Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Foraging through the food literature

I have always liked unusual literature - some (perhaps many) of my friends would prefer the term "obscure" here - but pondering the various genres of Poe's "quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore" can have its rewards. A culinary volume that I found at a used book sale some time ago is Egon Ronay's The Unforgettable Dishes of My Life (Sphere Books, London, 1989). As he notes in the preface to his book, Ronay grew up in Budapest in a family of restaurantuers and, over the years, published an amazing number of restaurant guides (an Amazon book search on "Egon Ronay" turns up 140 hits, many of them guides ranging from Egon Ronay's 2006 Guide to the Best Restaurants and Gastropubs in the UK, available used starting at 96 cents, to Egon Ronay's H.J. Heinz Guide, available used - with unknown binding - for $242.87).

From the outset, Ronay does not mince words: he notes in the preface that "these dishes are for enjoyment, not to pander to present-day health terrorists." The book consists of approximately 100 recipes, each of which is preceded by a brief personal history of the dish and some of the things Ronay associates with it. Not surprisingly, it is in these little summaries that Ronay's crustiness is most apparent, and often extremely entertaining. For example, on the page before his recipe for "The Original, Authentic Gulyas" (known outside of Hungary as "goulash"), begins with the following tirade:

"Never has a culinary term been so abused and degraded. Small wonder that the name of this soup (for that's exactly what it is, as many will be surprised to read) has acquired an almost pejorative meaning."

He goes on to emphasize that the paprika used in making the soup should be the sweet rather than the hot variety ("this is not a curry!"), and in discussing the meat, although he says "don't take my recipe as gospel," he continues by saying "other cuts of beef (it has to be beef) are acceptable". In the same vein, Ronay begins the commentary that precedes his "walnut beigl" recipe with the statement, "Let me hasten to warn you: this is not to be confused with America's bagel, which is not even a poor or modest relative." He goes on to emphasize the beigl's glorious role at the Christmas table ("strictly limited to family, never ever friends, however close"), following a meal of carp that was "unlike the fat and sickley British carp, lazy and dissipated in rivers or 'farmed' in lakes." In its persistent crankiness, Ronay's writing style is very much like that of M.F.K. Fisher, whom he praises in the preface of his book for her avoidance of the "single-minded concentration on the clinical, stereotyped, dry instructions of recipes, without a thought for their joyful purpose". For those unfamiliar with Fisher's crustiness, the following excerpt from "If this were my place" in A Stew or a Story (Shoemaker and Hoard, published in 2006) provides a representative sample:

"I think now, willy-nilly, of the most dismal restaurant in the American world, to my mind, the small-town coffee shop. I have been in hundreds of them, and I firmly believe that until their windows grow steamy and the waitress lets her hair fall vaguely out of place and the coffee machine sends off little pops of steam which the cafe manager frowns on because of Waste, they are just about the most horrid holes ever invented for such a decent ceremony as that of nourishing our poor tired puzzled bodies."

Whether you find Ronay's commentary entertaining or annoyingly curmudgeonly, his book is a fun read because of the eclectic range of its recipes, with everything from "Reveller's Soup" - made with sauerkraut, paprika ("sweet noble, not the hot variety"), bacon, chicken stock, frankfurters, and sour cream - to "Jellied Crayfish," "Sailor's Eels," and "Suckling Pig." As this partial list suggests, there are probably few palates adventurous enough to want to try all of these recipes, but the converse is also true: the person who couldn't find anything appealing among his recipes would have a finicky set of tastebuds indeed. In rummaging through the collection, I have found several I can't wait to try, but the one I want to try first belongs to a whole new culinary concept for me: dessert pasta. Ronay notes, in his discussion of a delicious-sounding "Ham Pasta" recipe (this one isn't a dessert pasta) that the Central European approach to pasta is quite different from that taken by the rest of the world. In particular, he says "unusual, too, is the sweet variety: you would miss a habit-forming experience if you didn't try them." Since he gives a recipe for "Walnut Noodles," I don't intend to miss out. The name alone almost makes it mandatory.

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