A History of Food in 100 Recipes, By William Sitwell


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The Independent Culture

There is no shortage of food histories and even less of recipe books, but a hybrid of the two is something new. William Sitwell tackles this mammoth project with energy and wit. His 100 recipes, each accompanied by an extended commentary, range from Archestratus's fish baked in fig leaves (the directions sound like a present-day TV chef: "You could not possibly spoil it even if you wanted to") to Heston Blumenthal's fake orange made of chicken-liver parfait, which is very easy to spoil. Even if you happen to possess the skill and requisite kit, the recipe is too abbreviated to follow.

The recipes are of variable practicality and the format does not explain the evolution of a dish. Even Sitwell admits that the recipe for trifle from 1596 may make readers "feel a little short-changed" (it is flavoured cream). The same applies to Charles Elmé Francatelli's Welsh rarebit from 1852, which is merely cheese on toast seasoned with salt, pepper and mustard. It would be much improved by Worcester sauce, cayenne and egg yolk.

Most significant British dishes are here, including such homely items as Eliza Acton's Brussels sprouts, Isabella Beeton's roly-poly jam pudding and Hannah Glasse's Yorkshire pudding, along with nibbles from France and Italy. Though there is no mention of such major British figures as Alexis Soyer and Jane Grigson, there are a number of American recipes. We are treated to quick oatmeal cookies, spaghetti à la Campbell, strawberry ice-cream soda ...

The oddest US contribution is cheese fondue by the fabricated cook Betty Crocker ("her name was devised in 1921 by the Washburn Crosby company of Minneapolis"). Was it impossible for Sitwell to find a British or Continental source for this Sixties classic?

Despite the weird Stateside courses, Sitwell sets out an impressive banquet, though this Yorkshire reviewer bristled when reading about the eponymous pud. We are informed that the name arose "possibly because it was in the Black Country that the coals were supposed to burn hotter than elsewhere... the hotter the fat, the crisper the batter". Yorkshire pudding hails from a county approximately 70 miles to the north-east of the Black Country.