The University Bookman

 
 

Summer 2017

On the Human Art of Cooking

James V. Schall, S.J.

In Anne Husted Burleigh’s book, A Journey up the River, she writes of the human home, its formation and functioning. It circles around three objects, each of which, in every human home, has its own history. These are the bed, the table, and the desk. The crafting of each of these household objects can be among man’s finest works. They represent our coming to be, our continuing in being, and our wondering what it is all about while we are here trying to find out. Cookbooks are aspects of the table, of the where we eat and dine, of what we cook, serve, and are nourished by. As the dining room table itself implies, we are nourished more than by calories when we eat together. But it is indeed the food that, as much as anything we know, puts mind and spirit together with our personhood and its opening to others.

When my parents moved off the farm into the small, northwest Iowa town of Pocahontas during the early Depression, I recall that my father somehow had a job selling cookbooks. This endeavor is one of my earliest memories of a man who grew up on a nearby farm with its own varied chores. But once “in town,” he had to make a living in other ways than farming to keep us kids and our mother going. I recall boxes of these cookbooks. For the sale of each book, I suppose, he received a certain small commission. My father later worked for the Des Moines Register and Tribune, and then managed a Gamble’s hardware store. He was always a good salesman and conversationalist. I think my sister still has one of these cookbooks.

In any case, Anne Burleigh has just privately published The Family Kitchen: Through Five Generations. She thought long about a proper title until one of her grandsons came up with the present well-chosen one. At this point, the “desk” and the “table” meet. She had kept the recipes of her mother, grandmothers, mother-in-law, sister-in-law, aunts, other relatives, and friends. They were often in hand-written notes, or sometimes personal modifications of more famous recipes as those of Julia Childs.

Even her husband, Bill Burleigh, is recorded to have become adept at making Thanksgiving stuffing and gravy, a fine art to be sure. Her son David perfected a version of the “Orange Julius,” while her son-in-law, also a David, tells how to cook “Stagle Creek (Michigan) Trout.” We also have Bill’s cousin, Amy Oberst’s “Goulasuppe.” It turns out that Amy was German by birth and rearing, married to Bill’s cousin. So, as we become hungrier and hungrier with each dish pictured in our imagination by reading this book, we also sense a touch of the personality of those who handed on the recipes. It says much also of someone who would keep them, organize and classify them for later generations.

Then there is “Yankee Pot Roast.” Here is its explanation: “Pot roast is quintessential American food, the ultimate in soul-satisfying eating. When your teenage sons and grandsons come looking for what’s simmering in your ‘big red pot,’ a hefty red Creuset cast-iron Dutch oven, the answer could be a beef pot roast.” That “eating” should also “satisfy” the soul is simply taken for granted. While there are diet cookbooks, the subject of “over” eating is not proper to a good cookbook, which presupposes both the virtue of temperance and the delight that things in moderation are as they are. Foods that are well selected, prepared, and cooked cannot help but satisfy us. It takes a sick mind to think that food ought to taste rotten.

Anne Burleigh had also written a life of her father, Ralph Husted. Somewhere in that book, I recall that the family—it may have been her mother’s family, the Waldens, a family that goes back to early New England times—owned and operated an orchard in Indiana. In The Family Kitchen, we have “Gonga’s Apple Cake”—also we have Gonga’s “Lemon Meringue Pie,” “Ham Loaf,” and “Cranberry Sauce.” Gonga turned out to be Anne’s grandmother Walden.

The introductory comment to Gonga’s Apple Cake is worth repeating as it gives something of the spirit of the whole book:

This cake is identical to the cake that my Grandmother Walden made, except that Gonga used applesauce instead of chopped apples. She served it plain, dusted with powdered sugar, or with a caramel icing. When I was growing up, this was one of my favorite cakes, especially with caramel icing. When the leaves begin to turn in the fall, make this fine cake that fits the season.

A recipe for making the caramel is also later included. What is to be noted in such a passage is not just how we remember things that taste so good, but the seasonal realization that what we eat often goes along with the time of year and its moods. The “hearty” soups and foods found in this book obviously know something of winter and its snows—thus, “L. S. Ayer’s Chicken Velvet Soup” and “Margaret Brecourt’s Meat Pie.”

Somehow, having strawberries or pears, almost always green, every day of the year misses the exquisite taste of ripe pears or strawberries and the pies that go with them. And to me, the pie is the art of all culinary arts. So there are even directions on “Basic Pie Crusts.” Without a good pie crust, you cannot have pie. Of course, having strawberry jam every morning is quite all right. One of my nieces makes sure that good jam and preserves are made when the season is nigh for making them. We do have here recipes for “Peach Kuchen” and “Plum Torte,” both of which are best with ripe peaches and plums.

