There is an Easter Egg hunt going on at the neighbor’s pond down the road. The children are squealing with delight as they find the colored eggs.
Easter Eggs are pretty, but I have always wondered how safe it is to eat a blue egg* . . . they don’t even look appealing, tongue in cheek, after they are pealed. So, in the last few years, I have tried natural dyes. The results are quite nice!
What is more, this year, with my new cache of old cookbooks, I researched recipes for the ever humble hard boiled egg. Truly, hard boiled eggs are almost a perfect food – they are easy and fast to prepare, they travel well and they are nutritious. But, a little bland so I add salt. The question is, what to do with an abundance of hard boiled eggs? Like after Easter. There will be a lot of egg salad sandwiches this week in lunch boxes! Today, in our house, we will devour deviled eggs . . . . the quest of my search.
Let me also explain that I have used the same deviled egg recipe for forty years! Everyone likes them, busy with children and life, I just never really looked at others! My standard recipe “Dill-Deviled Eggs” is in Anna Thomas, The Vegetarian Epicure. But I adapted some other ideas that Thomas wrote about in The Vegetarian Epicure, Book Two. Instead of Mayonnaise which overpowers the egg, in my opinion, I use sour cream and then it all depends – dill, parsley, green onion chopped very fine – on the pantry.
I was surprised to learn that the earliest recipes called for ground meat and yolk mashed together. Later, ca. 1940s, I found mayonnaise used as a binder. The most unusual treatment for hard boiled eggs that I found was In The Escoffier Cook Book (1941). There are eggs with tripe, mushrooms, wrapped with pastry, fried and smothered with sauce anglaise or béchamel, treated with artichoke bottoms, foie gras. Who knew?
At the end of my reading, I have absolutely decided to stay with my time-tested, simple recipe for our Easter Feast!
Happy Easter! Happy Spring! I love this time of year!
Cook Books Consulted:
- Rumford Complete Cook Book (1946)
- The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook (1918)
- The Escoffier Cook Book (1941)
- The Betty Furness Westinghouse Cook Book (1954)
* They, in this case, are those who pronounce food dye as safe for coloring eggs.
I grew up in a city but we had a garden. Next to our garage, there was a five foot wide strip of land. My father planted tomatoes and lettuce – maybe there were other things like peppers. But tomatoes grew there abundantly. The very best tomatoes cannot be had at a grocery store – at least not the grocery stores that I remember. My Dad was the original Yoda but, rather than riddles he offered guidance in the form of brief statements that had the force of incontrovertible truths. And this was one of those truths: You can’t buy good tomatoes in a grocery store.
The other great small garden that I knew well belonged to my grandmother. She grew tomatoes and strawberries. As if it were yesterday, I remember hulling the berries at the kitchen sink. Of course, as in any really good memory, there was sun streaming in the window. She never really talked a lot so we worked in silence until the bowl was full.
In those small garden plots, gardening became a part of the life. You might even say that gardening was woven into the everyday of living as a warp thread. No matter how small that spot, something good will grow.
How I Became a Compulsive Gardener
I was a small time gardener until I started writing a dissertation and finally had a large spot to grow things. The garden spot was on a steep slope in the hills. Rocky. Steep. Impossible clay soil. It was a slow going. I started with a compost bin which was absolutely necessary to enrich the spoil. The compost bin was located on that steep slope. The second time that I slipped and fell on my way to that bin, I decided I needed to make some steps. It took awhile but I finally figured out how to build steps – one step at a time!
Ultimately, the building of the steps taught me how to write a dissertation – As I would take my shovel and dig into that hard clay, I understood that as in everything we do in life, it is one shovelful of clay, one step or one paragraph. By the time the dissertation was complete, the steps were complete and the garden was well on its way!
As the garden grew, I found that I had more and more ideas that required a much larger knowledge base than I learned in the city. Seed catalogs and gardening books provided inspiration for me – as they have since the very first printing of drawing of a garden. Medieval Health Guides included illustrations of plants in gardens – many of these are now online like this illustration of sage.
This week we added many new titles to our ever increasing collection of gardening books with books from a garden club in Worthington! They are readily identified by the bookplate – flowers of course! The best news is that our price for most of our books is well below the cost of a new paperback. One of our new finds is very hard to put down because of the format – questions and answers that are organized so well that the book flows. . .
F. F. Rockwell, 10,000 Garden Questions. Answered by Experts. (Doubleday, 1944, revised 1959). I appreciate the title – it is accurately descriptive! Weighing in at a hefty 1390 pages, the coverage is encyclopedic. Even though there is only a brief article on organic gardening, there is a wealth of information, so it is a good place to look when you have a question.
