Just a few weeks ago someone very kind gave me a collection of old cook books. The collection belonged to someone dear to her, and she thought it best to pass it on to someone whom she thought might appreciate them.
I remain indebted to her. It is a very special gift.
How often do we equate “old” with “junk”? Think about it for a few seconds: at what point in time does something lose its intrinsic value? Take a brand new car for example: it starts losing value the minute it leaves the shop floor. For some inexplicable reason, it is considered less valuable (in monetary terms at least) the moment someone else (the new owner) starts using it. Does this mean that because it is no longer mine, it is considered to be of lesser value? Change in ownership (together with a few other factors) seems to be decline in value.
The story gets stranger though. Any accountant will smile and tell you that your brand new car will continue to shed value (depreciate) for the next five years until it is considered “valueless”. Until then, (if you are a business owner or someone who uses a car as part of your job), the smiling accountant will continue, the loss of value will be considered a tax-deductible benefit. How strange is that? The loss of value is considered a benefit?
If you hang onto your fully depreciated car for the next three or more decades, and you maintain it properly, you might just find that all of a sudden it grows in value. Depending on its age, it is now considered a “classic”, or “vintage” or a “veteran” or even an “antique”, and worth a lot more money. Age and scarcity now determines the value, even though the car no longer fulfills its original function. Let’s be honest, you might dust off your Model T-Ford for very special events, but you’re not going to drive the kids to school in it every day.
But, cookbooks are not cars. I have a very large collection of very old cookbooks. Some of them date back to the early parts of the previous century. Most I have purchased for next to nothing from obscure second-hand bookstores, and some I received as gifts from people who long longer have any use for them.
Like so many others, I am prone to attach sentimental value to some material things. This is not a good thing, at least not always, and over the years I have made a conscious effort to detach myself from most things I own. Cameras, lenses, cars, couches, books and cooking utensils are mere tools to achieve more knowledge, understanding and satisfy my curiosity, nothing more. I take care of my possessions, but if they pick up injuries in the line of duty, so be it.
I love my old cookbooks for they are so different from the more contemporary ones. They have fewer photographs and recipes are longer with more ingredients and their directions are far more detailed. It is clear that they were written at a time when people had time and interest to cook.
Most importantly for me, however, is that these books teach the fundamentals of cooking. Yes, they are educational tools that help the reader to become a better cook. They are so much more than their recipes; they are delightful do-it-yourself guides. Want to know how to properly clarify a stock and turn it into a rich, flavourful consommè? Or make genuine short-crust pastry? Your answer does not lie inside the pages of a book written by some celebrity chef, no, trust me – go to the old books.
In these books lie the collective food wisdom of human kind: what to use, when to use it, what to do with it, and how to use it properly. In doing so, I feel the author respects my intelligence, my ability to read, think and understand. Unlike the dimwit celebrity who tells me to add peanut butter and garlic to green beans and call it a “South-east Asian Bean Salad”. There is more to home cooking than merely adding bits-and-pieces and giving it a fancy-but-oh-so-utterly-meaningless name.
I understand that cooking today is a big money spinner, and that for books to sell, their content must be accessible to near everyone. But I abhor the fact that I am being dumbed-down. Be told that fish-fingers-on-a-roll-with-ketchup-and-lettuce constitutes a dish worthy of a recipe and a photograph and a few hundred dollars cover charge. That everything containing pineapple represents Hawaii, that you add value to my understanding of food and cooking by telling me to squeeze lemon over my boiled potatoes.
They say there is at least one book in everyone, but I pray, every night, to the soul of Auguste Escoffier that is not a cookbook. Cooking is a craft that requires knowledge and understanding, and let us not forget that.
Among my gift-collection are a few books devoted entirely to specific food crafts. The one that occupies me at the moment deals with Terrines, Pâtés and Galatines. Dishes from yesteryear that were equally at home in high-end restaurants serving nothing but haute cuisine and in farm kitchens looking to turn every scrap and morsel into something delicious and comforting.
Sadly, very few restaurants these days serve these delicate dishes, and most home cooks might consider them too cumbersome to make.
Given my commitment to cheap but good protein, I retrieved a few pig’s trotters and ears from by fridge and from the butcher I purchased a tongue. Put them all in a pressure cooker with some water, vegetables and a few spices, and within an hour I had all I needed to make a delicious brawn. Cubes of meat set in aspic. Easy and simple and delicious and cheap, and in no time I made a fresh sharp chutney from some redcurrants I found in the corner of the freezer.
Life could not get any better.
In case you wonder about clarifying that stock, here is what to do. Take about 2 liters of stock (or cooking liquid from your brawn, and five eggs. Separate the eggs, and keep the yolks for something else (maybe an ice cream or custard of sorts). Whip the egg whites into soft peaks and crush the shells into the whipped whites.
Add this to your stock, stir through to mix and bring it all to a slow boil. Scrape the bottom of the pot a few times to prevent the eggs from sticking. Watch as the proteins in the eggs coagulate to form a “raft”. Keep it going for as long as it takes for the liquid to become clear. Once clear, strain it through some cheesecloth. The clarified liquid can now be used for soups, consommés or as the base for your brawn’s aspic jelly. Or freeze it until you need it.