Another thing about kitchens and cooking is the smells—of coffee, of cookies baking, of chicken frying. In Belloc’s The Four Men, he says that the one thing that babies hear in their cradles and old men hear as they die is the boiling of water in the kitchen. With modern plumbing, we do not have this experience so much, but the smells are still there. I recall my friend Dorothy Warner, herself a fine baker and cook, once telling me of the effects on a family of children, adults too, of coming home and smelling something being baked, of the almost irresistible drive that especially hungry boys have to eat what their mother has thought to bake for them. It does not much lessen, I have noted, as the boys grow older.

It is at the table, where we eat, that so much of life and its memories happens. The old monastic practice of reading at table that was still practiced in my early days in the Order turned out to be one of the fondest memories of later life—the mispronunciations, the stories, the voices. I recall a wonderful lecture that Patrick Deneen gave at Oxford one summer on manners. He talked about the importance of the four-pronged fork in the teaching of children, especially boys, what manners might mean. They were not to gorge things down, like feeding sharks. They were to think of what they were doing, the others around them.

Leon Kass’s The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature is a book that teaches so well what it means to be a soul existing in a body. The two come together in eating and dining. That we enjoy what we eat is one of the most remarkable things about our relation to the world. I remember once reading a short news item from Australia. It said that the early Australian settlers had nothing to do with mussels. But when Italian immigrants made it there, they began to produce the most marvelous seafood pastas and chowders, almost as if a miracle had happened. We do have in this book “Charlotte Ann’s Fish Chowder.” This is Anne’s sister-in-law, whose daughter said that the original recipe seems to be from a 1950s Woman’s Day Magazine. How many good recipes are cut out from some obscure source? But among us, good things to eat exist in abundance, though we often need a cookbook to make them so. To be concerned with the poor does not mean that we feed them bad food.

I look over these recipes from the point of view of one who might eat what they propose, but not make them. Aristotle said that the gentleman should be able to cook. But like playing a musical instrument, he should not be able to cook or play the flute too well. What strikes me about this cookbook is that it is a product of a particular family’s tradition.

Yet it is designed to enable almost anyone to follow directions. I confess, however, that the directions under “Apricot Brandy Pound Cake” baffle me. They read: “Beginning and ending with the flour, add the flour in thirds to the creamed mixture, alternating with the sour cream in halves, beating on low speed until blended.” To klutzes like myself, this is pretty much like the directions on how to assemble a computer—unintelligible unless you can read Chinese.

This book is privately published. Though it has a copyright and is in handsome format, it is intended to be a family book, the traditions of a particular family, which as it goes forward and backward in time includes more and more kinfolk. We have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents. We can have oodles of cousins, who have their own lines. One of our siblings may marry someone with six siblings. This family connection puts us in contact with all sorts of traditions and people within the family circle where they are known as relatives and friends. They have family reunions every so often. We thus have “Catherine McCray’s Chicken Tetrazzini,” “Old World Sauerkraut Supper,” “Krista Edison’s Kansas City Casserole,” “Mexican Lasagna,” “Belgian Beef Stew,” “Beef & Onions Braised in Beer,” “Adah Jackson’s Spoon Bread,” and “Julia Walden’s Date Pudding.” Nothing eaten or cooked, in the inspiration of this book, is off by itself without a home in which its very eating makes us glad.

In conclusion, I will resist the temptation to name other dishes that I should definitely like to try. Their very listing makes one realize the shortness and complexity of lives that good food keeps passing through their allotted years. This book even makes “Succotash” look appealing, not to mention “Wisconsin Baked Beans.” I am a fan of pastries and notice that the “French Croissant” does not come up, but that is because it does not exist outside of France. This book makes us realize the intimate relation between good food, the table, the understanding, the family, and the art of cookery. Following its directions enables almost anyone, if they spend the time, to become capable of preparing good food for their families, not just for their bodies, but also for their souls.

The title of Kass’s book, The Hungry Soul, is correct, as is the title of Anne Burleigh’s book, The Family Kitchen. We are reminded, as even Kass touches on, that the title of our tradition’s highest act of worship took place at a “Last Supper.” To know what this “Last Supper” might be, it is necessary that we have some inkling of what a good family supper might be. It is this latter that Anne Burleigh presents for us in this marvelous cookbook that covers “five generations” of her family and looks forward to the next five generations, many of whom have already appeared and have eaten at her table.  

Posted: June 25, 2017 in On Letters and Essays.

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Universal and Territorial: The American Republic
Peter Augustine Lawler
Winter 2017

All great systems, ethical or political, attain their ascendency over the minds of men by virtue of their appeal to the imagination; and when they cease to touch the chords of wonder and mystery and hope, their power is lost, and men look elsewhere for some set of principles by which they may be guided.

Russell Kirk

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