Speaking of organic, we have many books, both vintage and recent about organic gardening published by Rodale Press.
One of my favorite gardening books is The Landscape Gardening Book by Grace Tabor (1911). She begins this beautiful book with “Gardens do not happen. A Garden is as much the expression of an idea as a poem, or a symphony . . . But ordinarily we fail to recognize this until the actual work of evolving a garden lies before us.” Soon after I built my first few steps, I realized that the most important element in the garden is structure that is guided by our plot of earth. The biggest strength of this book comes from her idea that every garden, no matter how small, needs a place for us to rest, to sit, to meditate . . . as she writes, there is a spirit in the garden. This is truly a lovely book!
More later . . . I can no longer ignore the laundry. It evolves.
I am a historian and so, I truly understand that the internet is the greatest tool for any kind of research – including recipes. I was delighted to actually find a recipe for authentic Italian Roast Beef á la Marnell’s (Chicago Heights, Illinois). Italian Roast Beef is such an extraordinary culinary treat that an Italian grocer in Little Italy (Cleveland) had tears in his eyes when he informed me that it was no longer imported in Cleveland! (If you have more information, please let me know, instantly). So, I began to look for recipes on the net – and I found one! As it turns out, the secret ingredient is Juniper Berries and the slow cooking. It was marvelous. A few years later, I found the recipe for a Italian Cassata that approached the birthday cakes from the Italian Bakery from my old neighborhood.
BUT, to learn technique or to really gather information about cooking; a book is still the best. And it is true, many recipes from the standard cookbooks are still not available on the internet even though they are close or maybe “improved.” AND most importantly, it is still much more comforting to curl up with a good book. If I am in cooking slump, I cannot but help get inspired – and before I know it, there I am in the kitchen with flour flying and dishes piled high. The aroma of fresh baked bread cures all ailments especially the doldrums of a winter that just won’t end!
But first I will warn you of my bias reflected in my collection (covered with chocolate, olive oil and lacking covers after years of use!) that includes the books that have become our family classics. The list of Shearer Classics includes (in no particular order):
- Anna Thomas, Vegetarian Epicure, Volumes 1 and 2
- Alan Hooker, Vegetarian Gourmet Cookery (1972)
- Barbara Friedlander, Earth Wind Fire Air (1972)
- Julia Child, Mastering the Art of French Cooking and The Way to Cook
- The Joy of Cooking
- The Silver Palette, Volumes 1 and 2
One Shearer Classic dinner is Cheese and Potato Pie with a salad. It is simple and satisfying. We had six children and a busy busy schedule so fast and easy was very important some nights.
This recipe is from Earth Wind Fire Air.
- 4 Idaho potatoes (peeled and cut in fourths)
- 1/2 cup cream
- 3 tbsp butter
- 1 egg, separated
- 1/2 cup chopped parsley (fresh)
- salt, pepper (we liked to add garlic)
- 1/2 cup bread crumbs (seasoned or not)
- 1/2 pound mozzarella, cut in slices
- 1/2 cup parmesan
- Preheat Oven to 375 degrees.
- Boil potatoes, drain and mash with cream and butter.
- Beat egg yolk and mix with potato mixture.
- Whip egg white stiff with pinch of salt then add to potatoes.
- Butter pie plate and sprinkle with bread crumbs. Layer potato mixture and mozzarella starting with potatoes.
- Top with parmesan and dot with butter.
- Bake for 45 minutes until top is golden and a little puffy.
I always wonder how something so simple can taste so good – so good that our children have added this to their own repertoires!
Back to new books and inspiration.
James Beard’s Theory and Practice of Good Cooking, Outlet, 1990.
This reprint of the “got to” book for many cooks retains all of the information from the first printing. There is a compendium at the end that includes useful terms and basic information. There are line drawings throughout to illustrate method that are useful. The collection of recipes reflects the Beard’s taste and style as always – eclectic and varied as is American Cuisine.
More new books: Mark Bittman, Fannie Farmer (1996 reprint), The Romagnoli’s Table, Jeni Wright and Le Cordon Bleu Classics.
From the Amy Vanderbuilt Series, “Success Program for Women” Serving Food Attractively (Doubleday, 1966).
History is interesting . . . a look at style . . . like sprinkling paprika on cottage cheese . . . and parsley on your plate.
This copy is signed by Amy Vanderbilt – in red ink!
PS In da heights, there is still a Marnell’s but it is not the same – new owners and new menus. Alas, the Italian Roast Beef served there as of five years ago was only an imitation. Little did I know that the Italian Roast Beef Sandwich is such an art form that it has merited a food blog! Not surprisingly, the writer shared my sentiments.