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October 02, 2006

Cucumber Anchovy Casserole

It is always dangerous for me to open The Joy of Cooking, because its rhapsodic prose and upsetting recipes tend to suck me in and drag me perilously close to the twin shoals of (1) not getting anything else done, and (2) making Emergency Fish Cakes or Braised Heart Slices In Sour Sauce out of sheer horrified delight. This is far more true of the 1975 printing I own, in which little appears to have been altered from the original 1931 cookbook; while I also own the pertly updated 1997 version and am actually able to adapt vegan recipes out of it, itâs just not as good reading.

This is due in part to the fact that the new version, while expanded, updated for the real world of the late 20th- and 21st centuries, and aware of the existence of nutrients, has sacrificed the old editionâs most charming feature: a reverent, ecstatic, transcendental, and often downright authoritarian approach to food, all of which is then put into the service of doing unspeakable things to items many of which I will only consider food for the sake of argument, and then with a good deal of bemusement. The new version will merely tell you how best to choose and wash a leek, and with what flavors it might best be paired. The 1931 book wisely skips over such prosaic concerns, instead sighing: âHow we wish that leeks were as common here as in France, where they are known, all too modestly, as the âasparagus of the poor.â This comparison exalts both the leek and the asparagus, which, we are assured, âhas a distinctive succulence all its own.â

Compare with Proust, from the âCombrayâ section of A la recherche du temps perdu:
â...But what most enraptured me were the asparagus, tinged with ultramarine and pink which shaded off from their heads, finely stippled in mauve and azure, through a series of imperceptible gradations to their white feet â still stained a little by the soil of their garden-bed â with an iridescence that was not of this world. I felt that these celestial hues indicated the presence of exquisite creatures who had been pleased to assume vegetable form and who, through the disguise of their firm, comestible flesh, allowed me to discern in this radiance of early dawn, these hinted rainbows, these blue evening shades, that precious quality which I should recognize again when, all night long after a dinner at which I had partaken of them, they played (lyrical and coarse in their jesting as the fairies in Shakespeareâs Dream) at transforming my chamber pot into a vase of aromatic perfume.â Granted, he goes on longer than they do, but only because The Joy of Cooking would never mention pee.

The old Joy of Cooking also, having been written in 1931, assumes many things of the cook which are not wholly true of me but which I find delightfully quaint. For one thing, that I believe vegetables to be poisonous until they are safely deep-fried or suspended in aspic. For another, that I make a fruit pie every morning and consider a flaky crust the easiest thing to roll out before dawn. And for yet another, that when I obtain my lambs from the butcher or the pasture, they still have their hooves on. That last assumption turned out to be of great use when my college roommate and I found ourselves routinely needing to belt down a good quantity of whiskey and haul The Joy of Cooking into the backyard for the purpose of skinning and burying a large number of domestic and wild animals for future paleontology projects.

I was merely looking for a particular cabbage recipe â a damning confession, I know â when I stumbled upon a recipe for cockscombs, which I can only assume refers to those things on roostersâ heads. If I were so inclined, I would now know how to blanch an unspecified number of cockscombs, peel them, steam them lightly moistened with stock, slit them, stuff them with Chicken Farce, and dip them in Allemande Sauce and crumbs and deep fry them. The skeptic may not be easily distracted by amusingly named stuffings, sauces and the ubiquitous deep-fry, and demand to know why one would want to do such a thing, but The Joy of Cooking is ready for you. Because these have been used since the time of Apicius as a garnish for chicken dishes, thatâs why.

Or, consider this, from the introduction to the chapter âCereals and Pastasâ:
âOn a train trip from Palermo to Syracuse, a stranger leaned toward us to say in the most casual tones that this was the field from which Pluto abducted Proserpina and rushed her to his dark abode. True or false, this brought to mind the lamentations of her mother, Ceres, and the surprises in store for her should she survey her domain today. She might rightly mourn that her noble way of grinding grain between stones is scorned, and, instead, grains divested of their rich germs are mercilessly swirled and crushed between high-speed hot rollers. But she might rejoice in some of the new higher protein hybrids, [page] 4...There are some recent discoveries in cereal research, both in plant breeding and in the combining of cereals when serving, that we cannot help but feel are hopeful for manâs future.â

