Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Cookbooks for the Future

As an inveterate cookbook collector, I'm aware that a lot of my beloved books about food, food history, and food culture aren't goingto be all that useful after peak oil. In fact, many of them aren't all that useful to me now, much as I enjoy reading them. Most cookbooks emphasize fancy, elaborate cooking that takes a long time, involves combining odd or unlikely (certainly unseasonable) combinations, and have a heavy emphasis on foods that are likely to be unusual treats or festival food in the future - cakes, large roasted animals, etc... But there are some that I truly use now, and expect to continue using in the long term. I thought I might list some off, in hopes of inspiring others to do the same (after all, I need more cookbooks...really.) These are the books I know that I think can genuinely help people make the connection between the food they grow and the food available to them and what we really eat.

I'm going to assume that nearly everyone owns _The Encyclopedia ofCountry Living_, Carla Emery's recipe bible that begins her noodle recipes with "first, till the soil..." I was lucky enough to be Carla's friend (I miss her still) and part of a group that tested recipes for her. I tested quite a lot of them. I have to say some of the recipes are straight out dreadful. Others are really good. But there are recipes for everything, few call for exotics or out of season combinations, and most, if not perfect in themselves are good jumping off points - they operate as ideas about how to cook and eat sustainably.

Another book I consider a basic staple is Doris Janzen Longacre's _More with Less Cookbook_ - conceived by the Mennonite Central Committee as a way to help people eat more sustainably and ethically, it is effectively a Joy of Cooking for the poor, plain and frugal. It is a bit dated, and some of the ethnic recipes are not very authentic (_Extending the Table_ part of the same series, is a much better source of ethnic recipes and an excellent cookbook in its own right), but for staple food recipes, Longacres' is one of the best.

Totally unlike the pragmatic conscience of the two previous books is a new favorite of mine (a gift from my MIL), _Foods of the Southwest Indian Nations_ - it is a pretty hardcover, designed to appeal to the kind of people who buy cookbooks and try three recipes in their Calphalon kitchen. A few of the recipes are of the fussy type - I suspect even before peak oil I am quite unlikely to ever stuff and roast a quail with black walnuts, white sage and adobe bread. But by and large, this book is a slightly modernized three sisters cookbook, with additional recipes for desert foods like cactus pads and prickly pears. I don't live in a desert climate, but I've rarely seen so many wonderful recipes for corn, squash, hot peppers and beans. The meat section emphasizes game and includes recipes for jerky. The sunflower cakes were a huge hit with my kids last summer, and the garbanzo bean stew is totally delicious. Definitely worth looking past the fancy cover.

Another cookbook that would be easy to overlook would be Eileen YinFei Lo's _From the Earth_, a cookbook of Chinese Vegetarian (some fish is involved) recipes. There are lots of recipes in American storage cookbooks for mock meat made from tofu and gluten. Most of them, frankly, suck. They don't taste anything like meat, and they don't taste particularly good, either. On the other hand, if you've ever eaten Chinese Buddhist cooking, you will realize that there exists the perfect fruition of fake meat cookery. It is very,very good. So if you think you may have to make do with soybeans andwheat for dinner any time soon, this is the cookbook to have. That is not to say that everything is a perfect substitute - but the textures are good and the flavors are spectacular. So are all the vegetable recipes I've tried, many of which are for traditional asian vegetables. If you grow these things (and you should), this is worth having. While not all of the recipes are easily adaptable to storage or local foods, most of the sauces can be reproduced. I've had excellent luck, for example, with my first bottles of homemade soy sauce, made by the recipe in Carla Emery's book.

On the other hand, if you want to find more conventional recipes for gluten, the best of the wheat related books I've seen is LeArtaMoulton's _The Amazing Wheat Book_ - not only does she do bulghur, bread, noodles, porridge, etc... but also gluten meats, sweets made from whole grains, even faux non-dairy "ice cream" made from the settled starch after gluten making. I haven't loved everything I've tried here, but the ideas are right, and the recipes work, and can be fixed with a lot more seasoning (blandness is endemic in American cookbooks).

Paula Wolfert's book _Mediterranean Grains and Greens_ is one of the more fascinating cookbooks I own. It is 350 pages of recipes using mostly whole grains and fresh greens. Most Americans would hardly believe it was possible to write such a cookbook, but it is not merely possible, but glorious. Wolfert knows Mediterranean cuisine inside and out, and the recipes are a look into real peasant cuisine - a peasant cuisine that is all the more luxurious because it does so much with so little.

_Please to the Table:The Russian Cookbook_ was written by Anya von Bremzen and John Welchman back when "Russia" was the entire Soviet Union. And while there are recipes here for luxury foods, there are also plenty of simple, cold climate foods that are absolutely delicious, simple and eminently reproduceable in a post-peak future. This was one of the first cookbooks I ever owned, and in college, I ate von Bremzen's Mothers "Super-Quick Vegetarian Borscht" more or less constantly, often with Holubtsi (stuffed cabbage with buckwheat and mushrooms). My family on one side is Polish, and this was the cuisine of my great-grandmother. It is delicious food, but also food suited to cold, wet places like the one I live in.

I've bought 5 copies of Crescent Dragonwagon's _Soup and Bread_cookbook for myself and others since I first acquired it in college, and they keep disappearing. People borrow this book, and it is never seen again. I've given up lending it out, and now I make everyone get their own. It is a very simple concept - recipes for soup made of everything imaginable. Every vegetable, legume, etc... Soups with milk, soups with broth, even a few soups with meat (although the vast majority are vegetarian). And some bread and salad recipes to accompany them. The soups are the centerpiece. Speaking as someone with no southern credentials whatsoever (you can laugh at me for this), her gumbo is spectacular. She has three recipes for zucchini soup, which alone is endearing when you are trying to use the bloody things up. There are 50 different recipes for bean soup. Not everything is sustainable, it certainly isn't designed with peak oil in mind, but the recipes are unfailingly good, and fairly simple. A definite keeper - under lock and key, if necessary.

