Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.

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Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Jane, Jane, Jane

Barking Kitten dates herself with a Jefferson Starship pun. When did I become such a nerd?

Jane Grigson, that is. In reviewing my notes and the paperback, bookmarked in too many places, I see that limiting myself may be challenging.

One of the best things about English Food is the terminology: butter paper, cornflour, dulse, fingerware. Bloaters, anchovy essence, ham kettles. Kitchen paper. Tins. Isinglass. Imagine Rachael Ray discussing anchovy essence, or the merits of fingerware, which is a kind of edible sea grass. This is why you need to read Jane Grigson.

The first edition of this book appeared in 1974; the revised version in 1992, Grigson having died of cancer in 1990, before she could complete the project. Her daughter Sophie took up the mantle.

Grigson was declaiming agribusiness just as Alice was getting it together on this side o' the pond. Of the people providing "awful food," she wrote:

"'Let them have trash' seems a far worse attitude than 'Let them eat brioche.' The latter came from a complete lack of understanding; the former comes from a conniving complicity in lower standards...To provide worthless things, or things that are worse than they should be, shows what you think of your fellow human beings." (xiv)

Indeed. Grigson also railed against pasteurization, a popular debate amongst foodies. Many of us think the naturally-occurring flora and fauna in unpasteurized dairy are essential to good health, particularly for the immune and digestive systems. Minimally, we should have choices about our milk and cheese. Grigson was also enraged by the appalling conditions leading to tainted eggs. She called the feeding of dead chicks to their living brethern "impious" (27), an "incestuous cannibalism," we pay for in foodborne illness, a phenomenon that has only increased since English Food appeared in print.

On a happier note, Grigson's humor, writing skills and education make English Food an immensely enjoyable read. The preface to a recipe for Halibut with Anchovies informs us that Joseph Conrad loved good food, and was fortunate in having a wife able to prepare it with little income. Shakespeare is invoked in the discussion of dulse-collecting. Writing of salt pork and hams, Grigson cautions the lazy cook:

"Do not use those appalling bright yellow crumbs sold in some grocer's shops and supermarkets." (179)

My personal favorite appears on page 196. I have never eaten smoked chicken, but should I ever find myself in Bristol, I shall hie down to Mr. Millhouse's shop, where the famed butcher smokes poultry on Thursdays and prepares a "beautifully smoked bacon with beech-sawdust from the local coffin maker."

Of paté, that dangerous dish, she writes:

"Often these meat loaves (she referred to those found in English food shops) are absolutely disgusting in a manner that is shamefully English." (199)

The food itself is heavy going. Nearly every recipe calls for a thick sauce; use of cream, double cream, and butter abound, as does all manner of pork and that peculiarly English creation, suet. Meat is mixed with oysters, brains with curry and grape sauce. Sugars and fruits are combined with meats in the old-fashioned manner, culminating, to this reader, in John Evelyn's Tart of Herbs, a recipe dating to 1699. The tart calls for single cream, breadcrumbs, spinach, macaroons, egg yolks, egg whites, sugar, currants, and milk, all to be folded into pastry. More current is the aforementioned smoked chicken, to be served with three melon salad: Galia, canteloupe, and "pineapple watermelon."

American and French palates never took to such dishes, earning England its reputation for awful food. I would respectfully observe that while many of the recipes in English Food do not strike me a particularly appetizing, their use of available ingredients is admirable, and likely more appetizing in freezing wet weather. The range of dairy available to them is enviable--where can we get unpasteurized double cream, single cream, or Jersey milk? Our options are cream, half-and-half, or a variety of "skim" products. As for powdered creamers and liquid dairy substitutes claiming to be healthier, they are analogous to Grigson's comment on English custard powder: "...one of our minor national tragedies." (246)

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