There are so many recipes floating around today, and, as with an abundance of anything, much is crap. Isn’t this always the case in a sizable democracy?
What should we strive for instead? A meritocracy, where those who have achieved the most lead the rest? But how do we decide on the achievements that matter? The judgement of the James Beard Foundation? There’s politics in that, to say the least. Or a technocracy, where those with the most skills are the authorities? Again, the pesky politics of history and economics, and the realities of access, must be considered…and we’d likely find ourselves in a kitchen ruled by scientists. A socialist republic? Read Anya von Bremzen’s Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking to learn how that turns out.
We are, however, (basically) in a democracy, where many people can raise their voices and share their aunt’s recipe for anything in any number of forums. And maybe your aunt was a wonderful woman, and had real heart in the kitchen, and your nostalgia for her cooking is as strong as any influence you might follow. But there are millions of aunts (and uncles) in the world, and hundreds of thousands of recipes for everything. And so we find ourselves seeking some authority who can help us find our way.
Jane Grigson is such an authority, and Good Things is constitutional.
The book opens with a short chapter on herring, a pleasure that I do not particularly enjoy. And yet, reading the simple and articulate descriptions of and perspective on these small fish makes a girl want to give those bony, oily little suckers another chance:
The good kipper is one of this country's worthy contributions to fine food. That indifferent kippers should now dominate the fish counter strikes me as a minor national disgrace. But then we so often lack piety toward our best things...These plump, silvery brown, almost translucent fish are best eaten ungrilled, unbaked, unjugged, unfried—in other words, just as they are.
My mind is opened by the simple, tender prose: I cannot help but trust this woman completely.
Jane Grigson was British and these recipes are from the tradition of English cooking…so many vegetables are boiled or covered in cream or boiled and covered in cream. It’s not her fault, though: blame the politics of the monarchy.
But the savory pies! The game and fowl! And the vegetables that aren't simply cream delivery systems! Young rabbit with chives. Pigeon pie. Parsley quiche. Gooseberry pie. Lemon rice pudding. This is food of the republic. It’s food to cook for yourself as a meditative project one slow Saturday, and then it’s food to serve to an impromptu group of friends on a cozy Sunday evening. It's food to gift: bring carrot pudding to a friend who is under the weather or walnut biscuits to a friend who just had a baby or potted trout and a nice loaf of bread to a friend who hasn’t had a home cooked meal in a while. Good things, right?
We should be our own authorities, deciding our best paths for ourselves. But when an authoritative voice is also gentle, supportive, and flexible, there’s nothing wrong with following someone else’s instructions. Sometimes it can lead to the best things.