If I could only have one cookbook, it would be Laurie Colwin's _Home Cooking_ or perhaps her equally indispensible _More Home Cooking_. I like the recipes in these books - I've never made anything from these books I didn't like, and by now I think I've made nearly everything in them (her Damp Gingerbread is the best on earth and Creamed Spinach with Jalapeno Peppers will kill you, but is worth it). But it is her way of thinking about food that is most wonderful - she writes wryly, humorously, warmly about her love of food and the pleasures of eating regular old homemade things. If I met someone who did not cook, and wanted to, these would be the books I would suggest they start out with.

Sylvia Thompson's _The Kitchen Garden Cookbook_ is a pleasure, and she emphasizes making use of what you have. Thus, there is a recipe for using the outer leaves of cabbage, cooked Ceylonese style and one for stuffed stems of chard. We will need to minimize waste in our kitchens in the future, and learning how use these foods is potentially important.

Edna Lewis died not long ago. She was one of the great figures of American cooking. She grew up in a community of farmers, African American descendents of freed slaves, and her _The Taste of Country Cooking_ is an evocative and delicious link to that culture and its cuisine. This is real, seasonal, delicious country food, along with lovely narratives of what the life was like. The food is simple, and if you don't grow your own, you are unlikely to understand what is so beautiful about her emphasis on the natural, real flavors of food.

It is possible that a book on whole grain breadmaking has superceeded _The Laurel's Kitchen Bread Book_, but if so, I missed it. If youare going to grind your own to make your bread, you need this book.There's definitely an old fashioned, 1970s complete proteins and carob cookies feel to it, but who cares. There are hundreds of recipes for bread products using every kind of grain, and it is well worth having.

If you want really old-fashioned, try _The Little House Cookbook_ byBarbara M. Walker. She's a food historian who went back and found ways of making all the foods in the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I'm not sure how often one would cook out of thisbook, except perhaps as an educational project (we've been doing some of that), but it is an excellent overview of a poor to middle class family's diet 130 yearsago, and how it was shaped by politics, science, and environment. I've only cooked a few things from here, among them the green pumpkin pie (it really does taste kind of like apples) and the buckwheat pancakes. But mostly, I think it gives you a sense of the centrality of food production to everyday life, and what our own lives may be like.

On the subject of books that are only sort-of cookbooks, I would be remiss if I didn't mention Albert Bates's _The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook_ - the couple of recipes I've tried were both quite good. The chick pea patties and the spicy cabbage salad were very good. The book contains a lot more information than this - the recipes are almost a side-note. It is worth having on several fronts - Bates knows a lot, and writes wonderfully. His focus on vegetarian food I think is right on, although I do have my doubts that, say, rum will be vastly more available than eggs. But it is a book well worth having.

Equally valuable, I think is Laura Schenone's _A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove_ which tells the story of women in America throughout history through their food, including recipes. This is a wise and important book, and well worth a read for anyone, even if you never do use any of the recipes - and some of them are very good. Our future is probably somewhere in our past, at least in terms of cooking, and the more we know about that past, the better off we are.

_The Joy of Pickling_ is my favorite book on pickles and lactofermentation, although there are other good ones out there as well, including Bill Mollison's (of permaculture fame) _Ferment and Human Nutrition_ - lactofermentation particularly is an important skill, because lactofermented foods have natural antibiotics specific to ecoli in them. Eating kimchi and sauerkraut with your food can protect you from food poisoning. And nutritionally, lactofermented vegetables are very good for you - not to mention unbelievably delicious. If our future is mostly local food, we are going to want that food to be as tasty as possible, and lactofermentation is one way to make that happen.

I have more to add - this is a subject on which I could go infinitely, because food is my favorite subject, but I think I'll stop for the moment with one addition, _Keeping Food Fresh_, a community food preservation cookbook by thegardeners and farmres of Terre Vivante. This is another must-have book, for it details ways of preserving food used by European farmers for hundreds of years, excluding freezing and canning. Some of the recipes are obvious, dried apples on a string. Most of them are not, and some are methods that get little consideration now, but might yet again, such as preserving meat in wine, home salting of fish, traditional candying, and lacto-fermenting. Some of the combinations, like the apples kept in elderflowers, are truly spectacular. I'm pretty sure the recipes haven't been vetted by the FDA, so use with a grain of salt. But it is worth knowing how people preserved food before the FDA.

I think here I will stop. But I'd welcome more suggestions!



Jo said...

Wow, that's quite a list. I have the first 3 you mentioned and never heard of any of the others. Will add some to my library list!

Do you have Simply in Season? It is the third in the More-with-Less series. I recently posted a short review on my blog if you're interested.

Louise said...

Thought I should comment and let you know that I *love* posts like this. I read this post when you referenced it in a later post, and I have come back to it many times since to hunt down the books you mention. I have only recently become enthused about cooking and food, and reading your recommendations is great, as I am starting my own (small, select) library of books. I actually ordered Mediterranean greens & grains second hand from Amazon about two months ago and was amazed at how quickly it made it to Australia, and in mint condition too. I have used two of the recipes so far, and they have both been excellent. I am looking forward to exploring it more. Unfortunately fresh fruit and vegetables have become quite expensive here so my experimentations have been limited to the more frugal end of the scale, as I rent and only grow herbs for myself at the moment.

Thanks for the post! I would be interested to read your recommendations regarding books on other practical topics as well.

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