I do cookbook reviews now! Because we’re a blog and we do blog things.
I collect old cookbooks. The cornier the better. I prioritize ones that have been underwritten by advertising agencies, lobbying firms, or socio-political groups. You can learn a lot about the cultural and socioeconomic context of food from a bad cookbook. They’re produced for immediate consumption and just as immediately discarded.
A good cookbook — Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone comes to mind — explain themselves. No recipe is infallible. You always need a little more of this, a little longer on the heat. An understanding of the materials you’re working with and what the recipe is aiming to accomplish will help you make those judgments. But giving your reader a more holistic understanding of cooking is at times at odds with the crafting of a specific culinary narrative. So a lot of cookbooks don’t bother with this, and doom themselves to ephemera.
At least until this bonehead finds them on a molding bookshelf at a used bookstore and brings them home.
This week I’m reviewing Country Cooking with Flair, published by the California Milk Advisory Board in 1975.
In its introduction, Fran Roberson, then-Director of Home Economics, claims the recipes had been vigorously tested, not only by their own test kitchens, but by tried and true dairy wives of California. This little bit of spin is what TVTropes would call “Fridge Brilliance”. The book was produced in San Francisco, and includes the style of dishes that would have been popular in San Francisco and its suburbs in the mid-70’s: Jell-O salads, fried cream, American-ized forms of typical Russian, Indian, and Mexican dishes. It’s not a book for country cooks, it’s a book ostensibly about country cooks.
The recipes call for more dairy product than is actually needed; the recipe for “Yogurt Beef Ball Appetizers” calls for three times the yogurt than you actually use for making the balls, with the suggestion that you could use the remaining 14 ounces of yogurt as a dip. A “Jack Cheese Supper Pie” uses 2 1/2 cups of grated cheese and 1 1/2 cups of milk to transform a double decker sandwich into a casserole. Simple baked cheese sandwiches an egg wash and sprinkled parmesan.
This isn’t down home country cooking. This is fanaticism. But it makes sense if you believe these meals were tested or even prepared by women living on a dairy farm, desperate for any and every avenue for laundering their surplus dairy short of literally laundering their clothes with it.
With all that said, this book is very dear to me.
I love the design, firstly. It’s like if the designer was told “I want this cookbook to look like the last couch you fell asleep on.”
The fonts in the table of contents is what I imagine a snack bar in 70’s Livermore would look like. I’m at an age where I have to be careful about the confidence with which I reference vintage aesthetics.
Recently a comrade described fascists kicking sand in people’s faces as “very Charles Atlas” and then made full eye contact with me as the only other person in the room over 30, and I didn’t want to reject his offer for “old dog” solidarity but also I wasn’t aware of who Charles Atlas was outside of a Doom Patrol reference and a Rocky Horror Picture Show song where Tim Curry uses holding someone’s hand as euphemism for a hand job.
To be fair, I don’t think Nazis would appreciate being associated with Grant Morrison’s run of Doom Patrol, or hand jobs, but the same could be said of most people, even those who like giving hand jobs. Handies require patience, communication, and attentiveness to nonverbal language. But the act is often employed as some sort of shorthand for a monotonous action that offers cheap gratification to one party at the expense of the other’s dignity. That framing is regressive, it’s misogynist and whorephobic, and in my defense I’ve warned you several times against reading any of my writing that I didn’t send you the link for, Mom.
Let’s look at some of the recipes in this book:
- Twenty Minute Tamale Pie
If anything gives away this book’s true intentions, it’s the photography. There is no shortage of photogenic “country” in California. In fact, there’s so much “country” that the state is able to feed The Country. We’ve got mountains and rivers and lush, rolling hills that are sometimes not on fire. These photos all look like they were taken in suburban model homes.
It’s okay, honey, it’s only a twenty minute drive into the city, and now we’re closer to Mee-Maw and Pop-Pop, so we’ll get all the fresh MSG we can eat!
