February 2011 Newsletter

By Bill Holland

Welcome to February. The month in which you dream of everything that is not

At least it is the last really cold month (in the Mid-Atlantic, anyway), a
month during which I stay inside as much as I can, and frankly obsess on
making comfort food dishes I wouldn’t think of cooking once the outside
temperature hits, say, 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

For me, February is Braise and Stew Month. Beef Short Ribs! Lamb Shanks with
garlicky white beans! Chicken with Dumplings! (They come as visions). Pot
Roast with onions and carrots added and lots of mashed potatoes and gravy on
the side.

On further reflection (I do a lot of that during this awful month), February
is actually Braise, BAKE and Stew month. Baked Stuffed Pork Chops! Baked
Moussaka! Baked Gooey Cheesy Casseroles! I’d better stop. Restraint? Well, I
try. Like an upside-down box turtle trying to do crunches:  Not very good at
it, I’m afraid.


Of cookbooks: Over the past months in these newsletters, I’ve mentioned a
lot of cookbooks I’ve hoped you’d might take a shine to. I suppose I should
tell you now about the cookbooks that DON’T make it onto the shelves of
Cookbook Bazaar. I’m not that finicky, really, but there are areas of
Cookbookdom I choose to sidestep.

First of all, I leave most recent cookbooks with get-slim, special diet and
quickie-nutritious-meal themes to someone else. Why? Because of what I call
the Grandma Walton rule. It says that by the time you are 60 or 70, no
matter how hard you tried, eating healthy skinny meals or not, you are going
to look more and or less like Grandma Walton. Then there’s check-out time to

Need I mention that Jack LaLanne, the exercise guru, shed his always
well-pumped, spinach-juiced mortal coil last month? He was 96. On the other
hand, Julia Child, of steak, gin, cream and butter “in moderation” fame, was
two days away from 92 when she misflipped her final potato galette.* I’m
just sayin’.

I also pass on cookbooks that feature “brand name” ingredients. Oh boy! New
ways to use Grape Jelly! Yum!

As for older cookbooks, let’s say those from the pre-Julia years,  there are
only a minority that are true standouts. In some of those, hopefully, you’ll
find the classics and notice the universals – the use of fresh, local
ingredients in season, from a time when regular folks had backyard vegetable

I have a general rule about vintage cookbooks that if one has too many
recipe contributions calling for “cans” of something or a couple “packets”
of something, I shy away from them. Also any casserole that calls for
chopped up hot dogs in it, especially one with ketchup as an ingredient,
gets a thumbs down.

Now, I must admit, in my pantry, I have cans of Condensed Cream of Mushroom
Soup, a jar of bouillon cubes and even packets of Instant Onion Soup. And
yes, I employ them from time to time. There. I’ve finked on myself. So sue
me. How about you?

I’ve always wondered about people by the name of Libby. As in Libby’s canned
vegetables and fruits. I’m surprised that through the years there haven’t
been more babies named Libby, Lipton, Campbell, Pillsbury, Swanson, Del
Monte or General Foods. (There was a great soul singer by the name of
General Johnson, and a doo-wop group called the Del Vikings, but I don’t
recall a General Foods or a Del Monte. There was also a singer, Dell Shannon
… but I stray….)

Fact is, there are many old cookbooks that are just unexceptional. True
there are timeless recipes to be found in some, mostly on the sweet rather
than savory side. But there are also recipes locked in their time, written
before the cornucopia of fresh vegetables and condiments and spices from all
over the world became available in the U.S.

In those older cookbooks, there was very little use of garlic and spices;
apparently, American food was supposed to be plain. Often the recipes were
contributed by housewives who’d lifted them from recipes that appeared in
newspapers during the Depression and World War II written by home economics
nutritionists who didn’t find food fun and dee-lish, but rather, something
to be tamed and neutered if not avoided entirely.

Then there are the ones so bad, the ones so wrong….

For example, occasionally I’ll run across one -- usually a spiral or plastic
comb bound community publication -- that was compiled by good souls trying
to save and restore an old church or a colonial house or a frontier outpost.
This of course is admirable, but does not mean that the contributors should
have been allowed near a stove.

I am looking at one right now. It’s covers are kinda cool pseudo-leather
tan, and on the front is a pen and ink sketch of the historic house that
they say might soon crumble unless many of these cookbooks are purchased.
Its 100 or so pages are a lighter tan color, and about the size of 3X5
cards, bound together at the top by two knotted rawhide strands. The recipes
are handwritten by the contributors. It is, unquestionably and irrefutably
quaint. I admire their concerns. But a look inside…well, let me just cite
one casserole recipe, which I can justifiably term ghastly:

No! I won’t subject you to the whole recipe! Let me just compress it by
saying that in addition to one pound of hamburger meat, the contributor
lists as ingredients a jar of stuffed olives, a can of mushroom slices, a
small can of pimentos, a jar of spaghetti sauce and a package of what the
author mysteriously calls “medium” noodles as ingredients. Oh, and a couple
good glugs from a bottle of Heinz Chili Sauce, a revolting ketchupian cousin
that as far as I can tell, has no chili component whatsoever. Then you put
it in oven and bake the bejeezus out of it.

So many historical houses to restore; so many readers to poison.


*NOTE: My memory was foggy on what food Julia Child dropped on one of her
shows. I knew it wasn’t a chicken on the floor, as so many people believe. I
saw the show. I knew it was something like a misflipped omelet or crepe. A
phone call to the inestimable Bonnie Slotnick at her cookbook shop in New
York’s West Village gave me the quick and true answer: It was a potato
galette (fancy pancake). And it flopped to the workspace next to the range,
not on the floor. Bonnie provided a link you might enjoy checking out:

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