The rise and fall of the iceberg lettuce

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“Lettuce,” said CD Warner, “is like conversation. It must be fresh and crisp, and so sparkling that you scarcely notice the bitter in it.” However, this once highly popular iceberg lettuce has seen a dramatic fall in sales over the last couple of decades whilst bagged-leaf varieties and other salad crops such as rocket and watercress have rapidly risen in popularity. What has happened?

Criticised for its apparent lack of nutritional value, the iceberg is loathed by Mimi Sheraton, the much-respected food writer and restaurant reviewer. Iceberg is regularly declared as dead by other pillars of the food world, has been called the ‘polyester of lettuces’ by my personal hero, John Waters, (who has shown feet of clay here) and became the subject of a good-hearted spat between Alice Waters and Marion Cunningham. This resulted in air-freighted boxes of French lettuces being delivered to Cunningham after she expressed her liking for the iceberg. Alice Waters has never been known for her timidity when it comes to opinions on food and she believes Iceberg to be plebeian. God love her, but Alice is wrong on this count.

The former New York Times food critic Craig Clairborne detested it with a passion, something the writer Nora Ephron felt moved to comment upon in her book of essays, I Feel Bad About My Neck. In it, she offers us an evolution of lettuce as it happened in NYC culinary circles, kicking off with endive, arugula and radicchio, followed by frisée and what she refers to as the ‘Three M’s’- mesclun, mâche, and microgreens. Poor old iceberg is out in the cold but, as Ephron says, you can’t really discuss the history of lettuce in the last forty years without mentioning the seminal hatred Clairborne nursed in his heart for this jolly little salad green.

So what if it contains 95-6% water, says David Still, a plant science professor at California State Polytechnic University at Pomona. A mouthful of water flavoured with fruit juice is close to 100% water, but nobody would advise we stop drinking that on the same basis, would they? What if it contains a fairly low level of nutrients compared to the Holy Kale: just how many food items do you eat a day purely for their exalted goodness? (Simply Ella, don’t answer this question- I know what you’ll probably say.) Iceberg does contain vitamin A, potassium and some trace amounts of fibre and protein, and, more importantly, sometimes you want bruising culinary power and at other times you crave subtlety and gentleness. Not all foods have to be kick-ass and the definition of goodness should encompass far more than what something does for us, nutritionally speaking.

 

According to George Ball, the chief executive officer of W. Atlee Burpee & Co, the iceberg was the most celebrated of lettuces, once upon a time. His company developed the variety we know today, over a hundred years ago in 1894, from an altogether looser headed lettuce called Batavia. This new ‘tennis ball lettuce’ was once highly prized by President Thomas Jefferson and from the Roaring Twenties onwards, iceberg was seen in every stylish kitchen, becoming a staple in salads served up at Manhattans Stork Club, El Morocco and The Colony. Boasting a gossip columnist under every table, these supper clubs attracted the theatre crowd and an entourage of post-show celebrities. Time faded black and white photographs show glamorous starlets and men with fat cigars sitting at a table loaded with platters of club sandwiches, kept crisp by celadon layers of Iceberg. This was the lettuce to the stars in a manner of speaking, served in platters of food designed to soak up the splits of champagne that graced each table and kept temperamental throats and egos lubricated. Ethel Merman, Maurice Chevalier, Errol Flynn and Marilyn Monroe all chowed down on platters of iced shrimp served with iceberg wedge salad which shattered into icy shards as they bit into it, the buttermilk and ranch dressing served on the side in little, pressed glass and silver jugs.

Iceberg might be mostly water but it is not watery. Its thing is crunch, something fans refer to continually although they are undoubtedly waning in number as tastes broaden and the store shelves groan with choice. From the sixties onwards, as foreign travel became desirable and affordable, people wanted to recreate the meals they had sampled abroad and the trend started moving towards other lettuces: the romaine of Caesar salads, the peppery rockets and prickly frisées with their can-can frills of pink, purple and cream. It became harder to find Iceberg and even the humble burger saw the iceberg crunch replaced with baby leafed exotica in all the colours of the rainbow. Cue a waitress in a restaurant recently who told me worriedly that “our BLT’s do contain iceberg” and seemed surprised when I reassured her that, no this was fine and I was not about to fly into a rage fuelled by an absence of whatever exotically-tinted hedgerow clipping is in fashion this month.

Originally this lettuce was a fabulous answer to the frailty of many leafy varieties which curled up and grow slimy at the first hint of cold, freezing, drying or rough-housing in the chain of supply- their life, post picking, can very short. This rendered them hard to transport and so they remained a local resource, hence their increasing popularity and desirability as we began to travel to those markets and see what the locals had easy access to. Iceberg was remarkably tough and was originally transported all over the USA via boxcars meaning that Americans could eat salad lettuce all year round- and in the colder, more northerly states, that was a big deal. Its transport, in refrigerated containers, didn’t give the lettuce its name though: an old Burpees catalogue uses it before refrigerated transport came into vogue.

It is believed that the Romans introduced lettuce to Great Britain, a variant of a plant that grew weed like around the Mediterranean basin and its dried juices were used as a sleep aid by the Elizabethans, then later refined into lactucarium from wild lettuce plants and used throughout World War Two in hospitals as a sedative. The first supplies of Iceberg arrived in Britain during the middle of the 1970’s but it was not until 1984 that our growers overcame environmental challenges to successful cultivation. Marks and Spencer started stocking it in the early eighties, those ‘Prawn Cocktail Years’ of the eponymous book by Simon Hopkinson and Lyndsey Bareham which re-popularised it for the kids of the baby boomers but by 2011, The Telegraph reported its decline with sales falling by 35%.

