Sunday, July 26, 2020

Women in the Kitchen

Title:  Women in the Kitchen  Twelve Essential cookbook Writers Who Defined the Way We Eat, From 1661 to Today
Author:  Anne Willan
Publication Information:  Scribner. 2020. 320 pages.
ISBN:  1501173316 / 978-1501173318

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "A woman cook basting meat on a spit in front of the open fire."

Favorite Quote:  "It is often the women in the kitchen who set the scene, and establish the family tastes, particularly on the children."

In the first few pages of this book, the author defines exactly what to expect: "I have chosen twelve cookbook authors and each is described in a biography followed by a handful of their own recipes as they appeared in the original, together with those same receipts adapted for the modern kitchen. Together these books trace the development of domestic cookery in England and America as recorded by women, whose position and career paths in both countries were very different from that of men." The book then goes on to deliver exactly that. The chefs included in the book in chronological order from the 1600s to current times are: Hannah Woolley, Hannah Glass, Amelia Simmons, Maria Rundell, Lydia Child, Sarah Rutledge, Fannie Farmer, Irma Rombauer, Julia Child, Edna Lewis, Marcella Hazan, and Alice Waters.

Being an avid peruser of cookbooks, I am familiar with the books from Fannie Farmer onwards. The names prior to hers are an education and now send me on a search for some of these books. For the chefs more familiar to me, I learn about their lives more so than I have from their cookbooks. The author does not specify her reasons for picking these chefs - a term the book teaches me "was not used for women until the 1960s and the television shows of Julia Child..." but does explain the contribution of each to the world of cooking. A key point to note is that this is not a book about female chefs in general; it is specifically about women who wrote cookbooks.

In other words, these women combine a knowledge of food, an ability to convey that knowledge in writing, and the business acumen to publish and sell the end product. More than that, many of them do it in a time and place in which women in such roles were unheard of. That makes their accomplishment all the greater.

Reading the original recipes reminds me of the recipes I cherish from my own mother and grandmother. Many are more notes with no amounts or measurements and a general description of the process. For example, Hannah Woolley has a recipe for a "boiled sallad" which is carrots seasoned with cinnamon, ginger, sugar, currants, vinegar, and a little salt. There are no amounts or cooking times. The recipes in this book are, however, all presented twice - once as the original and a second as tested with "US ingredients including all purpose unbleached wheat flour, granulated (US castor) sugar, unsalted butter, and Grade A large eggs." The modern translation of that given in the book is a spiced carrot puree which "tastes more like carrot cake than a salad." The originals are a joy to read, but I might take the revised as a starting point to cook with.

The recipes themselves provide a window to the time and place represented by the author. For example, recipes from Amelia Simmons, the writer of the first American cookbook, include pickled cucumbers, griddle cakes, and rice pudding. The recipes of Edna Lewis from the American South feature buttermilk biscuits, caramel pie, and fried apples. Marcella Hazan's Italian heritage brings polenta, risotto, and a granita. This book is a wonderful tour of cookbooks through time and history.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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