Book Review: Cooking for Crowds

cooking for crowds cover 2

White, Merry. 2013. Cooking for Crowds: 40th Anniversary Edition. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Ellen Messer
Tufts University

Merry (Corky) White has produced a 40th anniversary edition of Cooking for Crowds, which she produced in 1974 for Basic Books, a volume re-issued by Princeton University Press. The backstory: the Basic Books editor discovered her recipes as a guest of Harvard’s Center for West European Studies (this was the Cold War era, distinguishing East and West). Corky, earning money for graduate studies, had decided to try catering, in lieu of office work, on a dare, and was wildly successful. Her international menus, based on family recipes she gathered from colleagues and friends, proved a big hit at the Center, where she catered weekly lunches for fifty and occasional dinners for twenty. They were colorful, not “white,” a language that contrasts both the hue and total sensory experience of what she despised as flavorless New England beige dinners: unseasoned white-meat chicken, white starchy vegetable (potatoes or rice), and cauliflower. This was the era immediately following the publication of FML’s Diet for a Small Planet and the kind of international cuisine and still unusual grains and vegetables that she offered were not yet expected or standard restaurant offerings. She figured that she couldn’t compete or measure up on cuisine that her distinguished guests knew well, such as French, but she could entertain their palates with relatively exotic fare from Ukraine (cabbage and pork stew) or Scandinavia (almond cake), and she always left a pile of recipes for those who might want to try cooking these dishes at home. The Basic Books editor, without consulting her, grabbed the packet of recipes, returned to NYC, and there engaged his close friend, New Yorker cartoonist Edward Koren, to draw captivating cartoons, which included identifiable and anthropomorphized vegetables having friendly chats, and disgruntled looking miniature chefs pushing enormous rolling pins, or toting enormous oversized tubers or peppers. The drawings capture the essential ideas of fun, spices, and colors, which the recipes exemplify. Almost all contain bright capsicum other peppers, flavorful greens as basic ingredients or herbs, fragrant olive oil, and a host of other spices that color and complexify the results. She points out that the recipes are relatively simple, although one might imagine that in 1974 , many ingredients would have required a specialty food shop, in her case, Savenor’s, which was conveniently located down the street. For Asian ingredients, such as sesame oil, she directs readers to Chinese and Japanese markets. Many of the recipes are derived from her own post-college travel and eating experiences on a tight budget. Especially the Asian recipes appear to be diaries from her own travels, with additional consultations with local ethnic-American sources. Where she garnered the recipe from a friend or colleague, as in the case of “Dirty rice” which was a Louisiana creole specialty, she tells the story.

What may have added to the allure for the editor’s acquisition are Corky’s querky and delectable culinary images, for example, “sweet meatballs for couscous” contain prunes, which “add a mysterious sweetness” (p.63) Or, “Pumpernickel is a bread with a secret” that some say are prunes but in her recipe is chocolate (p.20). A third example concerns “Cocido Valenciana: “This is a Spanish version of a boiled dinner, superior, in my view, to the New England variety. … The bright yellow coloring and rough chunks of vegetables and meats inspire a hearty appetite.” (p.112) Her cuisine also cuts right across class lines, as in “an elegant yet hearty” artichoke and chickpea salad, which will go equally well with an elegant pate-stuffed squab — or charcoal-broiled hamburger! (p.125). In the course of cooking completely new recipe ideas from scratch, plus consulting with grandma’s-recipes experts, she also discovers certain flavor secrets, such as sugar binds and improves tomato-based spaghetti sauce, and kitchen utensil improvisations: “Couscous is traditionally made in a two-part steamer called a couscousiere, which is available but not necessary, as you can improvise a steamer by lining a colander with cheesecloth, fitting it over a kettle, and covering it with a tight-fitting lid.” (p.60).

Whether buyers purchased the volume for the relatively exotic food, the delightful cartoonish illustrations, or the revolutionary cooking ideas for the busy working person (“one of the best places to work is the floor: if it is clean … it (is) much more convenient than juggling pots and pans and mounds of vegetables on small counter spaces” (xxviii) is unknown: whatever the motivation, the book was a hit. It helped also that the text included friendly references to Julia Child, who was a rising culinary star, and conveniently Corky’s neighbor, who occasionally salvaged her cooking disasters. One noteworthy incident involved a burnt cabbage stew, which Julia directed Corky to repot, calm the acrid with sour cream — which coats the tongue to keep nasty sensations out, flavor-modify with extra lemon — which then minimizes the charred flavor, and beautify with lots of green parsley on top. The clever integrating concept, which made the remaining off flavors a virtue, was a name change: to Ukrainian smoked cabbage stew! The heavy cream and substantial butter base also are redolent of Julia, ingredients that enriched otherwise simpler vegetable or low-meat soups into filling and satisfying meals.

The reasons to re-issue the book are tied not only to burgeoning popularity of thematic cook books and culinary memoirs, but also the current healthy eating and nutritional guidelines, which favor hearty vegetables and whole grains (although not butterfat), included in these soups, stews, and salads. Each recipe is a satisfying construction on its own, with suggestions for variations or substitutions in ingredients; with a brief account of its role(s) in a fully satisfying meal; e.g., leguminous soups and stews, especially if complemented with a little wurst, require only bread, salad, and dessert to form a rich and filling lunch or supper. Such appetizers can be easily stretched into main courses, e.g., “Garlic soup can be a light first course or a thick main dish” (p.31), with the resulting soup, bread, salad, dessert theme again suggesting how she concocted so many of her luncheons. Each recipe gives directions for adjusting ingredients to scale, to feed 6, 12, 20 and 50, and suggests how best to preserve, prepare, and serve leftovers.

This book might well serve as supplementary reading for food anthropology courses.

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Filed under anthropology, cooking, Food Studies, recipes

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