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AN AMERICAN FOLKLIFE COOKBOOK by Joan Nathan

AN AMERICAN FOLKLIFE COOKBOOK

By Joan Nathan

Pub Date: Nov. 12th, 1984
ISBN: 0805239146

The idea of cookery as vanishing folk heritage has brought some interesting material into print--most recently The Foxfire Book of Appalachian Cookery (p. 630).

Nathan, a Washington Post food writer and culinary preservationist (The Jewish Holiday Kitchen), sets out here to record living traditions in several dozen communities from Rhode Island to Washington State. Matters start off dubiously with ""authentic"" recreations of favorites enjoyed by ""Our Gourmet President,"" Thomas Jefferson. Then, happily, living cooks take over: the doyenne of a church auxiliary in the Armenian-American citadel of Watertown, Mass.; an elderly Vietnamese couple in Maryland; the volunteer chefs for three different Chicago fire department shifts; the staff of the Florida Avenue Grill in Washington, D.C.; a pair of beekeeping health-food buffs near Middlebury, Vt.; the tiny Oaxacan-born cook for an august Napa Valley winery. Some of these people are products of distinctive ethnic traditions; some are farmers, ranchers, or fishermen partly dependent on what they raise or catch; some are plain home cooks, some professionals of one stripe or another. The recipes include a real purist's version of New England baked beans (nothing but beans, salt pork, onions, and a little molasses); green beans in the true, unreconstructed Virginia style (cooked for at least an hour with a lot of slab bacon); mustard and turnip greens with smoked turkey winglets instead of ham hocks (the inspiration of one of the Chicago firehouse artists); braised pheasant with olives for Christmas Eve supper in a Providence Italian enclave. Nathan is not the historian to put the Jefferson material into convincing order; nor has she the instincts of a real folklorist. She is a likable interviewer and observer, though, thoughtful rather than judgmental about the course of culinary change (these days ""Gen Prada spends hours making her kale soup"" and finishes it off with ""a package of Lipton's Onion Soup Mix"").

Other works may examine traditions with more scholarly zeal; this Charles Kuralt-vignette approach has its own charm.