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Talking to Colin Randal, vegetable product manager at Thompson & Morgan (T&M), a large Suffolk based seed and plant merchant, it is clear that iceberg retains popularity among a core of devotees but, as he says, “Little Gem and ‘midi romaine’ cos are still top of the pile in the lettuce world and Little Gem consistently remains the most popular lettuce variety with gardeners.” Although T&M offer a ‘Crispy Lettuce Mix’ which contains 5 lettuce varieties, many of their customers prefer the oriental mixes of pak choi, mustard, mizuna with added rocket and Greek cress which, like many salad leaf mixes, can take as little as 25 days from sowing to picking. Speed and small leaves rule: it is harder to grow Icebergs on a balcony or small garden. The other advantage to growing your own lettuce is the avoidance of unnecessary waste: according to Love Food, Hate Waste the impact on the environment of throwing away lettuce is 100 times greater than the pack it comes in.

T&M customers still appreciate the crunchy hearts of Iceberg shredded in salads he says, and the variety ‘Lakeland’ and its older relative ‘Webbs Wonderful’ are still popular among gardeners growing from seed but, as he points out, “the choices of icebergs do not change very much. The RHS Iceberg trial in 2014 at Wisley consisted of just 22 varieties and 4 of these (Lakeland, Challenge, Robinson, and Sioux) were in the 1993 and 2001 previous assessment trials.” T&M has an exclusive on ‘Sweet Success’ an Iceberg x Romaine Cos, and ‘Elyburg’ and Iceberg x Gem cos. He adds; “both combine the sweetness and crunch of an iceberg with the dark leaf colour and texture of a Romaine. Neither resembles the iceberg visually and time will tell if supermarkets introduce these to their shelves.”

Although it might not actually possess “beneficial influences on morals, temperance, and chastity” as claimed by John Evelyn in his 1699 Acetaria: A Discourse of Sallets, there is much to commend iceberg, fridge cold and freshly picked, although any seed company that can overcome the problem of a large and hard to use core might have something pretty good on their hands: I have to balance my guilt over throwing out so large a core with my lack of desire to actually do anything with it other than feeding it to the local wildfowl who adore it. Although plenty of commentators have accused the Iceberg of being all about shelf life or appearance over taste, that is as true of other lettuce varieties, many of which lack its textural appeal.

Classic BLT with layers of Iceberg
Classic BLT with layers of Iceberg

With a slightly bitter lactic edge and a cool, clean and delicate taste, iceberg has much to commend it alongside its ability to act as a sturdy carrier for some pretty strongly flavoured ingredients such as blue cheese, anchovies, and vinegars. When I asked for fans to come forward, there were quite a few among well-known food writers and cooks who offered up some great suggestions for using it, both classic and left-field. As Helen Graves, creator of the Peckham Jerk Marinade and the popular Food Stories site said: ” “Yep, like it for a wedge salad or a burger. All about the crunch, innit.” Miss South of the NorthSouthFood website demurred, responding, “I have a great hatred of it. Too wet and too crunchy. But I am a bit of a salad dodger if honest… I am very fond of those soft round butterhead lettuce instead. Less aggressively lettucey to me,” and I do get where she is coming from. For me any tendency towards letttucey aggression stems from its larger leaves which are greedy for plate space, providing shelter it would seem for a small child when left unshredded, akin to those Victorian photographs of infants standing underneath tropical vegetation. Helen countered with “yeah there are far better, but I think it has a place. Prawn cocktail, burgers, wedge salad…”

And therein the rub. I detest a burger served with fancy leaves which droop limply when a hot burger patty is dolloped on top: they prove useless at keeping those layers separate- the meat, cheese, pickles, tomato slice/ lettuce, and bacon- that make up the classic hot/cold/hot/cold burger build. It has to be the cold tooth crackle of an iceberg leaf for me. And Diana Henry responding to my Twitter enquiry agreed, saying “at least it has crunch! And I do quite like it in a burger – the cold crunch against the hot meat.” And if you like American mustard on your burger then its slight bitterness has an affinity with iceberg as does the cold sweetness of seafood which offers another natural pairing.

Jack Monroe is definite in her praise and offers up her usual offbeat take on culinary application, especially for those leftover leaves that tend to sulk unused at the bottom of the salad tray. “I love it. Great snack, wrap, and can bulk out a pesto when it starts to turn…I also love it roasted in a wedge with blue cheese and Caesar dressing and smashed up bacon…” Jack’s Lazarus Pesto recipe seems the best candidate for the iceberg variation and I agree that a bit of char along those leaf edges adds both smokiness and further texture that doesn’t overpower.

It was Diana Henry’s twitter feed which originally prodded me into remembering the essay on the iceberg by James Villas and its recent fall from grace. After a visit to Lockhart London when it first opened, Henry raved over its deeply southern culinary aesthetic, courtesy of Mississippi born and bred chef, Brad McDonald. There’s a wedge salad with iceberg bacon, chopped egg & buttermilk ranch dressing on the Lockharts menu, as Betty Crocker as it gets which is kind of the point- and a point that not all British patrons of his restaurant have grasped. Recipes such as this are infused with a strong element of nostalgia and they are also about simple ingredients that do not have to cost a lot. Buttermilk dressing has a similar lactic rime and the crunch of the lettuce served in a large hand-sized wedge, offsets that dairy creaminess perfectly: it gives the iceberg full permission to brag about its sturdy texture. A riff off the classic BLT if you like, this would not work at all with any other lettuce. Comfort food must go forth and comfort and the bitter green of a classic mesclun salad with its brittle and chien French chic would not provide this. However there are other European substitutes- replace the bacon with chorizo, chunks of ferrous morcilla or the Catalonian fuet to really amp up the robustness of a wedge salad.

