Vastly Entertaining

By McDonagh, Melanie | The Spectator, May 28, 2011 | Go to article overview

Vastly Entertaining


McDonagh, Melanie, The Spectator


It may not be quite true that the next best thing to eating good food is reading about it, but undeniably food writing has its considerable pleasures. You've got it all there: sex and sensuality (the link between the appetites hardly needs spelling out), social history, the loving acquaintance with ingredients . . .

and recipes. The Penguin Great Food series - a selection of 20 delightful, lightweight (we're talking wrist-strain, not subject), prettily jacketed works by the finest food writers - is a feat.

Just selecting 20 authors from the 17th century to now is difficult in itself. Do you go for good prose (Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein's companion, was a hoot as well as a lovely writer), influence (Brillat-Savarin, or Brilliant Savarin, as the homeware chain, Butlers, describes him); historic importance;

famous writers who happened to write about food (Charles Lamb, who didn't so much write about food, as about appetite and addiction) or just admirable recipe compilers?

The answer is, all of the above. The series embraces selections from which you can cook really well (Claudia Roden), authors who provide recipes but are riveting for their historical interest (like Alexis Soyer, the Reform Club chef, who made a culinary contribution to the Crimean war) or authors who have food as an occasional subject matter and aren't actually cooks at all. You'd fare badly if you took Alexandre Dumas's Alphabet for Food Lovers as a guide to making anything (his recipe for English dumplings, say), but it's charming, nonetheless. He acquired notoriety for an early article on bear steak, and here he provides a recipe for bear paws: marinaded, stewed, grilled and finally served with a piquant sauce.

As for Samuel Pepys, he doesn't give a single recipe for anything and some of the extracts from the diaries included here are put in just for the fun of it, like his conversation with some interested matrons about how to solve his childlessness (sage juice was one suggestion). He does give a fascinating insight into the eating and drinking habits of the times, though. God, they bingedrank. And everyday fare was a good deal more extensive than we might think; centuries before the River Cafe Cookbook introduced the middle classes to bottarga, there was Pepys, 'eating botargo and bread and butter until midnight, it being moonshine'.

Gervase Markham, earliest of the authors, may have been a bit of a prig, but he did demonstrate the familiarity of the 17thcentury English cook with what we'd now think of as exotic ingredients. …

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