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The Wisdom of Vintage Cookbooks

(post, Anne Zimmerman)

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A few weeks ago, a friend loaned me a vintage cook book. “You might like to look at this,” she said. “It’s old, but fun.” 

The large, flat book was published in 1968 and was the first in the Time-Life Book series, “Foods of the World.” The Cooking of Provincial France was a celebration and history of the cuisine of France, complete with recipes. The book was written by M.F.K. Fisher; gastronomes Michael Field and Julia Child served as consultants. 

I sat down with a glass of rosé one evening to flip through the book. I wasn’t really expecting much. I knew that M.F.K. Fisher, a lover of all things French and a near expert on French food and culture, had written the book in her well-known and poetic style. But once the book was in the editing stage, the manuscript was heavily criticized. Julia Child thought that France had been overly romanticized in the text and that Fisher’s view of French families and cooking was simply inaccurate. Child believed the recipes reflected French haute cooking and not the family style meals created by real French women at home. She was a friend of M.F.K. Fisher but this didn’t stop her from making dozens and dozens of edits to the manuscript. 

When faced with such daunting revisions, Fisher relinquished control of the manuscript and told the editors and publishers at Time-Life they could make whatever changes were required. But there was a catch -- she would not allow her name to be put on the final product. Whether she agreed with the edits Julia Child made to the manuscript or not wasn’t relevant. Fisher believed that the endless revisions would change the flavor of the book and make it into something she wasn’t sure she wanted her name on. 

Later, after much convincing and cajoling, Fisher agreed to move forward with the project. Her decision was a good one – the book was a commercial success, sent to more than 500,000 Time-Life book subscribers. But even this fact irked Fisher. She hated that the book, relatively light in content, garnered her so much praise. After all, she had been working as a “serious” food writer for more than thirty years.

Because of the drama associated with the book’s publication, I was expecting a weak read. And there are parts of The Cooking of Provincial France that have not aged well in the forty years since its publication. Some of the recipes might seem uninteresting or even unappetizing to the modern cook. And the front cover with its mustard background, plain soufflé, and trio of three simple, white eggs is hardly inviting. 
But the Technicolor photographs of the French people and countryside are beyond alluring -- they perfectly capture a slice of France that can still be found if you’re willing to search hard enough. There’s the photo of a Frenchman sitting in a vineyard drinking a tumbler of wine, and the shot of a very elderly woman standing tall in the middle of a meat market surrounded by baskets of just killed rabbits and rows of turkeys that still need plucking. There are photos of families gathering for mid-day meals, and a two page spread (complete with a numbered diagram) of the many, many different kinds of loaves of bread baked by the average French boulangerie. 
And then there is the prose. The book is rich in description and knowledge that is so modern it seems that Fisher must have had a portal with which she could view the future of food and culture. About organic vegetables she wrote, “Today, as a thousand years ago, no reputable French gardener works without a good compost pit as his ally, one cannily layered with vegetable matter, from dead leaves to wilted lettuces or wormy apples, droppings from the hen house or the rabbit hutches, and an occasional forkful of good, fresh manure. The product of this ripe mixture is everything that the modern usage of the word “organic” implies, and it is employed as carefully as it is prepared: a sparse spading-in here, a generous spreading there, sometimes on top of the first snow, which will pull down the precious elements as it melts into the soil.” 

Remember that ‘organic’ was not a selling point in 1968. Most people took it for granted that their veggies started in the ground and cared little about the soil, the sun, and potential pollutants that might impact the final product. Yet have finer words than these been written by today’s best organic farmers and real food acolytes?    

And then there are her descriptions of mealtimes in France. In 1968 it was unremarkable to suggest that dining with family and friends was an important political act.  Yet Fisher notes, “Conversation is almost as essential to the act of eating as is the food itself, in every reasonably normal French household, and it makes everything taste better and last longer. Worrisome subjects like school examinations, money problems, or politics are delicately avoided until digestion has set in, and even such trite subjects as the weather are considered acceptable with they are discussed with intelligence over the sliced tomatoes with chopped basil and olive oil, the boiled beef and potatoes, the green salad and the cheese.” Fisher’s reminder of the importance of sitting, talking, and enjoying food is even more important in our 'modern' world.
The Cooking of Provincial France is hardly M.F.K. Fisher’s finest or best known book. But it a good reminder that long before the modern food movement was born there were gastronomical pioneers who dared to preach the importance of food history, culture, and preservation. Their mighty resolve and belief that the most exquisite and memorable meals are simple, made from the best ingredients and eaten in the company of your nearest and dearest are ideas to emulate, regardless of their ‘vintage’ qualities and delivery. 
I finished the book and my glass of wine and vowed to return to the book at least one more time. Who knew what other gems might be tucked inside its slightly yellowed and musty pages? I couldn’t wait to find out.