Chicken Cobb Salad by stu_spivack/ flickr: CC -ShareAlike 2.0 Generic
Cobb Salad by stu_spivack/ flickr: CC -ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

The Americans really do know how to handle this lettuce. The Cobb Salad was invented by Robert Cobb, owner of Hollywood’s Brown Derby back in 1937. More of a weighty main course, this plateful of a poached chicken breast, avocado, bacon, and tomatoes is set against a backdrop of hearty Iceberg leaves. The Brown Derby created its own old-fashioned French dressing to accompany this and when you see the ingredients, it becomes clear that the iceberg makes the perfect transportation system for such sharp flavours. The classic Salad Louie, a crab and shrimp confection on a bed of Iceberg, spring onions, dressed with hard boiled egg, served with Louie dressing and lemon wedges is another salad that cannot be bettered by the substitution of a bitter green. There’s the sweet iciness of the shrimp and lettuce, both perfect hot weather ingredients and the leaves are not harmed by the need to keep seafood chilled on sweltering days. Unlike a lot of other foods, its flavour is not lost by chilling, it is just different…clever, huh?

It’s not all bygone ideas either. Rick Bayless, Latina cuisine supremo tells us that in Mexico cooks are taking to stirring the lettuce shredded into posole soups and serving it as ensalata compliment to spicy foods, its milkiness acting as a salve to overheated mouths. Funnily enough, he once complained that Mexican food in the sixties became about “melted cheese on everything, salsa that has no heat, Iceberg lettuce on everything” to appeal to white people although he has clearly had a rethink on Iceberg. Grace Young has also popularised a recipe for it, stir-fried with soy, garlic and black pepper which turns the leaves glossy and scented in a manner we are less accustomed to. The Chinese are a nation of people less accustomed to eating their vegetables completely raw, as Young says, and seem to adore the lettuce cooked, either braised or stir-fried or used as a wrapper and they are also experts in texture, showing westerners a thing or two about embracing qualities other than what an ingredient simply tastes like.

Brown Derby Old-Fashioned French Dressing

The cup of water is optional depending upon the degree of oiliness preferred in the dressing.

1 cup water / 1 cup red wine vinegar / 1 tsp sugar / juice 1/2 lemon / 2 and 1/2 tbs salt / 1 tbs. ground black pepper / 1 tbs. Worcestershire sauce / 1 tsp. English mustard/ 1 bead garlic, chopped / 1 cup olive oil / 2 cups salad oil

Blend together all ingredients except for the oils then add the olive and salad oils and mix well again. Chill. Shake before serving. This dressing keeps well in the refrigerator. Can be made and stored in a 2-quart jar, a Mason one for extra kitschy authenticity.

From the Brown Derby Cook Book by Robert H. Cobb

Image of lettuces by Rasbak 2007

For those of you who are totally in love with lettuce, how about buying some lettuce-ware?

Cambric tea and turkish delight- food in children’s literature.

Books we love as children can date and grow out of kilter with our modern mores and beliefs – we still enjoy them, albeit with a more knowing heart and mind. We haven’t checked the Law of Books as to what delineates a classic as of late but these are some of our candidates- both niche and mainstream, for kids which feature fulsome or whimsical descriptions of food in their pages. Some are based around food and others use it to enhance the narrative or as a theme or metaphor but they are all compelling and have stood the test of time, ready to be rediscovered by each new generation of children.

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Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell Hoban

The moral of this story is “Be careful what you wish for.” Frances loves bread and jam so much she wants to eat it every day. Frances is a fussy eater too. She won’t touch her squishy soft-boiled egg. She trades away her chicken salad sandwich at lunch. She turns up her nose at boring veal cutlets. Unless Mother can come up with a plan, Frances just might go on eating bread and jam forever! Mum Badger in her infinite parental wisdom knows the best way to deal with this is to let Frances learn that some things are made less special by over familiarity. Adventures with food and fussy eating is addressed with a light non moralising hand as Frances learns to try new things to eat and more importantly, works this out for herself. Richly descriptive in word and illustration, Hoban creates a prose masterpiece about a childhood life experience.

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Green Eggs and Ham by Doctor Seuss

“Not in a box. 
Not with a fox. 
Not in a house. 
Not with a mouse. 
I would not eat them here or there. 
I would not eat them anywhere. 
I would not eat green eggs and ham. 
I do not like them, Sam-I-am”

(From Green Eggs and Ham by Doctor Seuss)

Do you like green eggs and ham?” asks Sam-I-am  and Sam keeps asking persistently (like very young child we have ever met). With distinctive characters and unmistakable rhymes, Dr. Seuss’s beloved books have earned a place in the cannon of children’s classics. Growing cumulatively longer and longer, the list of places to enjoy green eggs and ham, and friends to enjoy them with, grows. Follow Sam-I-am as he insists that this unusual treat is indeed a delectable snack to be savored everywhere and in every way then cook Nigella’s famous riff on the meal- Green Eggs and Ham.

“The Queen let another drop fall from her bottle on to the snow, and instantly there appeared a round box, tied with green silk ribbon, which, when opened, turned out to contain several pounds of the best Turkish Delight. Each piece was sweet and light to the very centre and Edmund had never tasted anything more delicious. He was quite warm now, and very comfortable.”

 This description of Turkish Delight by CS Lewis in the ‘Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ is the one that tantalised, confused and ultimately disappointed me the most when I finally got to try it for myself. Bouncy, jellified and perfumed, the texture and taste of Turkish Delight was so far removed from the candy of my imagination that to this day I wonder if CS Lewis actually muddled it with some other, lovelier candy. The magical description allied itself with a magical world during my childhood- a time when I so very desperately needed to be taken out of my own unloving and bleak home and my disappointment after trying Turkish Delight for the first time was bitter indeed.

How to make Turkish Delight

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Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs by Judi & Ron Barratt

Once upon a time there was a town called Chewandswallow, devoid of grocery stores. Food is provided by the weather and comes three times a day. It snows mashed potatoes, has split pea soup fog, and rains orange juice. It begins to storm and flood making the food become giant. This forces residents to build boats made out of bread and sail away in search of a safer place. Imagine super sized donuts rolling down the streets and wondering if a pancake could really be bigger than a house? It’s a great story that opens up questions about the weather and how fun the imagination can be, facilitating mind bending feats of creative thought. Read this with your children, get them drawing their own imaginary foods then click here for some surreal Cloudy inspired recipes to make with them.

