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Recent Works of Note

February 21, 2001|CHARLES PERRY

"Food: A Culinary History," edited by Jean-Louis Flandrin and Massimo Montanari; English edition by Bert Sonnenfeld (Columbia University Press, 1999; $39.95).

Jean-Louis Flandrin has trained a generation of food scholars at his famous seminar at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris. A number of them contribute to this serious but accessible scholarly work, which would be useful just for the bibliography that follows most chapters. It discusses the cooking of various periods and also aspects like etiquette and the social function of banquets.

Really, though, it ought to have been titled "French and, to a Degree, Italian Food, Their Ancestry and Development." There are sections on the Stone Age, the ancient and medieval Middle East, Greece, Rome and Jewish food, but little on northern and eastern Europe and nothing at all about India, China, sub-Saharan Africa or the Americas in these 553 pages.

It's strongest on classical antiquity and Europe during and since the Middle Ages (which it does not treat as a single period, in the usual way; it emphasizes that there was substantial change during the Middle Ages). In particular, Flandrin himself contributes a masterful chapter on seasonings in medieval cookery. The section on the present day gives ample scope to the French loathing of American-initiated food trends.

*

"The Medieval Kitchen: Recipes From France and Italy" by Odile Redon, Francoise Sabban and Silvano Sirventi, translated by Edward Schneider (University of Chicago, 1998; hardcover $32.50, paperback $16.20).

This excellent book starts with a good 33-page intro to medieval food. The recipes, which have clearly been tried quite seriously, have knowledgeable, intellectually meaty notes. The original texts in French, Italian, Middle English and Latin are given at the end of the book.

The translation is generally good. Schneider neatly renders the 14th century chef Maistre Chiquart's "croutelettes petites et hautelettes" as "wee little crusts, a trifle high."

But not always. A cook who reads this translation and goes looking for "pellamountain" will get nowhere. Mentha pulegium, a coarse, rowdy member of the mint family, is known as pennyroyal in English, and it's readily obtainable at herbalist shops under that name. Still, this is a top choice if you want serious book on medieval French and Italian food with usable recipes.

*

"Food and Drink in Medieval Poland: Rediscovering a Cuisine of the Past" (1963), by Maria Dembinska, translated by Magdalena Thomas, revised and adapted by William Woys Weaver (University of Pennsylvania, 1999; $29.95).

This book has a romantic history. The author, born Countess Goluchowska, taught underground, politically incorrect courses on Polish history during the Communist regime. Weaver, an American who specializes in the food history of his native Pennsylvania, arranged for the book to be translated from Polish and in the end extensively rearranged it, adding adaptations of medieval Polish recipes (the ham with cucumbers sounds particularly good) based on Dembinska's researches.

It's a fascinating glimpse of a surprisingly cosmopolitan cuisine open throughout its history to French, German, Byzantine, Jewish and other influences. With this book under your belt, you can win many a trivia bet with foodies: Sure, you may know that borscht is called barszcz in Polish. But did you know it was originally made with neither beets nor cabbage but with cow parsnip, a leafy relative of celery and fennel?

*

"Siren Feasts: A History of Food and Gastronomy in Greece" by Andrew Dalby (Routledge, 1996; $24.99).

This book grew out of Dalby's PhD thesis at the University of London. If you're at all interested in what the ancient Greeks ate, this is the book. You can read it straight through, consult it on a puzzling issue or just open it up to immerse yourself in the foodways of a far different time.

Dalby will soon publish a new translation of "De Re Culinaria," the 2nd-4th century recipe compilation that tells us most of what we know about ancient Roman cooking.

*

"The Classical Cookbook" by Andrew Dalby and Sally Grainger (J. Paul Getty Museum, 1996; $24.96).

Like "Siren Feasts," this is an affectionate introduction to the ebullience of Greek and Roman culture. Dalby quotes racy dialogue from Greek plays and even tavern inscriptions. Among the544499052bathers were likely to drop on the floor-fish bones, crab claws, fruit pits, snail shells-and one thoughtful-looking mouse.

Dalby also gives usable versions of simple Greek and more elaborate Roman recipes, developed with the help of a professional cook who has a degree in classics.

*

"Art, Culture, Cuisine: Ancient and Medieval Gastronomy" by Phyllis Pray Bober (University of Chicago, 2000; $50).

Bober, a professor of art at Bryn Mawr College, approaches food history from the twin standpoints of art and anthropology (there's a good deal here on ancient homes and kitchens), and this 2036950380Egyptian food probably had an elegant simplicity.

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