Everyone I know My family likes big glossy cookbooks with detailed instructions and beautiful photos (this was edited because a number of my friends reminded me they were in fact food historians or sitting at that very moment surrounded by vintage, unillustrated cookbooks). I do not. I like useful, dense books with few pictures and lots of good information, adaptable recipes and first principles. Ones which you can go to and find out what rules of thumb to use to cook meats, how to make a basic soufflé (and adapt it), what are the bare essentials for a bread dough, how to replace apples, how to time an egg and which spices go best with alligator (basil, marjoram, oregano, parsley, rosemary, saffron, garlic, curry, cilantro, ginger, onion and chives).
These sorts of recipes capture aspects of society and culture beautifully. I love the assumed knowledge and lack of specificity in some (“make pastry cream, then…” “1 good sized crab”), the assumed requirements and milieu of others (“cooking for the bachelor household”, “convalescents’ and children’s cookery”, “to serve sandwiches for 200”), the variant spellings of coconut, the fascination with aspics.
The edition I have of the Commonsense Cookery Book is my grandmother’s 1964 reprint. I suspect the version linked to above has been substantially updated – mine certainly does not have risotto (or alligator – that’s from the very handy Wycliffe International Cookbook, which also has advice on keeping bats out of the pantry). It has no pictures except the advertisements: a suspiciously Betty-Crocker-like “Betty Sydney” cake mix; “look at all the marvellous things YOU can make… with DAVIS Gelatine… aspics, savouries, desserts too”; “Be a Top Class Cook with Electricity” classes; an extraordinarily young Margaret Fulton “cooking up something new and different for you each week” in Woman’s Day magazine.
The instructions are all very systematic, brief and useful (it includes several variations on how to make (brew? capture?) yeast). The staples and lack thereof I find fascinating: it is an Australia before the new staples – none of my share house standards are there. No pizza, no stir-fries, nothing recognisably a curry (beyond its name). It does, however, have: Cup of Gruel; Veal Forcemeat; “cocoanut” cake; lots of rabbit (I don’t know where to find rabbit easily now); “Economical Stock”; too many aspics; and my favourite: Brain and nut sandwiches.
In other news: I am hungry.