Matron: “You are suffering from Midnight Feast Illness! Aha! You needn’t pretend to me! If you will feast on pork-pies and sardines, chocolate and ginger-beer in the middle of the night, you can expect a dose of medicine from me the next day.” (From the Malory Towers series of books)

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One of my very favourite things to read as a child was any of the Enid Blyton boarding school tales from the cliff top Malory Towers to the less striking St Claires, attended by the O’Sullivan twins. Despite being set around the time that war would have resulted in serious privation, we are kept insulated from the vagaries of this and other historical event- indeed Clive of India was one of the only historical figures I recall being mentioned (as the groan-worthy subject of revision). Despite the broadest of plot and character brushstrokes, I still read them as an adult. As Jane Brocket writes in ‘Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer’, a Proustian revisiting of the world of food in children’s literature with its recreations of famous meals and recipes, Blyton is especially gifted at depicting amazing scenes of food. Consider that these books were written during a time of rationing, surely Blyton must have been gripped by the throes of wish fulfilment as she wrote? Either that or she had great contacts in the world of black-market foodstuffs.

Think of the writing skill it takes to make sardines pressed into slices of ginger cake sound tempting. That is what some of the girls ate during one midnight feast, as they sat by a cliff-top swimming pool carved from Cornish cliffs wearing tennis shoes and sturdy utilitarian flannel and wool dressing gowns. Then there were the unctuous sounding match tea ‘Jammy Buns’ to celebrate their Malory Towers fifth form Lacrosse win. So much more desirable than their Greggs equivalent! We read the account of the midnight feast in a St Clare music room where Isobel and Pat fry mini-sausages on a purloined camping stove and rail against the sneakiness of Erica who subsequently ratted then out to their schoolmistress. To this day I can smell those sausages…and I don’t even like them. Even the description of Elizabeth’s peppermint creams in ‘The Naughtiest Girl in the School’ books made me long to try what are actually pretty average tasting candies.

In fact this love of celebrating the food in children’s books from an adult perspective leads me onto my next book discovery, the ‘Little House Cookbook’ by Barbara Mi Walker who discovered the “Little House” series when her daughter, Anna, was four. Eight further years of intermittent reading, writing, and testing produced The Little House Cookbook, a lovingly detailed exploration of just about every foodstuff mentioned in the entire series, including the appetites of the seemingly gluttonous Almanzo- Laura’s future husband.

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 The authors bibliography is four and a half pages long and in each chapter, she locates recipes within their historical context and explains every ingredient. Did you know that at in Laura Ingalls’s day, the tomatoes available were not sweet in the manner that they are now?  There were no chemical raising agents (egg whites would be stiffly beaten and ipes to the modern day kitchen.

Take the recipe for Stewed Jack rabbit with Dumplings, “If you can’t find a hunter to give you a skinned rabbit (he will want the pelt), look for a farm-raised rabbit at a German butcher shop. (Hasenpfeffer is a favorite German dish).” There is the Mittel European influence upon American migrant cooking right there.

Horehound candy, vinegar pie, parched corn and Johnny Cakes; fried apples ‘n onions, (the favourite birthday treat of Almanzo); green tomatoes or pumpkins were used for pie when apples were not available. They ate Vanity cakes at a Plum Creek birthday, the cakes’ puffed up emptiness serving as analogy for the hated Nellie Olsen  and savoured salt-pork melting into pans of baked beans: even the loaves made from wheat hand-ground in a little coffee grinder during the blizzard racked Long Winter are researched and written about. I was obsessed with trying Wintergreen Berries, something that Almanzo (again!) and his sister Alice went ‘pawing for’ on the snow-frozen slopes of New York State where their father had a prosperous farm. The description of crunchy berries gushing aromatic icy juices into their mouths was more than I could bear. The fact that I live in an area with chalky alkaline soil, ill suited to growing the plant that bears these berries, Gaultheria procumbens is a further torture.

I have never drunk tea and detest milk but I got my grandmother to make me a Cambric tea just like little Grace drank- basically hot water flavoured with milk and a smidgeon of tea, so comforting during the cold and a hint of just how poor the family often were. I basically spent my childhood pretending to be Laura and named my first born after her too. “At noon Ma sliced bread and filled bowls with the hot bean broth and they all ate where they were, close to the stove. They all drank cups of strong, hot tea. Ma even gave Grace a cup of cambric tea. Cambric tea was hot water and milk, with only a taste of tea in it, but little girls felt grown-up when their mothers let them drink cambric tea”. (The Long Winter, by Laura Ingalls Wilder).

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Another fantasy figure from my childhood (I begged for a hay filled mattress that would smell clean and sweet), Heidi lived the kind of simple life that even as a young child, I recognised as something of an unattainable fantasy. The contrast between this unctuous piece of cheese on toast and the hard rolls with the knot on top served at the formal dinners in Clara’s frigid and cold city home was painful to me. The author, Johanna Spyri was actually a resident of Zürich and thought of the story of the simple Alpine girl while she was convalescing from an illness in the Grisons, which is in the eastern part of the country and a biographical parallel with Clara’s illness:

 “Meanwhile the old man held a large piece of cheese on a long iron fork over the fire, turning it round and round till it was toasted a nice golden yellow color on each side … the old man filled her bowl again to the brim and set it before the child, who was now hungrily beginning her bread having first spread it with the cheese, which after being toasted was soft as butter” (from ‘Heidi’ by Johanna Spyri)

Finding out what type of cheese this was turned out to be no easy task when you consider that goats cheese was actually not eaten that often in Switzerland then, even though Uncle Alp was a goat farmer who made cheese from his own animals. Cheese toasting over a fire was not restricted to people living in huts on the side of an Alpine mountain though; this method using toasting forks was also written about by Enid Blyton and by Robert Louis Stevenson in ‘Treasure Island’ but none comes close to Spyri’s description. It is THE uber cheese on toast but unlike Proust I have yet to rediscover my Heidi Temps Perdu. I Still don’t know what type of cheese it was although Raclette is the likeliest candidate, being an excellent melting cheese.

