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Old food books or new food books?


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Looking back over the books of M.F.K. Fisher, Waverley Root and John and Karen Hess, I realize that the reason I prefer the food writers of the past is not because they were inherently superior, but b

John, how nice to hear from you.   An additional reason I enjoy food books from the past is that the authors are frequently eating legendary dishes (or ingredients) which are now almost impossible t

I've been arguing for years that the masscultization of food has had a cheapening effect. So, yeah.

My interest in restaurants has faded since the days when I was traveling constantly to interesting places and having my meals paid for. Eating out well in London is both expensive and noisy; in so many of them, loud pop music is de rigeur. There is a wealth of ethnic restaurants on the outskirts which would interest me, but my wife doesn't relish the weirdly wonderful and she cooks so well that I can't possibly feel cheated.

 

This is not a judgement on those who eat expensively -- I did it myself when I could afford to -- but I have become increasingly aware of the growing number of the formerly middle class whose financial security is rapidly disappearing. There are university lecturers without tenure who are surviving on food stamps. And so I am increasingly aware of gastronomic cost effectiveness. (This isn't a plea for sympathy, we have no financial worries whatsoever.)

 

In a paper on authenticity that I gave at the Oxford Symposium in 2005, Authentic? or Just Expensive? I summed up my feelings in words that I still wouldn't change:

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‘WE have more than enough masterpieces,’ wrote Jane Grigson; ‘what we need is a better standard of ordinariness.’ Carve it on every kitchen wall! M. F. K. Fisher’s Dijon landlady, Madame Ollangnier, was notorious in the local markets for buying their cheapest merchandise, however unpromising:

 

Storekeepers automatically lowered their prices when they saw her coming…Up would come the trapdoor to the cellar, and down Madame would climb…he would pick up a handful of bruised oranges, a coconut with a crack in it, perhaps even some sprouting potatoes…And yet…from that little hole, which would have made an American shudder in disgust, she turned out daily two of the finest meals I have ever eaten.

 

What was eccentricity in Madame Ollangier has become necessity for a growing army of the economically challenged. A friend surviving on an avant-garde musician’s income lives in an urban area with the usual mix of food sources. He buys his household’s fresh produce from neighbourhood ethnic markets—much cheaper than ‘bargain’ superstores. Both he and his wife cook well and his family eats with great pleasure and integrity. Most of their staples, however, come from Asda; shopping elsewhere, he has determined, would cost him an extra forty pounds a week. Though he believes firmly in eating locally and seasonally and supports artisanal producers in the various European countries to which he often travels, when he is at home, living day-to-day, he refuses to sacrifice his family’s comfort and well-being to abstract principle.

 

My friend exemplifies the dilemma facing those who must watch the pennies but are possessed of both a palate and a conscience. There are of course others worse off, such as those whose jobs have been exported or their pensions stolen. The trickle-down effect in our laisez-fairyland is draining more and more of the once-middle class into an economic slough. In the West our land-based peasantry has virtually disappeared, but a new proletariat is emerging for whom the manufactured environment is the unnatural world from which they must somehow wring a precarious subsistence. As the supermarket bargain bins become the last wilderness in which to forage, they must revert to the ancient pragmatism of peasant inventiveness.

This is great. I am partially employed,and can't dine out much anymore,living in Manhattan. Trouble is,the great cheap food markets in Brooklyn and Queens are a $5.50 round trip,so I have to equate. There is great simple cooking to be done at home,but how far one can scale down expenses,and keep true to one's conscience is ever a forthcoming challenge...

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My friend exemplifies the dilemma facing those who must watch the pennies but are possessed of both a palate and a conscience. There are of course others worse off, such as those whose jobs have been exported or their pensions stolen. The trickle-down effect in our laisez-fairyland is draining more and more of the once-middle class into an economic slough. In the West our land-based peasantry has virtually disappeared, but a new proletariat is emerging for whom the manufactured environment is the unnatural world from which they must somehow wring a precarious subsistence. As the supermarket bargain bins become the last wilderness in which to forage, they must revert to the ancient pragmatism of peasant inventiveness.

This is great. I am partially employed,and can't dine out much anymore,living in Manhattan. Trouble is,the great cheap food markets in Brooklyn and Queens are a $5.50 round trip,so I have to equate. There is great simple cooking to be done at home,but how far one can scale down expenses,and keep true to one's conscience is ever a forthcoming challenge...

 

 

I have lived this way most of my life, first out of early married necessity, later because I had learned how to live well on my terms. Now, I am lucky to live near on of the city's finest Asian shopping areas where seafood, poultry and pork have a very good price/quality ratio, and of course produce at half my carriage trade super. I have always, often against the tide, maintained that the finest chef is the one who could do the most with the least.

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I am not surprised to find first-hand corroboration even here in Mouthfulls. As I wrote in Authentic? Or just expensive?, "Culinary tradition has always been fluid: many of the foods that the searchers for authenticity attempt to preserve or recreate were in the first instance a utilization of the ingredients that were most readily available, prepared with the simple tools that were at hand. The substratum of peasant cuisine is grinding poverty. As John Berger observes at the beginning of his profound study of global peasantry, Pig Earth, ‘Peasant life is a life committed completely to survival.’"

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As John Berger observes at the beginning of his profound study of global peasantry, Pig Earth, ‘Peasant life is a life committed completely to survival.’"

NOW we're talking about one of my favorite authors.

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As publishing-house mergers and going public put even more emphasis on profits, publishers began to institute something one could describe as the author-subsidized, quasi-vanity book.

Robert, I put your astute analysis up on the Guild of Food Writers chat list and got this immediate reply from Josephine Bacon, a long-time editor and translator for many of the best publishing houses.

 

"Unfortunately, the way publishing is at the moment, many types of books are author-subsidized, not just cookery books. For instance, I just translated a book on economics and the author was made to pay for the translation, even though the book was published by a large and reputable British publishing house.

"Ditto for another two other non-fiction titles I am translating. A friend of mine who is a history Ph.D. wrote an excellent book about Middle East politics around WWI, I know because I edited a sample chapter for him. He has submitted it to a whole host of the usual history publishers and ALL of them require him to pay for the copy-editing and indexing! He is a bit of a pinch-penny and refuses to do so although he could well afford it. So food writers beware!"

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Robert, great to be in touch again! Yours is exactly the point I made in my obituary of Mireille Johnston in the Guardian.

 

P.S. The vinegar is balsamic.

 

After a bit of searching my bookshelves...

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A first edition, no less.

 

As to the scrounging the bottom of the bins (back in the day), even the bottom of the bins most likely had higher-quality, less mass-produced stuff than the bottom of the bins do today.

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Internet/media presence seems to be the most important factor for a lot people getting cookbook deals [and other types] now. I'm kind of amazed,not in a good way,by a lot of what I see on the shelves.

a potential writer's number of unique visitors seems to be the key to getting a deal with publishers counting on your followers to each buy a copy of a book of recipes compiled from your postings. little consideration given to the quality of the actual content. are your facts checked? stories true? do you know anything about food? if it's a cookbook, do your recipes work?

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Susan Orlean wrote something for the New Yorker about her decision to e-publish her two most recent books. Even with her cost of editing and copywriting, she took home more money than she would have with her traditional publisher.

 

The infrastructure of publishing is ripe for continued disruption.

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