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Cookbooks As Literature

South Wind Cooked South Wind Through The Kitchen: The Best of Elizabeth David Edited by Jill Norman The North Point Press, 1999 Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation By Michael Pollan The Penguin Press, 2013 Changing Hands, our wonderful local bookstore, exchanges gently used books for store credit. So imagine my thrill when this weekend, I lugged an overflowing box of books from the car to the store, and received in exchange almost $50 in new purchases. I bought two novels and two cookbooks. I read cookbooks. Yes, I really read them as narrative, not just as recipe holders. So it was with pleasure that I delved into the writing of Elizabeth David and Michael Pollan. My mother cooked from a battered and stained Penguin copy of the British writer Elizabeth David’s French Country Cooking. Mrs. David’s chatty, unpretentious books on the cuisine of Southern Europe began to transform the English palate a generation before Alice Waters did the same for Americans. Then again, the English had a harder hill to climb. Returning to Britain from a wartime job in the Middle East in 1946, Elizabeth David was horrified at the deprivation, and the “bleak triumph, which amounted almost to a hatred of humanity” with which rationed food was prepared. She started to write her memories of the sun-drenched food of the Mediterranean. In a career lasting over forty years, Mrs. David wrote nine books and countless articles in a breezy, amusing style. In French Provincial Cooking, she describes “soups delicately colored like summer dresses, coral, ivory, or pale green.” It was in search of similar lively writing that I turned to Michael Pollan’s Cooked. The book follows Pollan’s signature method. A journalist, Pollan interviews people who work rigorously to capture the essence of cooking. Each of his bakers, cheese-makers and fermenters returns to the very basics in an effort to understand the biological and chemical processes by which raw ingredients are transformed into digestible and nutritious food. The recipes are less important here than the descriptions of the years-long apprenticeships that each of these creative individuals undertook. Each was determined to unlearn the time-saving contemporary processed food-ways to return to fundamentals. This is food preparation from scratch, literally, from capturing yeast in the air to allowing bacteria to collect on wooden cheese paddles. Bacteria, which allowed to accumulate, crowd out more harmful germs. This book is the beginning, hopefully, of Pollan’s further investigation into the world of microbes.

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