“One evening in the late summer of 2007, and probably a Sunday, I found myself rummaging around in the salad drawer of my fridge.”
I AM alarmed to see the historian Simon Schama pronouncing on the new reprint of MFK Fisher’s whimsical Consider the Oyster. She is, he says, the greatest food writer who has ever lived. Wow a GFWWHEL! Where I might accept Simon’s opinions on Jewish scriptures or an old Dutch master or a pyramid even, I am not too sure about cookery. Cookery, Simon? Simon? Ms Fisher? The greatest?
What about Eliza Acton who locked herself away for 10 years testing recipes for her Modern Cookery published in 1845 and which was later largely plundered by the ubiquitous and unscrupulous publishers of Mrs Beeton? Or the charming Virginia Housewife by the former society boarding house madam Mary Randolph published in 1824? Or Alexandre Dumas, son of a slave, better known for his Three Musketeers but who regarded his own Dictionary of Gastronomy as his finest work. I could go to Italy for Ada Bono. Or any number of candidates in France all of which were written before Ms Fisher’s (Mary Frances Kennedy, as you ask, usually Mary) work. There are others, these just come to mind. And after her there is Elizabeth David of course, the earlier writings of Jane Grigson…
I have even written (yes me) a better book about oysters than MFK. The difference is that mine is about oysters, hers is about a rich American socialite and her acquaintances and a celebrity gush. Her appeal is a lifestyle of trips to Europe, writing gags for Hollywood, restaurant reviews for the New Yorker and more than one or two affairs…in essence it is more about Considering a rather privileged Mary, than so many bivalves.
Also reissued this Christmas is Simon Hopkinson’s the Vegetarian Option first published in 2009, now in an elegant two colours (green, obviously). Side by side it is a bit of a no contest. Hopkinson’s writing sometimes packs more punch than his own cooking. He has some other suggestions for a GFWWHEL. He gives us Paul Bocuse’s squash soup cooked in the shell with cream and gruyere and croutons, Marc Meneau’s vegetable broth slow cooked in a glass jar. He mentions Quentin Crewe and Anthony Blake, and credits Bruce Cost. And Richard Olney. And Constance Spry etc
Like Fisher, Hopkinson is unembarrassed by his enthusiasms:
“Does not this recipe qualify as one of the most simple and delicious in this book? – well delicious in anyone’s book come to that. The secret of course is its simplicity together with the sheer beauty of the thing, once carefully assembled”.
We are talking about blood orange and white onion salad.
Hopkinson has the edge over Fisher for my money in that he also has the recipes, his quest is for a gastronomic understanding. Fisher is unusually good about herself, good fun as she is, a sort of gastro Dorothy Parker (who was more interested in drinking).
Hopkinson on the other hand can give you a recipe for artichoke soup with black truffles. And also his mother’s cauliflower cheese recipe. And her leek and cheese pie. What comes across most in his book are his Lancashire roots, so French beans are essentially given two quite different treatments at the same time – with shallots and vinaigrette, so far so French, but then diluted with Anglo, whipping cream and chopped parsley. It is not that you need to know how to cook to use this book, just perhaps if you cook well you will appreciate the subtleties like that. And when we get to peas, a la francaise, mon dieu, the instruction is one hour in the oven…tres norf country. He has leanings towards malt vinegar and even here and there are parsimonious additions of a couple of tablespoons of water in his sauces.
The Fisher oyster book also gets a puff from from Felicity Cloake who also has her own book out – Completely Perfect (Penguin) – where she patiently tests 120 popular dishes for her Guardian column – which might – like Hopkinson’s – hang around your kitchen shelves rather longer. Both might be commendable Christmas presents.
Apart from a few notable exceptions reading old cookery books for me largely just shows how good the modern writers are and why the food back in the day was so awful. The watershed perhaps, at least for me, was 1981 with the publication of John Tovey’s Feast of Vegetables, another candidate for a GFWWHEL (a mentor to Delia Smith) although he was more cook and showman than wordsmith, which is often a divide.
Behind the scenes, Oyster is a re-issue from DB, better known as Daunt Books, the travel bookshop who have started their own list of old, presumably out of copyright, texts. The bookshop subsumes author, agent, publisher and incorporates all the benefits in itself which seems morally, creatively and intellectually moribund.
Recipe writing sadly is no stranger to such practices. Isabella Beeton in fact died aged 28, hardly old enough to have acquired the knowledge attributed to her between four unhappy pregnancies in four years. On her death her husband Samuel carelessly signed over the copyright to the publishers Ward Lock who maintained the fiction that she was still alive and writing recipes. The book is still in currency and the profits still roll into Hachette.