Cooking with Margaret Costa

The other night, I went to a cookbook club with a dear friend of mine. The ingenious idea behind the cookbook club is that the group is assigned a cookbook – in this case, it was Margaret Costa’s Four Seasons Cookery Book – and each of us was assigned a recipe. My friend had to do ratatouille and I did Costa’s recipe for peperonata. We then bring the dish to the club and share it with the other members, each of whom brings his/her own dish, as well. It’s a great, friendly way of learning about cooking, and even more importantly, talking about cooking. Everyone’s dish was wonderful and there were leftovers to take home.

Costa’s peperonata reminds me a bit of ratatouille or sausage and peppers, hold the sausage. It’s a very simple, vegetarian dish, and I chose it because it’s summer and I didn’t want to take the hot Tube with meat or dairy and possibly get people sick. I also work in an office with a tiny dorm fridge, and I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to get the food in the fridge.

I won’t go into too much detail about how to make Costa’s dish – you should get the book to do that – but I’ll go over the basics. Essentially, it’s a side dish to be eaten hot or cold. For a serving of four, I chopped up 10 medium-sized tomatoes, 6 red bell peppers, two cloves of garlic (just two) and a little bit of salt. And that’s it. It was so simple, that I kept looking back to the recipe to see if maybe I was missing something. I almost threw pepper in it, but caught myself because there was no pepper in Costa’s recipe.

At the class we were discussing Costa’s recipes which are “of a time” – a bit like those Mad Men-style recipes that charm us with their silliness or weirdness. These are the kinds of recipes that are supposed to impress dinner party guests.

The peperonata went over well with the other guests, though I have to admit, it’s a hard dish to mess up.

Margaret Costa is a great food writer, and though the recipes are probably not dishes I’ll be cooking, I do own her book. I was one of a handful of people who knew who Costa was and was familiar with her book. When someone asked “who would buy this book now?” I raised my hand – I buy midcentury cookbooks because I love the kitsch/camp value. I also appreciate what cooking looked like when folks didn’t have access to many of the ingredients we take for granted now. Reading writers like Elizabeth David or Julia Child is an interesting education in social studies – particularly class and gender – what middle-class women were expected to do and how they were expected to do it.

The other we talked about was the dated format of the book. Unlike contemporary cookbooks, the recipes aren’t laid out with the ingredients listed in bullet points, nor are there gorgeous photographs of the dishes. Costa’s recipes are written far more casually and conversationally – she’ll write something like “heat the oil and throw in the onion and garlic which you have chopped up” – so as a warning, read the recipes in their entirety because the ingredient lists don’t indicate what you do with the ingredients, you have to read the instructions themselves (which are written out in paragraph form)

Along with the format, we also talked about the cover. There are a few editions of the book with the latest being a tasteful, grey cover. I own the goofy, campy cover as seen below:

Yup, that’s a dead bird, nestled among the veg and herbs

So the cover is so ugly that I had to get it – it’s hideous, especially the dead bird that’s taking centre stage. It looks stuffed (taxidermied) I find it funny that the food stylist thought that including a dead pigeon would make the book seem enticing.

I’ve made the dish before last night, though my version had anchovy and olives, and I’ve added parsley and pepper. The peperonata took on a sweet, summery taste (even though it’s firmly ensconced in Costa’s ‘autumn recipes’).

Cooking with Peg Bracken

One of the best cookbook writers is a woman who hated cooking. In fact, the title of her most famous cookbook is The I Hate to Cook Book, which was published in 1960. It recently enjoyed a re-printing with an introduction from Bracken’s daughter, Johanna. The I Hate to Cook Book speaks to housewives and working moms (a growing demographic in 1960) who are burdened with the task of feeding families – often on budget – even if they hate cooking. The genesis of The I Hate to Cook Book is a klatch of women who share the recipes that saved a weeknight dinner.

I read The I Hate to Cook Book like a novel, because recipes, for the most part, are uncookable now. All the recipes have midcentury ingredients that I’d be hard-pressed to find now – like, for example, a surprisingly large number of recipes in Bracken’s book call for canned or frozen cream of shrimp soup. My local Co-Op has cream of mushroom, cream of chicken, and maybe cream of tomato, but I’ve never even heard of cream of shrimp. I had to look enough, and sure enough, I did find that Campbell’s does do a cream of shrimp soup, but I’ve yet to run across it (or taste it – to be honest, it sounds kind of disgusting)

The recipes in Bracken’s book reminds me of Sandra Lee, the woman who revolutionized home cooking with her semi-homemade ethos (70% prefab ingredients, 30% fresh….yum…) A lot of Bracken’s suggestions include a can of this or a tin of that. Lots of the veg she suggests to include are tinned. Interestingly enough, for a dish that calls for mushrooms, she writes about using fresh mushrooms as a treat or extravagance, which leads me to believe that not only were tinned veg a convenience but also an economy, too.

But the reason for reading Bracken’s book is because of her writing. She is the voice of every woman who’s just over it. Bracken cooks because she wants to feed her family and in 1960, moms were expected to feed their families (it was in the job description), but she wasn’t a June Cleaver-type who lived for her domestic duties. She wasn’t a fan of cooking and she realized that a lot of women felt the same way. This isn’t Julia Child who finds joy bursting out of every cherry tomato.

Of cooking, Bracken writes, “some activities become no less painful through repetition: childbearing, paying taxes, cooking.” All of her recipes include shortcuts so that the reader doesn’t have to spend one extra second in front of the stove. Sometimes her recipes sound like outtakes from Mad Men as she suggests “you may now put your feed up and have a highball” while making a rather far-fetched Indonesian curry.

Speaking of curry, another charming thing about this book is that because it’s written in 1960, its reach for multicultural recipes is hilarious and also disgusting. For example, one of the dishes she includes in the book is something called a tuna-rice curry: a questionable concoction that includes canned cream sauce, a can of tuna fish, leftover rice, hardboiled eggs, and curry powder. It’s like someone tried to give her the recipe for kedgerre, but forgot some of the ingredients, so Bracken improvised the rest.

Another tuna-related recipe that Bracken has sourced from the East, calls for chow mein noodles to be cooked with cream of mushroom soup and a can of tune – you’re supposed to bake this mess at 177°C – and voila – it’s like you’re in Beijing!

Even though Bracken hates to cook and has made it her schtick, it’s clear that this isn’t just some jokey book to entertain her readers. Yes, that’s a major part of it, and burnt-out housewives who are wasting their journalism degrees while tending to a raggedy litter of kids probably found Bracken to be a kindred spirit, but Bracken does try to impart actual advice and skill to her readers. The recipes aren’t spoofs and are a perfect snapshot of midcentury cooking and entertaining, when women started to look around their Formica surroundings and ask themselves, “Is this it????”