Saturday, July 05, 2008

Saturday Bookblogging: Sacred Food

People seemed to like the animals-in-art book I posted about a little while back so I thought I might blog a few other books from my 'what an arresting and unusual idea for a book and isn't it gorgeous' collection.

Elisabeth Luard's best-known book is probably European Peasant Cookery, which I have the early edition of and which contains my default recipes for osso bucco and rosti among other things, so when I saw this book in Imprints (think a smaller and scaled-down but equally classy Adelaide version of Readings or Gleebooks), the combination of a familiar and trusted authorial name with a beautiful idea for a book was irresistible.

Like most of my favourite books, it's a mongrel: cultural history, recipes and truly sumptuous illustrations. There are four chapters, each holding forth on the food of particular events that happen everywhere in human life; one of the lovely things about this book is that it rises effortlessly above the notion of the sacred as contained by a single belief system and goes straight to the heart of the events and seasons that humanity has built its religious rituals around. So a lot of thought has gone into the way the table of contents is arranged, to signal that; it looks like this.





Chapter 2, for instance, goes from a description of the eastern European custom of 'birth baskets' -- 'a kind of edible baby shower ... ritual gifts presented by well-wishers to ensure the baby never goes hungry' -- to one of the classic Dickens illustrations of a huge Christmas pudding being carved up by a chubby mumsy type at a table crowded with rioting ratbag children. There's also a beautiful full-page photograph of a young Ghanaian girl contemplating the gifts of fruit, vegetables and cloth that she's been brought as part of the puberty ritual in which she is presented to the community, various members of which are standing around behind her, looking on. There's a recipe for German Christmas roast goose (lots of apple, cabbage and sage), an explanation of Hanukkah, and a description of the sacred food of the Iranian midwinter festival, its pagan elements similar to the Christmas ones:
The sacred food, ajeel, is a mixture of seven varieties of roasted nuts and dried fruit -- pistachios, almonds, chickpeas, melon or pumpkin seeds, apricots, raisins, dried figs. The vigil of watching through the night is known, appropriately, as shab-chera, night grazing.

Berber wedding pancakes, with chopped pistachios, preserved cherries and cream, plus the dish of honey in the middle and, apparently, a cup of 'tooth-achingly sweet' mint tea on the side.

The disquisition on Spanish 'pilgrimage food' gets shoehorned into Chapter 3 under 'opportunities for courtship' which I'm sure was just an excuse for Luard to wax eloquent about paella, one of her favourite things and an excellent illustration of the fact that food is so much more than fuel:
Among the most remarkable of the Whitsun pilgrimages is the long trek across the delta of the Guadalquivir, southwest Spain, to the sanctuary of the Virgin of the Dew, hidden deep in the sage brush and cistus scrub of a watery wilderness. These week-long picnics -- requiring eating and sleeping under the stars -- are a happy compromise between pagan and Christian preoccupations ... open to all who care to take the new road from Seville. The pilgrimage is a merry one ... guitars strum and drums beat day and night to accompany the dancing and singing ...

... in the old days -- twenty years ago, when I made the pilgrimage across the dunes with my children on a mule-cart -- people took nothing with them but rice and oil (well, maybe saffron and salt) in the confident expectation that the Lord would provide the rest. Indeed He did. Anyone with a gun could be sure to pick up a rabbit, or a brace of duck. [Anyone with a gun and decent aim, surely -- ed.] ... The children would be able to gather the exquisitely patterned snails, no bigger than a thumbnail ... or search out the spindly but delicious shoots of wild asparagus. You could always count on a variety of herbs ... fennel, thyme and rosemary.'

On the previous pages there's a full two-page colour reproduction of Goya's The Pilgrimage to the Miraculous Fountain of San Isidro, which like most Goyas appears to depict an assortment of bodies and souls in anguish, writhing in a half-dark hell and a very long way from singing, dancing or catching rabbits for the pot; on the following page there's a recipe for paella complete with instructions like 'the true paella must be prepared over and open fire, and only by a man' (pffft) and 'the only essentials are rice, saffron and olive oil ... The rest is whatever comes to hand in the countryside and will serve to flavour the rice -- wild asparagus, wild garlic, crayfish from the stream, snails, pigeon, partridge, rabbit, frogs from the marshes, fresh water from the spring.'

This combination of image, recipe and cultural history is typical and the pictures are beautiful: a nineteenth-century Chinese painting of a wedding banquet; a sixteenth-century German engraving depicting the moment of transubstantiation; a moving black-and-white photograph of a 1940s French provincial Nativity play complete with a raggedy, sad-looking sheep; a photo from southern India of a sacred cow with painted and decorated horns in fetching shades of gold, red and neon pink, with little bells; and several obligatory Breughel feast scenes that provide evidence for Barry Humphries' assertion that with Brueghel you can always find someone in the background having a quiet chunder out of a window.

It's probably safe to say I'll never make the Epiphany Cookies, the Afghan Betrothal Ravioli, or the Bacalao de los Muertos (All Souls' Day salt-fish). But if the day ever comes when I have to choose five books out of my food-and-cookbooks collection to take with me to my little room in the End of the Road Aged Care Facility, this'll be one of them.

Mexican sugar skulls, for taking with you to the cemetery on the Day of the Dead, though why you would take skulls to the cemetery is a question that remains unanswered.


genevieve said...

Oh Pav. May you never have to choose books to take.
Friend of husband's has a father who keeps sneaking back to his daughter's to retrieve his books. You need a stash.
What a magnificent post,(and lovely selection of title to present, thank you.

Zarquon said...

why you would take skulls to the cemetery is a question that remains unanswered.

It eats them.

Helen said...

Kinda coals to newcastle, isn't it?

I love the idea of only being allowed rice, saffron and EVOO and having to catch the rest. Since my SO, unlike me, is a keen fisher person, that sounds like a fun thing to do on holiday down at the Sleepy Fishing Village ... although I'd take garlic too, I think.

Fish and shellfish only, too, I don't have the bottle for killing birds and animals or the skills to pluck or skin 'em.

helen said...

Oh, and those Berber wedding pancakes? WANT.

Ampersand Duck said...


I will live off this post for a week.

Zoe said...

What a beautiful review. I've got the book too, but *cough* haven't actually got around to reading it yet.

Pavlov's Cat said...

You and Duckie would both adore it.

Looking at the pictures is good, for a woman with two small boys and (I surmise) only very tiny windows of book opportunity.

Bernice said...

As a resolutely hopeless cook, Euro Peasant Cooking sits with pride in the kitchen. Just for the saurekraut (sic) recipe... 2 and a half pages of excruciating detail, then finished off with something like "as you can see, it's simply much easier to find a good deli and buy it from them". My kind of cookbook.

Anonymous said...