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Thursday, December 11, 2003

Today Julie Powell announced the official closing of the Julie/Julia Project.  For those not familiar with her or her blog, Julie Powell was a bright, frustrated administrative professional working in Lower Manhattan and living in Brooklyn (later Long Island City, Queens) when she decided to embark on an ambitious project, namely preparing each of the 536 recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck.  By day she went to work; at night she came home and prepared blanquette de veau and Jambon Braise Morvandelle and a series of aspics, each more terrifying than the one that preceded it.  Each night’s cooking adventure was recorded in her blog, which attracted a large, fascinated and devoted readership.  Eventually the media (including CBS News and Amanda Hesser of the New York Times) took notice, and today Julie Powell has an agent and a book deal.  Her book is scheduled to be published in the spring of 2005.  It is a writer and cook’s dream writ large, a career born of something originally started as a lark, and in my opinion, it could not happen to a more deserving cook/writer than Julie.  Her blog is—or was—great reading.  Julie is funny, salty, opinionated, bemused by the task she set in motion, yet ultimately glad for it.

When news of Julie Powell’s book deal broke, I received a lot of helpful suggestions to try the same thing.  Hey!  You’re a writer, you know food, why don’t you pick a cookbook and cook your way through it and blog it and shop around for a publishing deal? Because the people who recommend this course of action are generally sweet and kind, I try to be diplomatic when I tell them I’ve heard better ideas.  Assuming that I had the stamina to do something like that, there is something vaguely pathetic about glomming onto a good idea and hoping lightning will strike twice.  This might be fine for network programming executives, but I don’t want to do it, at least not now.  Regardless of my opinion of—I was not impressed, to put it mildly—I will give her credit for having enough moxie to be first out of the gate with the internet-panhandling idea.  I give less credit to people who tried to panhandle their way to divorces, breast implants and sportscars.

Nevertheless, a girl can fantasize, and if enough time passes where it is once again acceptable to cook one’s way across a book and keep a meticulous journal of it, I have my candidate at the ready.

The first edition of Modern Cookery for Private Families by Eliza Acton was published in 1845.  A revised, updated edition was published 10 years later; it is this edition that was published in facsimile by Southover Press in 1993.  It has been acknowledged as one of the finest cookbooks in the English language, and it is easily one of the best cookbooks I own, superior, in my opinion, to the vaunted 20th century kitchen bible, The Joy of Cooking.

Although it was written over 150 years ago, Modern Cookery is still so appropriate, so usable and practical that it would not be untoward to think of it as Timeless Cookery for Private Families instead.  Unlike many of the cookbooks published in the 18th and 19th centuries, Miss Acton’s cookbook was directed at small, middle-class families, rather than to the mistresses of households with a full complement of servants.  As a result, very little scaling up or down needs to be done to these recipes to make them practical for daily use today.  Most of her contemporaries included detailed directions for housekeeping, which, while interesting from a historical perspective, ultimately gives the books a dated feel.  Miss Acton preferred to focus, in her words, on the “elegance and economy” of food, and it shows.  Every page is replete with the consideration, intelligence and energy she brought to her work, and the result is a sublime collection of recipes and instruction.

I reread the soups chapter on the subway home tonight, and I was filled with the desire to make every single soup, even consomme, the time-consuming and meticulous rendering of bones into clear, concentrated meat stock.  I wanted to make milk soups, and beef tea, and mulligatawny, and the extraordinary-sounding Mademoiselle Jenny Lind’s Soup, which was given to Miss Acton by a popular Swedish writer, who in turn obtained it from the great singer’s cook.  It is made from strong veal or beef stock, eggs, cream and sago, a tapioca-like starch.  Miss Acton said that Miss Lind tended to take it before performances, as she found the sago and eggs soothing to the chest and beneficial to the voice.  (This recipe was later “appropriated” by Isabella Beeton, who changed its proportions slightly and rechristened it as “Soupe a la Cantatrice.” About 100 of Miss Acton’s recipes were similarly lifted, revised ever so slightly, and published without attribution in Beeton’s Book of Household Management. Sadly, Mrs. Beeton was neither the first nor the last writer/editor to produce a cookbook in this way.  The 18th and 19th centuries were rife with cookbook plagiarists, and it would be disingenuous to say that such dirty tricks are behind us today.)

It is a dangerous thing for me to quote Miss Acton, because the temptation is strong to quote the entire book (but I will not).  I will give, however, her recipe for something which sounds like a heavenly dish for a cold wet night, an original recipe of hers she calls “The Young Wife’s Pudding”:

Break separately into a cup four perfectly sweet eggs, and with the point of a small three-pronged fork clear them from the specks.  Throw them, as they are done, into a large basin, or a bowl, and beat them up lightly for four or five minutes, then add by degrees two ounces and a half of pounded sugar, with a very small pinch of salt, and whisk the mixture well, holding the fork rather loosely between the thumb and fingers; next, grate in the rind of a quite-fresh lemon, or substitute for it a teaspoon of lemon-brandy, or orange-flower water, which should be thrown in by degrees, and stirred briskly to the eggs.  Add a pint of cold new milk, and pour the pudding into a well buttered dish.  Slice some stale bread, something more than a quarter of an inch thick, and with a very small cake-cutter cut sufficient rounds from it to cover the top of the pudding; butter them thickly with good butter; lay them, with the dry side undermost, upon the pudding, sift sugar thickly on them, and set the dish gently into a Dutch or American oven, which should be placed at the distance of a foot or more from a moderate fire. An hour of very slow baking will be just sufficient to render the pudding firm throughout; but should the fire be fierce, or the oven placed too near it, the receipt will fail.

In a postscript, Miss Acton cautions the reader that while this is an easy and satisfactory pudding, it is easy to ruin if the cook does not watch the temperature of the oven with care.  It is a plain, grand dish, and it shows Miss Acton at her best:  her attention to detail, her no-nonsense but good-humored voice. These qualities are found in abundance throughout the book, evidence of the years she spent testing and retesting, writing and rewriting.  (According to Elizabeth Ray’s introductory notes in the 1993 edition, a review in a popular magazine of the day stated that Miss Acton had spent ten years writing Modern Cookery, and compared her sauces to those of the great French chefs Vatel and Careme.) The chapter on fish preparation, and the introductory chapter on carving techniques, should be used as primary texts in cooking schools.  Not only are they filled with meticulous direction, they are also illustrated—as is the rest of the book—with detailed, breathtakingly beautiful prints, near-perfect combinations of form and function.

It strikes me that I am doing a poor job convincing myself that it would be a bad idea to do this.  But no, I will not steal Julie Powell’s thunder.

Miss Acton wrote another book two years before her death, a smaller but still-brilliant and well-considered tome, The English Bread Book.  Maybe if I start, no, no.  I will be good.  For now.

Posted by Bakerina at 11:45 PM in valentines • (0) Comments
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