Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Historical Recipes

I have a large collection of American cookbooks from the 19th and 20th centuries which is coming in very handy right now as I am boning up for a competition in August.

August the 10th, the Mosby Museum in Warrenton is holding a Hot Chef competition in which ten regional restaurants including One Block West will prepare three courses of food using ingredients common to the area in the 1860's and 1870's. Tickets for this fundraiser for the museum are available for $125 apiece from the museum at 540-351-1600.

It's fascinating to read up on cow heels (typically pickled as in pickled pigs feet), pickled oysters, and cod sounds (swim bladders). It really brings home the absence of refrigeration and the need to not let anything go to waste.

But what is most striking to me in browsing these old cookbooks is the fundamental assumption that the reader already knows how to cook. In this day and age of explaining technique in minute detail in recipes, these recipes are refreshing to me. All I ever need or want is a basic sketch of the dish and by and large, that's all you get from these receipt books.

Here's an example from Mary Randolph's The Virginia Housewife:

Pepper Pot. Boil two or three pounds of tripe, cut it in pieces, and put it on the fire with a knuckle of veal, and a sufficient quantity of water; part of a pod of pepper, a little spice, sweet herbs according to your taste, salt, and some dumplins; stew it till tender, and thicken the gravy with butter and flour.

I like that this receipt leaves the spicing to the cook's discretion, that it assumes you already know how to make "dumplins," and that you are familiar with thickening a stew with beurre manié or "butter and flour."

These recipes are the way that we chefs communicate with each other, so they are very familiar to me. But they are also a reminder of how far we are removed from the day that a girl did not get into her teens without having learned how to cook.

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