Still in a sort of limbo between writing projects, my plan for my three ‘free days’ last week (e.g. not doing the office job) was to:
- Draft outlines for three potential books, one being the magical one mentioned last week.
- Proof-listen to the audio book version of Murder Durnovaria.
- Start work in earnest on a recipe book I’ve been planning for a while.
For one reason and another, I only managed number three, and my long suffering (his words not mine) husband has been playing guinea pig again.
My first proper job involved working in a bookshop/coffeeshop. My then manager/friend/housemate, properly trained in catering college, was mesmerised by the way I cooked while muttering to myself, ‘I’ll bung some of that in, then throw in a bit of this and taste and see what happens’. She suggested I ought to write my recipes down and call it ‘The Bung and Throw Cookbook’.
I never did of course, partly because I never measured anything, and it seemed like too much work to figure things out. Besides, after twelve months, I left to work in an office and never had the urge to return to a job in catering, Nevertheless at home, I continued making up and collecting recipes. For a good length of time, cooking was my main creative outlet, whether making something complex or simply trying to produce something quick and tasty from what happened to be in the cupboard or fridge. I still think it’s a wonderful way to relieve stress – as my mind has to leave troublesome things aside while it concentrates and creates.
Then I started writing historical fiction and wondered ‘what would my characters eat?’ as I explained here. From that point, I wondered if I could create a cookbook re-imagining what Lucretia (2nd Century), Katherine Demeray (1890s) and Margaret Demeray (1910s) might have eaten (that I might like to eat too).
The books I’m working with are The Roman Cookery Book which includes recipes from nearly two thousand years ago under the name of Apicius (translated and compiled by Katherine Rosenbaum and Barbara Flower), The Best Way published in 1909 and The Women’s Suffrage Cookery Book published in 1912.
It’s harder to re-imagine the food than you might think if you don’t know old recipe books, which are all written for people who fundamentally just needed ideas, not techniques. E.g. all three books are pretty much a forerunner of the ‘Bung and Throw Cookbook’ my friend suggested I wrote all those years go.
Would I eat any of the recipes? Yes (though not all).
Can I cook them easily from the information provided? Well…
Working out recipes from The Roman Cookery Book is the hardest. Are all the herbs safe? (Or easily available?) What can I substitute for the ubiquitous garum (fermented anchovy paste)? How do I decipher some of the recipes? They mostly simply list ingredients and vague instructions without quantities or timings.
Some things are hard or undesirable to do: ‘cool in snow’, ‘remove the spines from your sea-urchin …’, ‘take your jellyfish …’, ‘best served with peacock’.
There are a lot of chicken recipes in the Roman book, but since until relatively recently a young (e.g. potentially tender) chicken was most valuable as an egg layer and hard to mass-produce, do they mean chicken or some other fowl?
The simplest way I’ve found to decipher some of them is following the wonderful Tavola Mediterranea website, but otherwise, I’m on my own.
The Suffrage Cookbook and The Best Way are more comprehensible to a modern cook. The ingredients can be easily bought (with the possible exception of brains which I don’t want to eat anyway). But some of the instructions are just as much ‘bung and throw’ as the Apicius book. ‘Enough of…’ ‘Some…’ ‘A bit…’ ‘The usual amount…’ There aren’t many chicken recipes but a fair amount for meat which is nowadays comparatively more expensive. There are more vegetarian and spicy recipes than people might think. Timings, when given, would turn most vegetables, pasta and rice into mush.
My idea is to take a selection of these recipes, work out the instructions and cook them as if Lucretia (or more likely her cook) or Katherine or Margaret would do with access to modern equipment (and less inclination to boil things for hours).
I’ve shared some deciphered recipes before here, and I’m ploughing ahead. It’ll be a long process, involving working the recipes out when necessary and then trying them on willing volunteers (mainly family).
On Saturday evening I cooked Chicken stuffed with Saccotosh (sic) for my husband and mother. Until recently, not being American, I’d honestly thought that ‘Succotash’ (along with sassafras) was a mock swearword made up by Looney Tunes, so it was interesting to find out what a British woman in 1912 – who obviously knew otherwise – had come up with.
The ingredient quantities are vague, the cooking instructions even more so. The main warning was ‘chicken should be sewn up to prevent the corn bursting out’. Anyway, I worked out what the missing details probably were, and without sewing anything or having the chicken explode, it proved delicious and was eaten to great appreciation.
On Sunday night, I made a Curry Pie. In terms of instructions, there’s sufficient filling information, but no explanation as to why it’s called pie when no pastry is referred to. But it does say to cook it in a pie-dish. So I sort of assumed the pastry and went for it. It was tasty too, but needs a bit more tweaking before I’m happy with it.
In the meantime, my husband remains the main recipient of all this experimentation. Do you think he’s insisting on cooking tonight to give me a rest, or because he’s worried that one day he’ll end up like the guy in the drawings below? Well, he’s going to make jambalaya using the leftover chicken from Saturday’s Succotash/Saccotosh recipe, so he can’t be too worried about my recipes.
Words and pictures (c) Paula Harmon 2023, not to be used without the author’s express permission.