This Christmas: Survival Skills for All
The seas are rising, the summers are getting hotter, the one percent show no signs of unclenching their sticky fingers from the money they've been stockpiling, and for many of us, learning the skills of thrift and creativity and making do that saw our forefathers through harder times than these seems like it's just good sense.
And so, this Christmas season, instead of just giving all the big shiny pretty cookbooks (although I've reviewed plenty of those this year that would be great gifts), I'm going to urge you instead to be more practical, and to gift the people you love with the kinds of books that will teach them how to cook at home, how to make more from what they have, and how to weather the storms that will, inevitably, fall on each of us.
Like many, I find Elizabeth Gilbert's particular combination of charm and first-world entitlement maddening, but I have to admit, I loved At Home on the Range, a reprint of a cookbook first published by her great-grandmother in 1947. Margaret Potter had been raised on Philadelphia's Main Line with certain domestic expectations -- when her husband turned out to be brilliant but feckless, Margaret made do. But "making do" sounds so grim, so unpleasant, so devoid of joy or flavor or fun -- instead, think along the lines of M.F.K. Fisher's How to Eat a Wolf -- this is a book filled with ideas for feeding your family and friends with ease while not breaking your bank account. Now, this is an old-fashioned cookbook, which means no lists of ingredients but a rather more narrative style of recipe, which I love, but seems to frighten the inexperienced. However, this would be a terrific gift for all sorts of people on your list -- not only for your insufferable cousin who won't stop telling you how inspirational she found Gilbert's TED talk and how you really should, you know, as a writer, go watch it -- but for all those older ladies who let you putter around in their kitchens when you were a child, who taught you how to make a pie crust.
In order to be prepared for disaster, a person needs a well-stocked pantry. I tend to stockpile staples when I feel existentially nervous, so this is not a problem for me, but for those of you in smaller spaces, Amy Pennington's Urban Pantry: Tips and Recipes for a Thrifty, Sustainable and Seasonal Kitchen is a terrific primer on how to prioritize, store, and most importantly, use those pantry staples you've acquired. The book is organized in part by staple, including chapters on "Beans and Peas" and "Whole Grains" and my favorite emergency go-to, "Cooking with Eggs." If you have people on your list who complain that they wind up picking up takeout on the way home because they're just to tired to cook, or they can't figure out what to make once they get home, this would be a terrific gift. There's nothing wrong with an exhaustion pizza now and again, but especially for the young and broke, learning to cook at home is a huge boon, not only to the pocketbook, but to one's general health.
Cornerstone Cooking: Learn to Love your Leftovers by Nick Evans came across my transom earlier this year. Evans, of Colorado's western slope, articulates a notion so near and dear to my heart that I hadn't noticed that no one else has really done it. What Evans calls a "cornerstone" recipe is one like roast chicken, or marinara sauce, or black beans, or flank steak -- something simple that can be cooked in quantity, providing a terrific immediate meal as well as the "cornerstone" of several other spinoff meals. This is how I've always cooked (sometimes to the dismay of my sweetheart, who knows that I'm incapable of throwing out food, so everything is coming back in another guise, usually as soup). This would be a great gift for the busy person with kids, as a lot of his recipes seem really kid friendly, and having useful leftovers that can be made into new and different recipes as the week wears on is one of the easiest ways I know to feed starving kids who need food now.
Shannon Hayes is one of my favorite writers and her Radical Homemakers is a book I've touted in the past, so I was thrilled to see Long Way on a Little arrive in my mailbox. Hayes's family raises meat animals on a non-industrial scale and they also have a butcher shop. While responsibly-raised meat is necessarily more expensive than industrial meat, Hayes wants to convince her readers to switch to a more natural, grass-fed product because it is better for the ecosystem and better for your health, and she wants you to be able to afford it by eating less meat, eating lower on the animal, and learning how to cook so that you never throw anything out. This is her third cookbook, and it's filled with great recipes, including some for items we don't normally think of as meat-based, like soap and face cream. Our local grocery store is selling beef fat by the bag this time of year (elk and venison hunters use it for sausage), and I'm tempted to overcome my fear of lye and try to make soap. Christmas presents?
For the person on your list who is still into DIY but perhaps not quite so crunchy as to want to make her own soap, Yvette Van Boven's Home Made Winter would be a nice gift. I loved her first book, Home Made, and while this one feels a teensy bit like recipes that didn't make it into the original, I don't care. This is a shiny, gift-y cookbook with beautiful photographs of delicious food; lovely people; and oddball corners of Amsterdam, Ireland, and France. There are recipes for all sorts of winter goodies like pâté, winter salads, baked goods, and a section of yummy winter drinks. This is one of those books where just paging through it feels a little bit like taking a vacation with your most fun girlfriend.
A Country Cook's Kitchen is both useful and beautiful. If my pretend garden persona is the ancient Italian immigrant growing all my food in my city backyard, my pretend kitchen persona is the flour-dusted country cook of the British Isles persuasion turning out delicious scones and cheeses and exotic items like Individual Game Pies for my tribe of pretend grandchildren who will be stopping by for tea. Like I said, kind of a fantasy. On the other hand, there are recipes for Individual Game Pies in this lovely book, as well as recipes for sweets like the Vanilla and Raspberry Jelly Roll, which would be lovely with a pot of tea. There are recipes for easy cheeses, for bottled fruits, for jellies and jams, and some gorgeous terrines and pâtés (which might just wind up in the Christmas boxes I send in lieu of presents). This is a book I've picked up over and over since it arrived this spring, and it would make a lovely gift for the Anglophile on your list.
I'm on record for my dislike of "cheffy" cookbooks, but I've fallen hard for Magnus Nilsson's Fäviken. It's not the recipes that have me so smitten, because frankly, I don't cook that way -- but it's the text. Nilsson's restaurant relies entirely on local products, and he's fascinating on these subjects. For instance, his beef comes from retired dairy cows raised by a local farmer he knows. In the US, we butcher young animals, but Nilsson insists that the more mature animals are filled with flavor. To counter the natural toughness of older animals, he dry ages his beef for a period of five to seven months, which is also unheard of, but which he insists both tenderizes and allows the meat to develop deep secondary and tertiary flavors. There is a wealth of information in this book about not only raising cattle, but chickens, ducks, goats, and sheep. His chapter on vegetables (and the photos of his garden in the Swedish north) is one I keep paging through again and again to pick up ideas. This is a beautiful book in which a chef who has managed to build a successful tiny restaurant in a remote location that not only feeds beautiful food to his customers, but is building a network of first class purveyors who are experimenting with new ways of creating beautiful and sustainable food products. This is a book that would make a great present for anyone interested in avant garde cuisine, or truly artisanal agriculture.
Thus 2012 comes to a close, and here at Cookbookslut we're determined to grow, cook, and make even more of our own food in 2013. Winter is, of course, when the seed and plant catalogs arrive, and I think this is the year I'll plant more fruit trees. Who knows? With climate change, maybe I shall dare to grow a peach...