A quick rundown of what’s wrong with this dish: The singular of “tamales” is “tamal”, if it’s still not salty enough for you after all that brine and salt, maybe cut down on the cheese, which would be better off being browned in the oven instead of steamed into a sweaty, lumpy tumor of dairy debris and beset by a moat of shriveled black olives.
The concept behind these dishes seems to be “fuse the 70’s hostess/entertainer style of cooking with a country prerogative”. But there’s nothing hospitable about this. This is like if you wrote a gardening book, but instead of showing people who to cultivate their own vegetables, you just had a bunch of pictures on how they could mangle other people’s gardens. Pop-Pop raised you better.
2. Meringue Glace Aux Peches
This is the lesser known of the great Greek punishments — Peachesinsyrupides disobeyed the Gods, and for this crime he was imprisoned in a kitchen in Daly City, forced to make a proper meringue, and then bury it beneath coffee ice cream, chocolate sauce and canned peaches. Actually eating it was some other doomed soul’s task. You never, ever ask Zeus if Pepsi is okay.
I don’t dislike the idea of slathering crushed up cookies and meringue in peaches and ice cream. On its face I think that’s a very “country” thing. But the flavor profile is just all effed up. You could salvage it by replacing the chocolate sauce with maple syrup, and also swapping the coffee ice cream for peach.
I used to work as an editorial intern for Eater SF. For one glorious month, I was a serious food journalist. The day I was laid off, I used my work perks to drop in on an ice cream class. There I learned you should use frozen peaches for peach ice cream, as they maintain their shape better than fresh ones. I also learned that if the person firing you starts crying, telling her that this is a form of emotional labor her boss is extracting from her without compensation isn’t necessarily the wrong answer, but it’s definitely not the right one.
3. California Cheese Salad Pie
If someone can do the math on how many people it would take to make a single envelope of gelatin, I think we’ll be on our way to solving the mystery to what happened to all the supposed taste-testers of this cookbook.
4. Yogurt Chicken Curry
The inclusion of tomatoes in this recipe makes this more of a British-style curry, which is neither California nor country. And the end product looks a little like spearheads in progress. Maybe the water cooked off too fast, and the tomatoes and onions didn’t have time to dissolve, and so they just sort of glommed on the chicken (rather than melt, like you want in other sauces), creating a protective shell of suburban hubris. Also, curry chicken typically has yogurt in it. Plum Mu-Shu Pork. French Fry Poutine. Coconut Pina Colada. That’s you right now. That’s what you sound like.
Otherwise, I appreciate this recipe’s spice profile, which is a little more complex than your average “easy chicken curry” recipe’s, which is often just curry powder and salt. I once got into a fight over curry powder. I was at a friend’s potluck, and there was another woman who had spent time living in Germany (and looked the part of “German expatriate” more than I do). Someone asked both of us what “currywurst” was, and I said “it’s a bratwurst with ketchup and curry powder”.
I didn’t mean that as a putdown. I think the invention of currywurst is a great story about invention in scarcity, stories that are rarely if ever told because the international tendency to deflect responsibility for a broad complicity in Naziism lumps all German people as part of the regime, and thus obscures their suffering during and immediately after the war.
But Slightly More German Girl™ took offense, and walked up to me and said “don’t talk like that about currywurst”. I could tell she was serious because she was pronouncing the “W” as a “V” in an otherwise Western American accent. She was taller than me, and had me cornered. I was super into it. But then I realized this is what my life would be like if I kept organizing within statist leftist circles: At some point, after we overthrow capitalism and imperialism, we’ll be pressured to start liking the place we’re in charge of now, and I’ll have to take a punch for putting rocket on pizza or the Double-Double, and I can’t be that person.
I like putting french fries in a burrito, but if I’m being honest with myself, I’d put canned spaghetti on a burrito if it would maintain structural integrity.
A las barricadas conmigo, I suppose.
I’ve added a gallery of some other pages in the book below. Don’t forget to pitch in to my Patreon if you liked what you read!
Author: Jetta Rae
Founder of Fry Havoc. Can be found on twitter at @jetta_rae