I always say that I am crazy about cookbooks, especially Jewish ones that double as the Jewish food history books. I almost never use the exact recipes though, even for baking, let alone for cooking. I love to experiment with ingredients, always adding and subtracting stuff depending on what I have in my pantry or fridge, and even more so on my mood of the day.
The first recipe card, according to Joan Nathan, comes from Babylonia, where, as she said at Limmud FSU this year “it calls for a dozen oxen”. Evidently, it was only worth writing a recipe for a royal banquet’s dish.
Food used to be an art that was fleeting. It took a long time, but disappeared too quickly without a trace:
Из комедии «Горе от ума» (1824)
А. С. Грибоедов(1795—1829). Слова Фамусова (действ. 2, явл. 1):
Куда как чуден создан свет!
Пофилософствуй — ум вскружится;
То бережешься, то обед:
Ешь три часа, а в три дни не сварится!
Chefs and cooks in Europe, especially France were more of the genius craft masters than ordinary guys we knew nothing about in Soviet Russia. To me, they were like members of a secret society of honorable creative elite. They had their own pride, not less important than the Royal one.
A couple of stories that we know from those times:
We are told that Francois Vatel, Prince de Condé‘s chef and maître d’hôtel, actually, killed himself on the morning of the 24th of April 1671 at Chantilly, France when the order of fish he was expecting for the banquet he was preparing for the royal court including Louis XIV himself, did not come in on time. It is said that the fish started to arrive right after Vatel took his own life. We know of this incident due to several notes of the people of that time that, actually, were present in the castle. One of them was Madame de Sévigné who writing to her daughter said:
“The weather that we had today made us hope for a worthy continuation of such an agreeable beginning. But here’s what I learned while arriving here, which I can’t get over, and I don’t know what else to do but to talk to you about it: in short, it’s that Vatel, the great Vatel, “maître d’hôtel” of Monsieur Fouquet, and currently that of the Prince, this man capable beyond all others, whose good sense was able to support all the care of a State, this man that I knew… you see at 8 o’clock this morning the fish delivery hadn’t arrived, he wasn’t able to endure the humiliation that he saw coming on himself, and to make a story short, he stabbed himself. You can imagine the horrible disorder that such an accident caused to the festivities. And imagine that the fish delivery arrived, perhaps even while he was in the process of dying. I don’t know anything more at present; I think you will find that this is more than enough. I have no doubt that the confusion was huge; it’s a terrible thing to happen to a party costing 50,000 écus. ”
I am not sure how historically correct the movie is, but if you like history and/or food, you should love it. I did!
Unlike Louis, who was known for his culinary extravaganza, Napoleon Buonaparte wasn’t exactly an epicurean. Well, he was a soldier, not a born king. His favorite dish, it is said came from whatever was available to his chef, Durand in a ravaged city.
To the East, in Russia, French chefs were making history too. Lucien Olivier (1838–1883), who might be Belgian, but most think French opened a Hermitage Restaurant in Moscow, where he worked most of his life until his untimely death at 45. The story of the Olivier Salad, which is widely known today as a Russian Salad is known by many in different interpretations. They involve drama, theft, and the will of masses prevailing upon the gourmet intentions of the chef:
It was first made with a series of gourmet ingredients including black caviar and capers, layered together with a steamed game hen, and bound in layers of jellied broth. Boiled crayfish tails and pieces of tongue were arranged around the edges of the dish and it was served covered with a small amount of fresh Provencal Sauce made from olive oil, egg yolks, French vinegar, mustard, and spices. A potato skin with gherkins and slices of boiled eggs decorated the center of the dish.
However, most Russian customers, Olivier noticed, would immediately mix the layers and garnish together and eat the mush this created with a spoon. Shocked, but willing to accommodate, the enterprising chef started serving his salad mixed together and bound in the sauce rather than covered in it.
During the time of my living in Russia, a much different Olivie of the Soviet ingredients was a staple at every holiday table, even though I couldn’t find it in the copy of the most famous book that we, unfortunately, left back there during immigration, Книга о вкусной и здоровой пище.
We, sometimes tend to think of Russian cuisine as a second-class one, but that is not true. In my collection, I have a series of World Cuisine books including Russian one published in the USA in 1969.
When I look at the recipe of the traditional multi-layered Russian Kulebyaka, I put all my adventurousness aside, I say – ok, maybe next time”. This beauty takes the whole day to prepare and is going to send a modern person to a cardiac arrest, possibly, with the amounts of butter (reminds you of Julia Child, right? “there can never be too much butter”) that you never even keep in your house.
Some other books I just love to read sometimes are:
Saffron Shores: Jewish Cooking of the Southern Mediterranean.
This one almost smells of the Israeli market that I get to visit, BH every time I am in Israel. I cherish the smell for months back in New York as I bring all my spices from here.
Olive Trees and Honey: A Treasury of Vegetarian Recipes from Jewish Communities Around the World.
This one, as well as the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, are more of a great history buff read that remind me of their author, Gil Marks. He, literally, was a walking encyclopedia of food. I love to read his little stories that give me inspiration for cooking a new thing once in a while.
I feel like I’ve written only about a couple of books, but there are so many more! I will most likely write a continuation to this post. I just wanted to give you a glimpse of my cookbook world.
So, here’s hoping for more bookshelf space, a bigger kitchen for more cooking experiments and more Shabbat guests at my table!