Saturday, October 30, 2004

Pierre Berton, The First Urban Peasant, and a New Blog

Being a bachelor means learning to cook for oneself, which means learning to use a cookbook. The first cookbook I ever bought--wasn't exactly a cookbook.

Pierre Berton is a legendary Canadian author, but back in the 1950s he was a columnist for the Toronto Star. One of his column collections from that era is called Just Add Water and Stir, which features a section called "Intemperate Recipes."

There were four of them" Tomato Soup, Klondike Baked Beans, Corned Beef Hash and Clam Chowder. Over the years I've made three of them (I haven't quite worked out the schedule for making the multi-hour-baking Baked Beans one) on a semi-regular basis. They're good--very good.

They were a response to the frozen-dinner and canned prepared foods that we take for granted today, before the gourmet boom of the 1980s. The 1950s was the era that TV exploded onto the market and the days of mass advertising started to boom in as well.

Part of the charm of these recipes is that, because they started out as newspaper columns, their directions are given as prose and not convention recipe directions.

For example, from the Tomato Soup recipe: Make sure you have whole stalks of celery and make sure the leaves are on and that these leaves are fresh, not brown or limp. If your grocer is the kind of man who cuts leaves off celery avoid him as you would a man who pulls legs off flies....

... Now get some parsley. Do not do what your wife does and get one sprig of parsley. Women are always putting tiny sprigs of parley into food. It does no good. Get two double handfuls of parsley, pressed tight, and chop it as fine as you can and gthrow it into the pot, now redolent of the pungent celery...

About that last paragraph: please bear in mind, they were written in the days before the women's movement. I'm sure Mrs. Berton must have said something to him after that particular column was published.

Also, measurements aren't given except in their roughest forms: "a bunch of tomatoes" depending on how big a feed you're planning, pork cut into cubes "the size of marshmallows".

And Mr. Berton, much like Rex Stout, likes to describe the process of cooking as well as the food: only careful and loving chopping will produce this effect, an attention to detail that is amply repaid also in the case of hash brown and Lyonnaise potatoes, which is almost mandatory with steak or ham and eggs.

I'd say these four are a precursor to the writings of James Barber, the Urban Peasant, who still has a considerable following in Canada. Mr. Barber's early essays on food read much the same way as these columns, with the advantage that they are still in print.

I may try to reproduce the Berton recipes -- but not here. Next week I'll be starting up a new blog called The Urban Possum, which will focus on food, the bachelors who cook it and the people who write about it. I hope you folks at Blog Explosion will find time to visit it.