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As a young girl I read and re-read Susan Coolidge’s ‘What Katy Did’ series of books and was intrigued by the bottle of shrub they took to drink on one of their rainy day picnics in the loft at the very start of the book. Although Cece later admitted that the ‘Shrub’ was little more than vinegar and water, I was determined to both try it and enjoy it <shudder> and took a glass of what we had, Sarsons, mixed with tap water down to the orchard at the bottom of my grandparents garden and tentatively forced myself to drink it. Illusions firmly shattered and deciding that American vinegar was clearly superior to ours (or they had the stomach and constitution of goats) I shelved any ideas about this becoming my new go to summer refreshment.
 Until the latest post from the Bojon Gourmet landed in my in box that is. One of my favourite food writing bloggers from San Francisco, her Shrub recipe has about as much in common with my (and Cece’s) version as the saintly and slightly sanctimonious Cousin Helen from the books had with Mae West. Lavender, Kumquat, honey and apple cider vinegar all add a mellifluous depth that cancels out any tendency towards the tongue-sucking rasp of vinegar. The colour is amazing, the floral and citrus sophisticated enough for parties. Go on, try it. Even Katie would have been made good by this drink and would thus have avoided the back injury this, in part, morality tale visited upon her to show us what happens to naughty girls.

The ‘What Katy Did’ series are liberally scattered with references to food and to the occasions surrounding it. Here is the picnic in their version of Paradise where they built a rose bower to eat under;

“Katy, who sat in the middle, untied and lifted the lid of the largest basket, while all the rest peeped eagerly to see what was inside.First came a great many ginger cakes. These were carefully laid on the grass to keep till wanted; buttered biscuit came next – three a piece, with slices of cold lamb laid in between; and last of all were a dozen hard-boiled eggs, and a layer of thick bread and butter sandwiched with corned-beef. Aunt Izzie had put up lunches for Paradise before, you see, and knew pretty well what to expect in the way of appetite.Oh, how good everything tasted in that bower, with the fresh wind rustling the poplar leaves, sunshine and sweet wood-smells about them, and birds singing overhead! No grown-up dinner party ever had half so much fun. Each mouthful was a pleasure; and when the last crumb had vanished, Katy produced the second basket, and there, oh, delightful surprise! were seven little pies – molasses pies, baked in saucers – each with a brown top and crisp, candified edge, which tasted like toffy and lemon-peel, and all sorts of good things mixed up together”

And who recalls Debbie’s Jumbles sent in the boarding school Christmas hamper to end all hampers? I found the books faintly torturous; even the ‘thick pale slices of pudding with a thin sugary sauce’ served by the new headteacher on one of her weird food fad regimes for school lunch tempted me. What on earth was this pudding?

Katy’s trip to Europe with its ill fated expeditions to various locations associated with her favourite novels had her gravely disillusioned with our food, showing particular distaste for some disagreeable flannel blanket-textured muffins, which she described as ‘scorched and tough’. Little pan fried fish reminiscent of what she called ‘Scup’, commonly known now as ‘Porgy’ with its fine light flavour, and a light gooseberry preserve both met with her approval in what she called ‘Storybook England’.
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An old, little known book, ‘Girl of the Limberlost’ by Gene Stratton Porter, is a story of a girl of the mid western woods; a buoyant, loveable self-reliant American with a philosophy of love and kindness towards all things; her hope is never dimmed. The story and romance of Elnora growing up in the wetlands of northern Indiana is also a cautionary tale for ecology-lovers.

 Gene Stratton-Porter paints a picture of coming industry destroying nature and those who try to save what can be saved for future generations. My sigh of relief when Elenora’s mother turned her life around and started acting like a good mother as opposed to her original not so good one, was immense and of course that meant that food = love with glorious descriptions of the goodies placed in Elnora’s lunchbox- spice cookies, raisin turtles, candied pears, popcorn balls, haws, doughnuts, and hazelnuts to share with friends or feast on alone.

Turtles brand candy were developed by Johnson’s Candy Company (which became DeMet’s Candy Company in 1923) in 1918, after a salesman came into the commissary’s dipping room and showed a candy to one of the dippers, who pointed out that the candy looked like a turtle. Soon after, Johnson’s Candy Company was making the same kind of candy and selling it under the name “Turtles.” Commonly made in the American South, they are now a classic of the candymaker- as a child without the internet to do my research, my mind ran in ignorant riot over their name. You can imagine what I thought they were made from.

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Less a children’s book and more of a book that I read as a child, ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn‘ by Betty Smith beat Jamie Oliver to the post regarding the mythologizing of Cuisina Povera with its delicious description of mother figure Katie Nolan’s pitiful attempts to make a bone with scraps of meat on it, an onion and some stale bread into what she called Frikadellen.

Frying scraps of stale bread, sending the children to cajole that bone from a butcher who would give them the one with the most meat attached (in exchange for a ‘pinch on their cheeks’), making nothing stretch to something because of her marriage to a charming yet feckless Irish singing waiter, Katie is a true heroine. Jack Monroe and her campaign against food poverty with a blog offering inexpensive ways to feed a family, comes to mind when I read this book and as an adult, fully cognizant of the hardships faced by many families, it makes me weep. Read this and see what I am referring to:

“The Nolans practically lived on that stale bread and what amazing things Katie could make from it! She’d take a loaf of stale bread, pour boiling water over it, work it up into a paste, flavor it with salt, pepper, thyme, minced onion and an egg (if eggs were cheap), and bake it in the oven. When it was good and brown, she made a sauce from half a cup of ketchup, two cups of boiling water, seasoning, a dash of strong coffee, thickened it with flour and poured it over the baked stuff. It was good, hot, tasty and staying. What was left over was sliced thin the next day and fried in hot bacon fat.