My god! I have to admit that I myself am a scorner of cereals, at least in breakfast form. But after reading such a meditation (thatâs only about a third of it), who could remain unmoved, refusing to do oneâs bit to fortify the precarious existence of mankind with a morning bowl of oatmeal? ...Well, me, actually, after flipping a few pages to see what futuristic cereals will bring us joy and life. There are Cheese Dumplings (one recipe dumplings, shredded cheese, and tomato juice) as well as about 15 other kinds of dumplings. There are many variations on the Rice Ring, which appears to be rice and things packed into a jello mold: Mushroom Rice Ring, Cheese Rice Ring, Rice And Ham Ring... Thereâs Baked Pineapple Rice (1 cup rice to 3 Â cups cubed canned pineapple), and Curried Rice, tamed for the Western palate: âAn unusual and delicious rice dish. Its popularity is no doubt due to the restraint with which the spice is used.â The recipe itself calls for rice, canned tomatoes, salt, onion, bell pepper, butter, and not even a teaspoon of curry powder. If that degree of spice seems dangerously unrestrained, even licentious, the authors recommend that you correspondingly lower your inhibitions: âGood served with beer.â We are quickly restored to the familiar world of pasta: Quantity Noodle And Cheese Loaf, Quick Spaghetti Meat Pie, and of course, Chicken Liver Topping For Pasta.

Just in the cereals chapter, this is a beautiful snapshot of America in a moment of immense historic change. The prose is elegiac about foods in their wild and pastoral form, distrustful of the alienating forces of modernization and mechanization, and regrettably prophetic about the destructive force which would be unleashed by large-scale agriculture and factory farming, then in their nascent forms. It is tentatively, bravely hopeful that all of these changes will not merely destroy our relationship to food, but will make good on their promises to feed and fortify us in our increasingly accelerated and urban lives. But the recipes themselves reflect neither this longing for the bucolic past nor this shaky little hope for the future; instead, they lay bare the reality of feeding a family in Depression-era America. Everything, from potatoes to clams, may come from a can, both because of availability and cost. The book bravely tries to marshal the home cook away from cheap processed foodstuffs, but fillers and recipe stretches are everywhere in evidence. Game, to which an entire chapter is devoted, is equally likely to come from oneâs own backyard or the nearby woods as from a butcher shop, and one is liable to feed oneâs children opossum, porcupine, squirrel, Rabbit With Chili Beans, Venison Meat Loaf, or even bear without judgment from the authors. Cabbage may be french-fried for modern palatability, canned beans are considered vegetables, and even the transcendent asparagus may have to be boiled, although, as the authors wistfully remark, âwe do not guarantee nutritive value.â

Equally interestingly, although the bookâs composition in 1931 was two full years before the repeal of Prohibition, alcohol is much in use here, with an entire chapter devoted to liquor, âfrom cocktails to what the host or hostess offers late in the evening, either to give the dinner party a new lease on life or â hopefully in the rarest emergencies â to mark the passage of time and allow it to dawn on at least some members of an ill-chosen guest list that leaving might be an act of extreme unction.â Though all of the booze in the book may have been added in later revisions, I prefer to think that it exploits an interesting and oft-forgotten loophole in the 18th Amendment: while the manufacture, sale, purchase, and importation of alcohol were illegal in the US between 1920 and 1933, owning or consuming alcohol was not. There is one primary way I can think of by which one might own liquor without manufacturing, buying, or importing it: by having obtained it before the amendment was passed. Thus the cookbook directs itself to the Depression-era head of the family, who, stripped of his finance job and forced to watch his children eat Mexican Veal Steak With Noodles (one pound of thin veal â then a cheap meat â stretched with noodles to feed 6), Corned Tongue, or Deep-Fried Parsley, can break into his dwindling stash of pre-Prohibition hooch and console himself with a few glasses of ice-cold Milk Punch, or, if weâre having a hard night or guests for dinner, Tom And Jerry In Quantity.

Or perhaps, to put a happier face on things: âNot every householder has to worry about what to do with leftover champagne, but should this appalling dilemma be yours, there is no better way than this to solve it and make a light but rich sauce for fish or chicken.â There, see? Weâre feeling much more sanguine about things, possibly because we only sheem to have a cup of champagne left over.

Posted by katie at 10:40 PM