Penguin GREAT FOOD series

This is the second feature article about the Great Food series from Penguin Books (see the first article here). Slim paperbacks with pretty covers, the GREAT FOOD series will attract many food lovers, presenting entertaining extracts from the authors’ works. We asked our reviewers to have a look at a number of them and give their thoughts. Part 1 presented four reviews, of books by Artusi, Pepys, Dumas and Toklas.

Although this is a very enjoyable series of books as they stand, a broad theme in our reviews of this series has been the disappointment in the lack of background provided by Penguin: readers discover little about the original works (all the Great Food series are slim, abridged versions of other works). Presumably, Penguin didn’t want buyers being tempted to actually buy the more fulfilling originals instead, so the Great Food series is a bit like a mystery sample bag. We felt it did a disservice to literary food lovers, despite being a fantastic introduction to these authors.

Duncan Markham
Editor

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Reviews

A Middle Eastern Feast
by Claudia Roden
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“I have long been haunted by the cries and songs of the street vendors in Cairo in my childhood.” I too have long been haunted by the way in which Roden weaves food and folklore together, drawing on the rich storytelling tradition of the Arab world in her 1968 New Book of Middle Eastern Food, a love letter to the life she and her family left behind when they fled Egypt in 1956. This slim volume –102 well-edited pages – serves as an introduction of sorts to many of the classics of Middle Eastern cooking; Hummus Bi Tahina, Chermoula, Ful Medames, dishes whose names roll from western tongues with ease in the 21st century. Despite this, and 40-odd years later, Roden still manages to make them sound fresh with her evocative phrasing. On Baba Ghanoush, that smoky cream of eggplant, garlic and lemon, “It is exciting and vulgarly seductive.” Oh, yes.

Roden writes for confident cooks even though the recipes are, in essence, simple food, collected through exhaustive research and asking the right kind of cook the right kind of question. “Continue cooking until the chicken is very tender” may not be exacting in its timing, but she wasn’t writing (or recording) recipes for the kind of cook who needed hand-holding. Serves as in introductory taste – like the entire series – to what the longer version holds, and it’s sent me scurrying back to my dog-eared, much-loved copy often. Perfect for keeping in your handbag when stuck in doctor’s surgeries, train rides, that sort of thing. It’s a beautifully edited book with a new (2011) introduction and a stunner of a jacket. My only criticism is that an index – however minimal – would have made a good book great.

- reviewed by Lucy

Buffalo Cake and Indian Pudding
by Dr A. W. Chase
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Buffalo Cake and Indian Pudding is one of the few non-European titles in the Great Food series, authored by one of those characteristically 19th Century entrepreneurs, Dr A. W. Chase (“travelling physician, salesman, author and self-made man” as the book’s blurb states). This book is an extract from Dr Chase’s Third, Last and Complete Receipt Book from 1887. Although Chase’s work was very popular at the time, its fame did not endure and is rarely mentioned nowadays.

The volume consists of a modest number of entries, mostly containing recipes and tips about cooking. Although a few entries offer no value to the modern reader, being neither novel nor outmoded, the richness of even this slim volume is the strongly American and historical context reflected in everything from the ingredients to some of the more mundane tips (e.g. most cooks know how to test if a cake is done, but may not think about how it might have been done in the past: with a broom splint, rather than a wooden skewer). From the use of sweet potato and molasses, to the commonness of “Indian [corn] bread”, or the popularity of apples, Buffalo Cake and Indian Pudding offers many interesting tidbits of knowledge. The entries are predominantly about bread, pastry, puddings and pies, but whether this was Chase’s bias in his original works is unclear. Alongside all this are many opinionated asides which could provide amusement, irritation or insight for the reader.

- reviewed by Duncan

The Chef at War
by Alexis Soyer
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In 1855 Alexis Soyer, a famous and notorious celebrity chef of the time, set off to the Crimean War on a mission to reorganise the hospital and field kitchens operated by the British Army. The Chef at War comprises extracts from his subsequent memoir which gloried in the title A Culinary Campaign being Historical reminiscences of the late War, with the Plain Art of cookery for Military and Civil Institutions, the Army, Navy, Public, etc. published in 1857. The selection in A Chef at War covers Soyer’s decision to offer his services to the government ‘gratuitously’, his making arrangements in London for his departure, his time at Scutari reforming the hospital kitchens, his time on the front line supervising improvements to the field kitchens and ends with some of his ‘receipts’ such as ‘Semi-stewed mutton and barley. Soup for 100 men’, ‘French Beef Soup, or Pot-au-feu, Camp Fashion, for the Ordinary Canteen-Pan’, and ‘Soyer’s Universal Devil Mixture’. It probably goes without saying that this is not a book you would buy for the recipes.

Soyer was a flamboyant and exuberant man of action. He was cheerful and enthusiastic, a flirtatious romantic with a good sense of the humorous, an unashamed self promoter, a good organiser, a resourceful and clever chef and an imaginative inventor. By anyone’s standards, let alone his own, his contribution to the Crimean campaign was significant and he deserves to be much better known today for his achievements, his extraordinary personality and his role as perhaps the first modern celebrity chef.

I found A Chef at War an interesting introduction to an important historical figure whose own words I might not have been tempted to read otherwise. Anyone inspired to find out more about Alexis Soyer should read A Chef at War and then read the rest of his story in Relish: The Extraordinary Life of Alexis Soyer Victorian Celebrity Chef by Ruth Cowen

- reviewed by Alison

Notes from Madras
by Colonel Wyvern
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Perhaps the most interesting thing about Penguin’s Great Food series is the range of authors the titles cover. Among more familiar names on offer there are some relative unknowns – to the 21st century reader, at least – and Colonel Wyvern’s Notes from Madras (selected extracts from his 1878 book Culinary Jottings for Madras) is one such gem. Wyvern’s writing style is so entertaining, so highly amusing, that it is little wonder he found an ardent admirer in Elizabeth David. Not only is Wyvern engaging as a writer, he is also accurate and very detailed in his culinary direction, a master of balancing complex curry blends. Chapters cover curry-making (as the British know it) extensively and exhaustively, on keeping a Good Kitchen, and a there’s a hilariously out-of-date discussion about camp cookery. Who, these days, takes a servant with them while roughing it? Remarkably sensible cooking thoughts, nonetheless.

There are undoubtedly far more authentic Indian cookbooks to be had, but that is not the point here; Wyvern was an exceedingly good cook with exceptionally good taste, and was writing at the height of Britain’s empirical rule in India. Notes from Madras, therefore, must be read in its historical context – frequent cringe-worthy references to the slapdash cooking of the “natives” would never get past an editor these days. Wyvern was attempting to reintroduce British cooks to the wonders of Indian flavours, and to introduce the best of European cooking to India too. He set up a cooking school when he returned to England to do just that. It’s a delightful, often witty, and surprisingly delicious read.

By the way, the web is maddeningly short on information about Wyvern, but this piece in The Independent is rather fun.

- reviewed by Lucy

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