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Monday, 29 December 2014

The Recipe for Collectors – an Endangered Genre

VOTES & VIEWS # 35

When choosing from a wide range of objects, artifacts, books or whatever, to assemble a collection, it is generally assumed that there has to be a certain ‘rarity factor’ in that genre. Let’s disregard for a moment collectors of Rodin sculptures and van Gogh paintings; let us avoid Mills and Boon paperbacks, as well as those collections of matchboxes, Coca-Cola cans, barbed wire and car numberplates. They range from the sublime to the ridiculous – but to every man his own taste.

Since I am among bibliophiles (or you would not be reading this), I am quite certain that each one of you has at some time or other felt that quickening pulse, that tingle of excitement and that ‘Eureka Moment of discovering a rare and precious item to add to your collection. In our case it was most likely a book; something that was published either a very long time ago, maybe in a small print run, or the publication’s companion volumes might have had the misfortune to be stored in a warehouse which was set alight during the Mau Mau insurrection (as the lore of a rare golfing book I once handled, would have it) or got bombed in the Blitz.

Alternatively you can look towards the future. Like the art connoisseur who buys unknown, ragged artists’ weird collages or splashes or daubs on street corners for a few Rands, in the hope that they have just met another Gaugin in the making. You are speculating that one day they will be numbered and catalogued – as well as valuable and sought-after. In print terms, you might collect those hefty tomes that come in plastic bags and are thrown over your garden wall – I’m talking about the Yellow Pages – since I confidently predict that they will be as the dinosaurs in less than a generation from now. The people that use them now will go to the computer and find whatever they are looking for on Google. The era of the search engine is here, to assist you in obtaining all your needs, fancies and desires. So let’s explore that a little further, without going into the pro’s and cons of electronic media as a whole – and the demise of the printed word, as is being threatened in the same breath as global warming.

No, let us have a look at a truly endangered genre of books, which, if publishers have any business sense whatsoever, will die out in the immediate future. I am talking about cookery books. A strange choice perhaps, since you can walk into just about any type of bookshop (with the exception of those dealing exclusively with religious matters) and you will find hundreds of titles to choose from – covering every aspect and every cuisine; mostly beautifully illustrated with mouth-watering pictures of dishes gleaming with the ‘shine’ of butter, and almost fooling the senses to the degree where you can smell the aroma. So why are they endangered? This was brought home to me about a year ago as I watch food programmes on TV with great enjoyment. Eastern cuisine is among my favourites, so I learnt about a Korean dish named kimchi. This was described as a sort of sauerkraut-type, fermented cabbage preserve, with some very daring occasional additives like shrimps or fish – not normally the sort of food we would care to have standing round the kitchen unrefrigerated for a month or two.

My interest was piqued. As my sister was leaving for Singapore in the next few days, I asked her to find me a Korean recipe book, if she could locate one in that great Asian crossroad. But my thirst for knowledge demanded instant gratification. Suddenly a flash of inspiration – Google it ! I entered the word into the search form, breathless with anticipation, and in 0,29 seconds I had at my beck and call 229 000 odd recipes. I won’t bore you with the process and results, but for the rest of the summer, my kitchen and refrigerator exuded faint whiffs of sulphurous emanations from batches of kimchi in the ripening and eating stages of development. I got quite fond of the stuff.