 “Mama made a very fine bread pudding from slices of stale bread, sugar, cinnamon and a penny apple sliced thin. When this was baked brown, sugar was melted and poured over the top. Sometimes she made what she had named Weg Geschnissen, which laboriously translated meant something made with bread bits that usually would be thrown away. Bits of bread were dipped into a batter made from flour, water, salt and an egg and then fried in deep hot fat. While they were frying, Francie ran down to the candy store and bought a penny’s worth of brown rock candy. This was crushed with a rolling pin and sprinkled on top of the fried bits just before eating. The crystals didn’t quite melt and that made it wonderful.
 “Saturday supper was a red letter meal. The Nolans had fried meat! A loaf of stale bread was made into pulp with hot water and mixed with a dime’s worth of chopped meat into which an onion had been cleavered. Salt and a penny’s worth of minced parsley were added for flavor. This was made up into little balls, fried and served with hot ketchup. These meat balls had a name, fricadellen, which was a great joke with Francie and Neeley.

They lived mostly on these things made from stale bread, and condensed milk and coffee, onions, potatoes, and always the penny’s worth of something bought at the last minute, added for fillip”

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The most memorable banquets aren’t necessarily the most palatable or convivial: take the very adult Oscar Wildes black banquet in ‘Portrait of Dorian Gray’ with charcoal pathways, basalt-edged ponds and baskets of purple-black violets adorning the black-clothed table. Feasting on dark olives and Russian rye bread, slices of black puddings turgid with clotted blood shipped over from Frankfurt and wild game served in puddles of liquorice-dark sauces, the guests wore black and ate off black-edged flatware whilst mourning the passing of the protagonist’s sexual potency. Not one for children although the pepper laden meal that Cruella De Vil invites the dogs owners the Dearlys. to is just as forboding and sinister. Taking place in a Dalmatian-inspired room with its black marble walls and white marble table, reminiscent of a sarcophagus or grand tomb, Dodie Smith tells us:

‘The soup was dark purple. And what did it taste of?

Pepper! The fish was bright green. And what did it taste of? Pepper! The meat was pale blue. And what did that taste of? Pepper! Everything tasted of pepper, even the ice cream – which was black. (The Hundred and One Dalmatians)

The meal become entrenched in our minds eye in a far more potent manner as it takes the staff of life- food, and marries it with death in that tomb -like room.

 

 

More Cook Books Reviewed

Sweet Eats for All: 250 Decadent Gluten-Free, Vegan Recipes–from Candy to Cookies, Puff Pastries to Petits Fours by Allyson Kramer

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If you have food allergies or have to cook for somebody with them, it is extra useful to be able to make classic recipes as opposed to some esoteric concoction that sets the allergic person even farther apart by dint of weird and spooky ingredients.

In ‘Sweet Eats for All’ Allyson Kramer keeps the promise of the title by offering safe alternatives to classic recipes such as Key Lime Pie, German chocolate cake and puddings such as pots de creme, albeit made with fashionable chocolate butternut. The person with allergies can once more enjoy the cakes, candies and puddings they always saw as denied them.

No food lover likes to be out of gastro-fashion and Kramer nods to the current ur ingredients such as Matcha and the canny use of vegetables to add moisture and texture. Clever techniques and substitutions, cool ingredients (smoked salt topping!) plus childhood nostalgic favourites such as lollipops and ice creams are included and all are underpinned by Kramers fifteen years of experience in cooking and recipe development.

A great book that belongs on the shelf of anybody with a food allergy or those seeking a new way of eating.

Juniors Cookbook by Marvin & Walter Rosen

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Famous for its classic American Diner food and bakery, Juniors is one of NYC’s most famous and iconic restaurants. The cheesecake recipes alone make the cover price worth it; we have baked probably hundreds of these over the years and the Juniors cheesecake has been voted NYC’s best. Baked on a classic sponge base, flavoured with a little lemon peel and a whole lot of vanilla, we have never eaten better. The recipes are interspersed with the history of the restaurant and Brooklyn with downhome Jewish cooking well represented. Recipes for cheese blintzes, the classic Black n White cookies, Macaroni Cheese, all manner of cookies and mains are all easy to follow but you will need to buy USA style measuring cups.

The Pastry Queen: Royally Good Recipes From the Texas Hill Country’s Rather Sweet Bakery and Cafe by Rebecca Rather and Alison Oresman

 

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One of our favourite ever chefs, recipe creators and cookbook writers, Rebecca Rather is a distinguished pastry chef and restaurateur in the Texan Hill Country town of Frederiksburg. Rebecca was proprietor of ‘The Rather Sweet Bakery’ and ‘The Pink Pig’ and her books are packed with stories and photographic essays that act as testimonies to just how good and reliable her recipes are. Who would have thought that adding fresh mashed potato to Jailhouse Cinnamon Rolls would make them light and airy?

Her Tuxedo Cake has been requested for every child’ birthday we know- three layers of luscious chocolate sponge drenched in chocolate and frosted with Creme Chantilly. The giant PB&J cookies are the size of dinner plates (everything is bigger in Texas) and chicken pot pies made and baked in pastry topped dishes look and taste superb. We have made nearly all her recipes and they range from super indulgent cakes ‘Mexican Tres Leches Cake, to yeast baking such as Kolaches- pillowy sweet yeast buns stuffed with either savoury or sweet fillings. Main courses and snacks are well provided for too with King Ranch Casseroles and vividly coloured bowls of soup packed with Tex Mex flavour.

The Pastry Queen Christmas: Big-Hearted Holiday Entertaining, Texas Style by Rebecca Rather and Alison Oresman 

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One of THE best and original Christmas baking and cooking books, jam packed with table dressing and serving ideas, this book is undoubtedly what gave Nigella some of her ideas regarding her own Christmas book. Rebecca Rather is a trained pastry chef, caterer and restaurateur and her recipes always, always work without being faffy and cheffy. She is fond of family style meals, eschewing individual portions and you will find wonderful tall layer cakes spiked with alcohol, fruit and inventive flavourings. Cocktails and party drinks are a strength too. 

