It startled me to see The Fireside Cook Book peering out from the bookstore shelf. The biggest surprise was how very new the book looked. The editions I’ve seen have been battered and worn, food-speckled, and with the non-shiny essence of the year 1949 – the date when The Fireside Cook Book was published for the very first time.
The new edition is red and green and yellow-brown and bright, and the illustrations – tossed in as if by a mad generous cook into a huge happy salad – are a look into another age of cookbooks.
Playful line drawings seem to be on almost every page, each one broadly drawn and colorful: An enigmatically smiling woman holds a garden spade as she bends over the earth almost-bursting out of her clothes while planting cauliflower in a garden as a little bird sits nearby watching her closely . . . a black-coated coachman throws delicately curled reins around the neck of a lime-avocado-green horse resembling a Lippanzauer as it pulls along a Cinderella-story coach labelled (writ large and bold and even saucily) SAUCES, and there upon the top of the coach sit the sauces in their jugs and bottles, merrily bumping along.
It all sounds just too precious. But it’s not. The book’s content crunches any initial questioning thoughts of ‘just too precious’ into a puff-ball which disappears with a slight ‘pouff!’ noise somewhere never to be seen again in the 1217 recipes on the 306 pages.
In this book are recipes, menu planning ideas, information on food purchasing, notes on seasonal cooking, the food of other lands and more. The recipes are written by someone who knows them too well to make a great fuss over them, someone who knows that any recipe ultimately answers to the cook, not the other way around – where cooks answer to the recipes which have somehow transformed themselves into pettily demanding divas. And yet the recipes in this book are far from unsophisticated.
This is not a specialist cookbook, though specialized ingredients and methods can be found in any given section. Beard’s mention of chayote, in 1949, is an interesting example of how very unassumably forward-looking he was.
Mark Bittman writes the foreword, and at the end of it comments:
“The man was born to teach cooking”.
I’m glad he wrote this, for the book jacket bio draws a strong picture of the other aspects of Beard: the well-qualified expert; the world-traveller; and the man who was quite intensely industry-connected.
My vision of Jim Beard (drawn from stories told to me by those who knew and worked with him during his later years in Manhattan) is in alignment with Bittman’s comment. I imagine him as consummate teacher first, bon vivant second, and writer through it all.
‘American Cookery’ is still my favorite book by Beard, but The Fireside Cook Book – this bright new edition – is coming right up close behind it as a very near second for my affections in the world of his writings.
Bread of a day, wine of a year, a friend of thirty years. I’ve always loved that saying. Maybe I’ll tag on to the end of it ‘a book of sixty years’.