A short while later an Irish friend, who has an Argentinian wife, introduced me to the concept of  ceviche – a food made in heaven, according to him. It consisted of raw fish, citrus fruit, onions, garlic, chillies and suchlike forms of sustenance. I had no Peruvian or Chilean cookbooks, so once again I turned to the big G on the screen – and once more 114 000 entries were lined up for my perusal. Ceviche is now one of my favoured starter dishes with which I like to surprise unsuspecting dinner guests. I was hooked. Since then, I won’t say that I have entirely deserted my trusty shelf of cookery books, but I must confess that I regularly dive into the wealth of choices presented to me on the net. Not to say that I slavishly print out a copy every time I find something – but it is oh, so easy, to find inspiration and a bit of basic advice on techniques. The sheer number of dishes available boggles the mind. Just a few examples: Beef Rendang, a Malaysian dish – 174 000 hits, Apple Strudel – 277 000, Yorkshire pudding – 354 000. I have not established the dish that you can find the most recipes for – but the omnipresent curry must be among them with 2,88 million recipes on-line. In search of something a little more esoteric, I had a look at what was on offer if one wished to use the household pet, to whit Fido or Rover, as ingredients for Sunday lunch. Yes. I learnt among 295 000 snippets on the subject that though dog-meat was no longer used in Germany as it was in days of yore under the name of “Blockade Mutton”, the Swiss cantons of Appenzell and St Gallen (more generally renowned for their cheeses) have a tradition of producing fine smoked dog-hams and sausages to this day, and the Swiss government does not see its role as having to control their citizenry’s appetites. Despite popular legend and numerous TV programmes, China is on the verge of driving dog-eating underground due to unfavourable publicity. Not so the populace of Viet Nam, as also the great Kim Jong Un who has even fixed the price per kilo on this most necessary adjunct to the national cuisine of North Korea.

I am willing to bet that you can find even the most outlandish viands and their best methods of preparation – the most obscure I could think of was kumyss – Mongolian fermented mare’s milk – and even for that there were two methods of manufacture listed. So, would you think that I am correct in assuming that cookbooks are on their way out? Surely their appeal in this era of information revolution can only be visual. Huge sums are spent by publishers on dedicated food designers, photographers, layout artists and the like to make their offerings nearly as irresistible as the succulent repasts they promise. They must be doomed! For those of you who do not want to spend a fortune on your collecting habit, those who want to get some practical enjoyment out of your hobby, I would suggest that you start collecting cookery books, and not just any, but Southern African cookery books. The subject is so wide that one should specialise. There’s always time later to expand a collection.

Sub-Saharan Africa is not historically a culinary paradise. The food crops grown during precolonial times in the largest part of the continent, were poor in variety, and from my personal tasting of items such as millet, sorghum, plantain, yam, wild leaf vegetables and a form of peanut – they were rather bland and uninteresting in taste. Protein in the form of game, fish and fowl was available in large quantities and varieties and are equal to any other continent’s. Not until the advent of Asiatic and Arab traders being blown across the Indian Ocean by the Monsoon, and the Portuguese explorers with the riches of the orient in their sights, coming down the west coast, did Africa get a sprinkling of spice in their dishes. One writer who seems to have a different opinion of African cuisine, is Laurens van der Post. In his ode to food African, First Catch your Eland (Hogarth, 1977) he lauds everything from a hunk of venison thrown on the fire by his Bushman companions, to Palm Oil Chop from West Africa and as a crowning indignity the shoeleather and fire combination from the Horn of Africa, called injera and wat. A prized volume nowadays, but for no discernible reason, except the celebrity status of its author. Despite these negative things about African foodstuff, I admit that in the realm of beverages Ethiopia’s contribution of coffee ranks in the top three world drinks along with tea and beer.

So the search for African cooking science or art can be curtailed considerably – and one could well concentrate on Cape Cookery in its widest sense as a subject for collection. Before rushing out to buy in a vast stock of secondhand works by a number of very capable cooks, bakers and domestic goddesses, let’s have a look at our culinary history. A good book to start with is Renata Coetzee’s work, The South African Culinary Tradition or if you prefer the Afrikaans version Spys en Drank (both published by Struik in 1988). It gives a good overall view of the straits in which the Dutch colonists found themselves with regards to foodstuffs and chronicles the early developments of gardening as well as sketching the content and preparation of meals. Soon a fair approximation of Dutch cuisine could be found at the Cape, enhanced by the addition of some of the herbs that they grew themselves, as well as the spices that came from the east, along with the Malay slaves, who knew so well how to use them. Added to that was the French component – a nation which was already notable at the time for some famous chefs, like Escoffier, Careme and Montagne. The author also lists a few of the handwritten cookery books of the early Cape period, which are of course, unavailable to the collector, and then gives some background to early local cuisine which I have already covered, when I extolled the delights and quirks of cookery books from 1890 onwards in a previous chapter, so we can pass on to cookery after the great Louis Leipoldt.