Our favourites? Whiskey Glazed Eggnog Cakes, In-the-bag Chile Frito Pie, Cranberry Margaritas, Cowboy Coffee and Olive Beef Tenderloin. Oh and don’t forget to try the Warm Pear Ginger Upside Down Cake with Amaretto Whipped cream.

Classic Spanish Cooking: Recipes for Mastering the Spanish Kitchen by Elisabeth Luard 

 

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Elisabeth Luard is an ‘insiders’ choice. Not backed by a mega bucks publicity campaign, her books sell steadily to people who appreciate beautifully understated, knowledgeable food writing underpinned by accurate recipes that work. This is a trans-regional ‘Greatest Hits’ of Spain with foolproof recipes for Gazpacho, Tortilla, Albondigas and Paella. Luard once lived in Andalusia and knows of what she writes, speaks and eats.

Best Food Writing edited by Holly Hughes (2000-2013)

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One of my favourite food writing anthologies, Hughes collates and edits the best food writers from around the World in each yearly collection. The latest edition features NYC chef and restaurateur Gabrielle Hamilton (Guess who’s coming to dinner), Jonathon Gold on Hawaiian food trucks, Carole Penn-Romine on ‘Coke and Peanuts’ and a very moving meditation on feeding ice cream to her dying Mother by Sarah DiGregorio. Previous editions feature well known British food writers too but the stories told are of events and emotions common to all nationalities. Everybody eats!

Eat: The Little Book of Fast Food by Nigel Slater

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Returning to the format of his first books and updating it for the Twitter generation, Slater has produced reams (over 600) of user friendly non faffy recipes that I think parent and other time pressed cooks will find both invaluable and intelligent. The book alone is a joy to possess being chunky and beautifully designed with its cloth covers and text-economical recipe descriptions. Yes it presupposes that you have some cooking experience; I wouldn’t buy it for a teenager who did not know what ‘braise’ means for example. But for those cognizant of the basics and keen to experiment, this book would make a great gift or leaving home present.

A Tale of Twelve Kitchens by Jake Tilson

 

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Infused with the artists sensibility of its author, this is a book about living, travelling and cooking as you go. An inveterate collector, Jake Tilson’s book has something of the scrapbook about it but it is not scrappy. Moving in a linear fashion from his English countryside youth through London and marriage which led him to Scotland and then kitchens and cooking in far flung places – Santa Fe, Tuscany and LA, this book is filled with achievable recipes with a sense of place. Try Dominican Black beans, Secret Garden Mulberry Sauce and Butteries. 

The Clandestine Cake Club Cookbook by Lynn Hill

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Across the UK and beyond, thousands of home bakers have been meeting covertly in hidden locations with the same simple mission: bake, eat and gossip about cake. These are the members of the phenomenally popular Clandestine Cake Club and here are their recipes. From Smoked Chile Chocolate Cake to the lovely Citrus section, these cakes are reliable. They work, they look good but do not require Peggy Porschen levels of expertise in the decorating department and they taste superb.

The Clatter Of Forks And Spoons by Richard Corrigan

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Based on the dictum that ‘everything should taste of itself’ Corrigan creates recipes that are hearty, earthy yet simple in he does not expect you to use thirty ingredients from far flung corners of the globe. This is a big read of a book full of memoir and stories of his youth reflected in reinterpretations of meals from those times. We love the Bentley’s Fish Pie, the Eight Hour Lamb and wonderful crab dishes.

Made In Sicily by Giorgio Locatelli

 

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Companion volume to his ‘Made In Italy’ and both books are huge, all encompassing tomes. This volume focuses on the regional cooking of Sicily, an Italian island with a cuisine bearing the imprint of its many invaders. Locatelli intersperses memoir and food writing with intelligently compiled recipes base upon a love for the island kindled in him aged ten. Simpler in ingredient and preparation than his previous book ‘Made In Italy’ which is reflective of the Sicilian way, this book should be used in tandem with seasonal produce where possible. Broccoli, Chile and Almond Salad, Lamb with Broad Beans and Cassatta (Ricotta Cake) are all favourites of ours. 

 A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table by Molly Wizenberg

images (20)Molly’s blog ‘Orangette’ was one of the earliest and exists to this day. This book is both food memoir, an account of life and family and full of excellent modern recipes. Her writing is poignant, sharp and never strays into food hyperbole. Favourites? Vanilla Bean Buttermilk Cake with Glazed Oranges and Creme Fraiche and Doron’s Meatballs with PineNuts, Coriander and Golden Raisins. The titles alone make us swoon. Molly now has her own restaurant in Seattle called ‘Delaunay’ and a new cookbook due out this May 2014. We await this eagerly and encourage you all to follow her wonderful blog http://orangette.blogspot.co.uk/

How To Eat by Nigella Lawson

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Is it hyperbolic to describe this as a seminal food and cooking text? We don’t think so and are proud to declare ourselves as very early Nigella adopters, being fans of her early ‘Vogue’ food columns that went onto become this book. Nigella’s first book is written with such love, warmth and longing for memories of past meals that it will resonate forever. This is the kind of food book to hunker down with and read as you would a work of fiction. You will be guaranteed to want to cook from it too as it is jampacked with useful achievable advice for everyone. Personally we found the weaning and infant feeding chapters full of useful advice- like having a Health Visitor, Mother, friend and champion cook rolled into one and standing by my side whilst we agonised over what to feed our children. For us the cover price alone is justified by Nigella’s tip on how to prep large amounts of kids party Marmite sandwiches. Simply beat butter and Marmite together in a bowl until soft and incorporated and then spread the bread with it. Amazing. Simple.

