When I read Laura Shapiro's 'What She Ate' I expected to like it a lot more than I did, and now that I've read Jane Grigson's 'Food with the Famous' I think I have a better understanding of why. 'Food with the Famous' is the book I wanted to read all along without knowing it.
It's much more food oriented and has a lighter touch than Shapiro's book, but I've found it to be more illuminating because of that. Which isn't to say that I think the two authors were trying to do the same thing or that one book is basically better than the other, rather that 'Food with the Famous' comes closer to my particular preferences. It's also a mystery as to why it's fallen out of print.
I had a bit of trouble getting hold of a cooy of this - the first one I ordered (paperback) was in such bad condition I had to bin it (advertised as very good, it turned up with 30 odd pages already adrift, the spine threatening to come apart, and covered in mildew spots). Second time round I tried a hardback which really was as described. It was worth all the effort.
The famous people Grigson has chosen are John Evelyn, Parson James Woodforde, Jane Austen, Thomas Jefferson, Rev Sydney Smith, lord Shaftesbury, Lady Shaftesbury, Alexander Dumas, Emile Zola, Claude Monet, and Marcel Proust. And if I understand correctly this originated as a series of articles for The Observer back in the 1970's.
Some of the famous need a little bit more introduction than others - I don't suppose there's much more that can be said about Jane Austen now she's been explored, prodded, and poked, from every conceivable angle, for so long and so thoroughly for example. Yet it's still fun to see her as a housekeeper, and to consider the details about food she puts into her novels through that lense. The catalytic question that sparked this book was one about White soup for the Netherfield ball. It's not a detail I'd ever really considered, but I'm pleased to now know that with some effort I could make just such a soup.
All the famous people come with recipes that are as close to original as the modern kitchen, and modern ingredients, make possible. It might not be that there are so many things I want to cook in here - though I'm up for any meal anybody else wants to cook for me, but even understanding the ingredients and methods in mentioned dishes adds something tangible to the work that forms their context.
The chapter that's interested me most so far is the one on Zola. I need to get back to my Zola project (I stalled a bit on 'The Sin of Abbé Mouret', but I know there are better things in store). I haven't actually read much about Zola beyond some almost completely forgotten details of his role in the Dreyfus affair as an undergraduate. Meeting him through his interest in food is a revelation. The bitchy gossip of Edmond de Goncourt makes both men supremely human. Grigson argues that Zola's pleasure in food comes from years of going without. She also shows how effectively he uses food to create atmosphere and make points in his novels.
I've been dipping in and out of this one, and am far from finished with it - apart from anything else Grigson keeps sending me back to other cook books (Eliza Acton, Mrs Rundell, Sir Kenelm Digby, and other Jane Grigson's for a start) as well as making me wonder if now is the time to tackle John Evelyn's diary (it probably isn't).
In short it's a gem of a book - and not least for the useful advice of using some diced up lumps of bread to clean a coffee grinder before and after using it to grind spices. That's a tip that will save me a few coffee and spice stained tea towels. Absolutely worth tracking down a copy whilst they're knocking around at a few pence.