When I decided to join this tangy, zippy world of blogging, I made two promises: 1. I would not navel-gaze. 2. I would not shill. It took me all of two days to break the navel-gazing vow, but at least now I’m liberated from such a silly rule. This just leaves the rule about shilling, and I’m going to dance all over it, with football cleats.
In fairness, though, I probably shouldn’t call it shilling. Shilling implies a certain quid pro quo, e.g. “if you mention how great our chicken Balti kreplachs are, we’ll give you free chicken Balti kreplachs for life!” No quid pro quo for me, even though this probably has less to do with my stellar moral fiber than with the fact that no one seems all that interested in bribing me. I would love to admit that I can’t be bought by the promise of easy Balti kreplachs, but unfortunately I can’t, simply because I’ve never been able to test the thesis.
Anyone who would like to help me test the thesis, particularly by sending me free foodstuffs, drinkstuffs, books, cd’s, dvd’s, 1972 Kharmann Ghias, fetish wear from Trash & Vaudeville, stocking stuffers from Toys in Babeland, stock certificates or small parcels of land on the moors of Devon, please do feel free to e-mail me. My sense of integrity and fair game is in your hands. (grin)
So consider this less a shill than an appreciation, a chance to transcend the bonds of TypeList, under which this should be filed, but sometimes a girl just wants to go on at length. (As far as I’m concerned, replace “sometimes” with “more often than not.")
With all of that elegant defense out of the way, you will be undoubtedly pleased to hear that I am about to extol the praises of a magazine that is difficult to find outside of the UK, and its companion book, which is difficult to find outside of the U.S. Another bag of bagels to anyone with the patience to keep reading.
In Tuesday’s post I mentioned in passing “the geniuses at Petits Propos Culinaires” without explaining who those geniuses are or what Petits Propos Culinaires is. Bad, pretentious Bakerina. First and foremost, PPC is better known as, uh, PPC. It is a UK-based, digest-sized magazine, all about food, cooking and cookbooks, with articles ranging from the scholarly to the whimsical, sometimes scholarly and whimsical all at once. (Although the essays are filled with impeccable scholarship and the editorial advisory board is filled with respected culinary historians, it is not a peer-reviewed journal.) It is published three times a year by Prospect Books in Devon, under the editorship of the great Tom Jaine. It was founded in 1979 by Alan Davidson (who is also the editor of the Oxford Companion to Food), his wife Jane and the late American food writer Richard Olney, who at the time was working on the Good Cook series for Time-Life Books. One of Time-Life’s strictures was that only recipes that had been previously published could be included in the series, a requirement that infuriated Olney. He and the Davidsons conspired to produce a little magazine, in which Olney could publish pseudonymously (so as to throw Time-Life off the scent) the recipes he felt should be included in the Good Cook series, and solicited further assistance from Elizabeth David and Jill Norman, David’s editor, friend and literary executor.
For those of us in the U.S., who may have trouble finding PPC in bookshops (although they do offer subscriptions, and they do ship to the U.S.), Ten Speed Press has done us a tremendous service by publishing The Wilder Shores of Gastronomy: 20 Years of the Best Food Writing from the Journal Petits Propos Culinaires. (Yep, that’s the one in the TypeList.) I was thrilled to hear that Ten Speed was the publisher, as they take pride in never letting anything on their list go out of print.
It is hard for me to confine myself to what I consider the highlights of Wilder Shores, because, simply put, there is no dross, none at all. All of Richard Olney’s essays are here, written under the noms des plumes Nathan d’Aulnay and Tante Ursule. There are essays from Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson, my food-writing heroes. There is a wonderful essay by Su Mei Yu (author of an amazing book of Thai home cooking, Cracking the Coconut) about the beautiful tradition of funeral books in Thailand. When a famous or wealthy person dies, a book is published that contains their biography and any letters they may have written, along with examples of their work; a writer’s book will contain excerpts of his or her writing, while a cook’s book will contain recipes. These books are distributed to visitors at the funeral service. I have read this essay over and over.
I am also crazy about an essay by Astri Riddervold and Andreas Ropeid about the Norwegian Porridge Feud of 1864-66. I will spare you for now the details of the Norwegian Porridge Feud, but trust me, it is fun stuff. Send me an e or a comment if you’re interested. ("What are you reading?” my boss asks me at lunch as I chuckle, nose deep in book. “I’m reading about the Norwegian Porridge Feud of 1864 to 66.” He laughs. I continue reading. When I happen to glance up, he has an odd look on his face. “The thing is, Fin,” he says, “I never know anymore when you’re kidding.")
There is plenty of great stuff in the new issue, PPC #73, July 2003. There is an essay by Francesca Beauman, “Perfect is the Pineapple,” about how certain food items become cultural signifiers. There is an essay by David Potter on early recipes for pate a choux, the dough from which cream puffs and eclairs are made. I will be citing this essay in my bibliography when I begin writing my insane culinary study on the history of eggs in baking (believe me, I wish I were being tongue-in-cheek when I say that I am working on such a project). There is an abstract of a doctoral thesis on the use of convenience foods and the skill levels of the cooks who use them (and yes, I was surprised by what I read). But the best thing in there is one of the best food essays I’ve read in months, if not years: “Going Wild in Urban America.” Alastair Bland was a college student, one semester away from graduating with a double degree from U.C. Santa Barbara, when he embarked on what he refers to as, plainly, “My Project,” in which he decides to see if he can feed himself only on what he can forage and/or catch around Isla Vista, California, for eighty days. This limited his protein to fish, specifically whatever fish he could spear. Vegetables and herbs came from a friend’s garden. Fruit came from the abundant fruit trees in the area, most of which he secured the owners’ permission to pick from before picking. Figs became the new staple of his diet, 40 per day for 80 days. When they were good, they were very very good, but when they were bad they made his tongue bleed. Toward the end of his project, he feared that he was going mad, knew that his friends thought he was unhealthiliy obsessed, and fantasized about buying tortillas and beans at the corner market.
All ends well, though: he graduates, his dad comes to pick him up just as a storm blows through and knocks most of the available fruit off the trees, they stop for Mexican food on the way home to San Francisco, his dad says that the project seemed to look good on him. It is a joy to read, right to the last sentence, which I just cannot refrain from quoting:
“I was made, purely and solidly, through to the bone, down to my heart, of the best stuff on earth.”
As far as I’m concerned, he still is.