I can not pretend that I know most of the books that have been published on the subject since then, but here is a selection of titles that a would-be collector could start off with.  Let's get cooking with ‘Ouma’ Hendrie, who got herself into print with Ouma’s Cookery Book (Juta, 1940) but I find her hundreds of shorthand, collected recipes pretty uninteresting, if not repulsive – I mean, who wants to eat the likes of  beefsteak cake, redolent with suet, cooked in dripping etc. The only recipe worthy of mention is her ‘Humorous recipe’ in which she sets out a sure-fire method of making a compliant husband! (page 64). An obviously Norwegian import by the resounding name of Aagot Stromsoe passes on some of her presumably inherited lore on the cooking of fish, with an early effort entitled Do you know how to cook Fish? (Juta, 194-), which should have had the rider added: Because I don’t. A horrible little book, utterly lacking in any flair – though it does tell you how to render inedible perfectly good dried fish by soaking and boiling it in a solution of slaked lime. This was followed up by the laconic Fish Book (Timmins, 1962) almost two decades later. Nothing wrong with that effort, since the lady obviously spent the time between authoring the two books in learning some more imaginative ways of preparing food.

The Department of Agriculture entered the fray in the postwar years as well, with a number of editions entitled Foods and Cookery – Housewife’s Guide (1946) and later variations thereof. These works were compiled with the health of the nation in mind; setting out balanced diets, good food hygiene and safe preservation practices, as well as guiding even the most inexperienced in the arcane arts of boiling an egg and other more trying tasks.

Hilda Gerber became something of a domestic goddess by popularising large numbers of Cape Malay dishes with a number of books, of which Cape Cookery – Old and New, (Timmins, ca 1950) and Traditional Cookery of the Cape Malays (Balkema, 1958) are just two examples. Reprints of these still appeared in the 1980’s, so they are relatively easy to find and inexpensive.


Just recently I came across the encyclopaedic Jess Davidtsz se Kookboek, published by herself in 1955, when she held a professorship in domestic science at a tertiary institution. This was probably the start of the ‘modern cookery book’ for Afrikaans speaking women. It is also available in English. This no-nonsense work is full of nourishing stuff, properly cooked and embellished with photo’s illustrating methods and final dishes. I seem to recall that an added bonus, was a ‘catering appendix’ where it tells you what quantities you need for 50 – or was it 500? - guests at a party.

Another I would like to mention is Judy Desmond, as I am a firm admirer of her work Traditional Cookery in South Africa  (Books of Africa, ca 1960). Not only does she give a short history of the art in the subcontinent, but she also lists a number of interesting recipes, often using ingredients that are far from ordinary. I know of several modest little publications authored by ladies’ committees to aid the new bride or raw immigrant in the best utilization of local produce and amenities. These are often liberally laced with humour and stuffed with recipes from frying an egg to concocting your own insecticide. Indian dishes get their dues in Zuleika Mayat’s book entitled Indian Delights, which appeared in the early 1970’s and which went through numerous incarnations ever since. Another is R Makan’s South African Indian Cookbook and there are any number of books on Cape Malay cuisine that should be added to a collection. Finally I would round off with Vera Heard and Leslie Faull’s book Cookery in South Africa - Traditional and Today which is a wonderful book on the culinary lore of this vast subject and the many influences that shaped its present form.

That only just takes us up to the 1970’s, and there are another couple of decades’ worth of authors and books – just on the subject of ‘Local is Lekker’ – many of them by truly innovative, imaginative people who have enriched generations of South Africans’ experiences of the flavour, aroma and convivial enjoyment of that great unifier, food. As such it would be a great pity if all that knowledge were to disappear into that great electronic limbo that is the internet. Instead I urge you to give a thought to preserving those endangered, tatty, grease-stained, scribbled on and utterly used books because above all they are “The Ghosts of Banquets Past”.