A Girl Called Jack- 100 delicious budget recipes by Jack Monroe.

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Her writing is superb, she is socially and politically moral and her recipes are not runners up in taste and style. Jack is a cash-strapped single mum living in Southend. When she found herself with a shopping budget of just £10 a week to feed herself and her young son, she addressed the situation with immense resourcefulness, creativity and by embracing her local supermarket’s ‘basics’ range. She created recipe after recipe of delicious, simple and upbeat meals that were outrageously cheap. Learn with Jack Monroe’s A Girl Called Jack how to save money on your weekly shop whilst being less wasteful and creating inexpensive, tasty food. Recipes include Vegetable Masala Curry for 30p a portion, Pasta alla Genovese for 19p a portion, Fig, Rosemary and Lemon Bread for 26p and a Jam Sponge reminiscent of school days for 23p a portion. We loved the Gigantes Plaki- tomato-ey Greek style large Butter Beans scooped up with whatever bread you have or versatile accompaniment to grains, rice or pasta.

Xanthe Clay calls her sassy and was an early champion of Jack Monroe’s blog. Xanthe Clay knows her stuff.

Go forth and buy this book. Unlike Jamie, she hasn’t priced her ‘budget meal’ book at a ridiculous price (Jamie ended up being shamed into donating large quantities of his book to libraries) nor does Jack Monroe make rude, disparaging remarks about poorer people in order to generate publicity.

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking by Anya von Bremzen 

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In 1974, when Anya was ten, she and her mother fled to the USA, with no winter coats and no right of return. These days, Anya is the doyenne of high-end food writing. And yet, the flavour of Soviet kolbasa, like Proust’s madeleines, transports her back to that vanished Atlantis known as the USSR in this book with its wide ranging writings covering seven decades of Soviet Russia seen through a prism of one families meals.

A Slice Of Cherry Pie by Julia Parsons.

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The first book by a well regarded food blogger, ‘A Slice Of Cherry Pie’ melds food with beautifully compositions of the places, people and memories underpinning her recipe creations: a mix of modern rustic dishes inspired and inflected by a love of eating and sharing. The stylish scrapbook effect, mixing text, photographs, family memorabilia and montages makes this book a visual and tactile pleasure. From chocolate cakes to more unusual risotti, the recipes work.

How to be a Domestic Goddess by Nigella Lawson

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Rarely has a book title been more (wilfully) misinterpreted. The original tongue in cheek intentions of Lawson when she named the book have been distorted into an anti Feminist ‘Get back in the kitchen’ edict far from the original intention. Indeed what this book suggests (as do all of Lawson’s) is that the kitchen can be another source of pleasure and comfort in the multi faceted like that many women today lead. 

This is one of our favourites of Lawson’s books being published just after ‘How To Eat’ when she still felt like a relatively undiscovered treasure. Her narrative is impregnated with all five senses, evoking your own memories through the recounting of her own. Lawson sets the scene before each recipe often crediting others for their creation. Rosebud Madeleines, Granny Boy’s Biscuits, Schnecken, Boston Cream Pie, Cheese Blintzes and Joe Dolce’s Cheesecake- Lawson journeys through France, Ireland, North American and her beloved Italy bringing a combination of faithful adherence and culinary reinterpretation. One of our favourite ever baking recipes is found in this book – Mini Lime Syrup Sponges. They are super cute and tiny mouthfuls of sharp sweet heaven.

The Hairy Dieters Eat for Life: How to Love Food, Lose Weight and Keep it Off for Good! – Dave Myers & Si King

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These guys came into Mumsnet Towers for a webchat in January and gave great chat about this book and their escapades of late.

The feedback was positive from the many Mumsnetters who have cooked from this book with comments along the lines of ‘tasting not like diet food’, ‘easy’, ‘family friendly’. Their motto is ‘Flavour has no calories’ and these recipes certainly pack the former in full of fruit, vegetables and lean meat and fish. Traditionally high fat and sugar foods such as Cornish Pasties, pancakes, Pork Schnitzel and chicken Bhuna are reformatted as low fat versions sacrificing none of the pleasure. Warm Nectarine Tart got our attention.

Roast by Marcus Verbene

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From the award winning restaurant in London’s Borough Market comes this sumptuously designed but down to earth book. Making full use of QR technology with its embedded film clips of culinary techniques and step by step photo guides, this book will guide you through each meal of the day using British and local ingredients and time honoured techniques brought up to date. From Anchovy rubbed roast mutton to wonderful fish and shellfish recipes as befits a former chef at J Sheekeys (the famous seafood and fish restaurant), this book captures the best of modern British cookery. 

One of the great recommendations by Harris & Harris books in Clare- http://www.harrisharris.co.uk/

Low Carb Revolution by Annie Bell

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Reducing your carbohydrate intake is proven as not only the fastest way of shedding those unwanted pounds, but keeping them off in the long-term. Here is a book that shows you how to achieve that without giving up any of your favourite dishes. Award-winning food writer Annie Bell approaches the Low Carb diet as a food lover and passionate cook, which is reflected in her approach to this way of life throughout the book. 

Annie Bell is a favourite of ours and probably bears some responsibility for a few extra poundage because of her amazing and seductive looking baking. This book is packed with creative savoury recipes such as salt and pepper duck (not something that tends to be seen as ‘diet’ food) that won’t make us feel deprived plus some puddings- a crustless mango cheesecake has been earmarked for making sooner rather than later!

Kitchen Diaries II by Nigel Slater

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Includes over 250 recipes, many from his BBC TV series Dish of the Day, Simple Suppers and Simple Cooking. From Nigel Slater,  one of our best-loved food writers, a beautiful and inspiring companion volume to his bestselling Kitchen Diaries. Slater has maintained an eating & food diary for years and this is the second anthology of entries- a composite of a year of eating. From grilled things in juice and cooking fat smeared rolls to pork rib ragu (worth the cover price alone) this book is rammed with simple and delectable ways to eat.