The Art of Eating Cookbook, a Christmas gift far from the madding crowd

Unlike the plethora of cookbooks released for the festive season the Art of Eating’s essential recipes from the first 25 years is not a coffee table tome.  It doesn’t even carry pictures – usually a prerequisite to a commercially successful cookbook or recipe website.  This is hardly surprising for Edward Behr’s magazine by the same name carries no advertising (it interrupts the read) though does carry several select photographs.  Funded purely from subscriptions this also allows the magazine, once a newsletter, to be independent.

The Art of Eating:
essential recipes from the first 25 years
by Edward Behr
with James MacGuire
University of California Press

Nonetheless this periodical has confounded all commercial principles of publishing by hitting the 10 000 distribution mark.  The cookbook will appeal to a broader base than the toffee-nosed foodie, for it lovingly immerses centuries old recipes in their (mostly) Italian and French cultures.

As Behr says: “Often in my writing, I’ve focused on a traditional dish: tasting it at its place of origin, tracing it back through time, trying to understand the logic behind the place, the ingredients, and the method – getting at the fundamental taste.”

“Even when overlooked by fashion, the best traditional food remains particularly delicious.”

Of course what has been out of vogue, like mullet makeovers, is now a fad for the elite as your can read here in my response to Simon Kuper’s prediction that these peasant dishes will soon be passé.

While Behr may be guilty of a sprinkle of romanticisation when it comes to our artisanal pasts, he is not a set stone traditionalist.  Not is he an advocate of forsaking the food processor in favour of hand-sieving livers in order to make pâtés.

“It’s often pointed out that tradition is a moving target.  ‘Traditional food?’ I’ve been asked. ‘What period of time are you talking about?’  To me what matters is that a dish came into being before life was dominated by machines, electricity, and rapid communication, before time was so much equated with money – that it came about when people lived closer to nature and found more of their daily pleasure in eating.” 

Intimidated?  You needn’t be.  Yes there are some 17-ingredient 17stage recipes for a single dish (rabbit in red wine) and I wouldn’t (yet) know where to buy beef casings for Cervelas Lyonnais (lightly cured sausage from Lyon).  But there are instructions for sauces as simple as anchovyade (spread) and walnut sauce for pasta.  This book may lean heavily on French food but it is far from haute cuisine.

Indeed most of the dishes result in simple tastes, such as Potée Juarssienne (boiled meats), which traditionally has no salt, save for that which results from smoked pork.  It contains neither onion nor garlic.  Indeed some of the meals may be considered bland given the high-octane flavours we have grown accustomed to.  No doubt Behr would say they are subtle.

While the outcomes may not be that unusual (they don’t pretend to be), some of the ingredients are uncommon, at least to South Africans.  You’ll have to scrounge to get hold of chestnuts here but if you are dedicated you can buy them from Constantia’s Chart Farm in season.  We also have trees on the family farm in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands but they are not, as far as I know, sold in the Midlands.  Wild Boar may be even harder to come by but a good butcher may be able to help you with a warthog substitute. 

Vegetarians are well catered for by Behr, though usually these dishes are starters not main courses.  But because we generally eat only one course at home many might be expanded into mains.  Examples include turnip gratin and oefs en meurette.  To me turnips in a broth should rather be reserved for their intended use as cattle fodder but baked with cheese, similar to a potato bake, they are lovely.  Eggs in red wine sound exotic in a city that considers Eggs Benedict a novelty.

I learnt fish quenelles, a quintessentially French dish, evolved in order to make use of bony river species such as pike.  Might we be able to make a luxurious starter from the bony and horribly fishy bass found commonly in our farm dams?  Almost all of the recipes can easily be made by you in your home kitchen.  Beetroot salad with anchovies is not often seen on our restaurant tables.  A good alternative to the ubiquitous beet and goats cheese entrée.

Many of the savoury main course recipes are reliant on flavour from traditional ingredients such as bouquet garni (flat-leaf parsley, thyme and bay leaf), the trilogy of celery, carrot and onion/shallots.  And wine.  For me this is a well-worn path.  But then they are dominated by France and Italy.  Behr concentrates on what he and his mates know well so you don’t get experimental Chinese dishes.  You are paying for expertise.  And precision.  This is no ego-filled French cookbook with a vital technique left out in order to guarantee the eternal rarity of the dish.  You don’t need a chef’s intuition to make them.  You can make the recipe by the book first and then play around next time.

The magazine version does venture further a field to countries such as Thailand and Hungary but these food stories too are written by experts.  Recipes are neither watered down nor Westernised as in most cookbooks.  What you fry is what you could eat in Bangkok.  An important difference is that the magazine has, as you would expect, greater depth on the tales behind the dishes: the culture, the history, the context.  To me this makes them living treasures.

Faced with the choice of buying the cookbook (0ver R400 with shipping) or an annual subscription (also over R400) to the quarterly magazine, I would choose the periodical.  It is ideal for a Christmas present and the quality covers and paper make them collectible.  This is not a publication to hit the dustbin after consumption.  Keep them for your children.  Or order the book and surprise your family with roast pork and prunes instead of a supermarket ham.  Hell cook both – it’s Christmas.  Details on how to get hold of the publications follow. 

The Art of Eating Cookbook can be ordered from the Book Lounge.  It takes around two weeks so still time for a last-minute Christmas present.  Kalk Bay Books can also order it for you (it takes six to eight weeks).  Kalk Bay Books sell the magazine too.  Be warned that even at around R100 a copy it sells out.  Ask them to keep one for you.

All can be ordered directly from The Art of Eating online. 

Tom Robbins
Posted November 29, 2011

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