A “Familiar Sensibility”: Cookbooks for Fall

By Stuart Mitchner

This Book Scene began with lunch at cookbook legends Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirsheimer’s newly opened Canal House Station restaurant in Milford, N.J.

At the time, all I knew about the Canal House series was what I heard from my wife on the drive up. According to an August 12 article in Food and Wine, the “meticulous restoration” of the Milford station took about two years, with the result evoking “the warmth of a dear friend’s home…. Even the entrance, past the small garden and through a back door, contributes to the familiar sensibility the brand new restaurant has already managed to create.”

I understood “familiar sensibility” as a way of describing the quality that has made the Canal House books so popular, an idea that accords with the Cambridge English Dictionary definition of sensibility as “an understanding of or ability to decide about what is good or valuable, especially in connection with social activities.”

Poetry Up Front

I found the “familiar sensibility” in evidence as soon as I opened my wife’s prized copy of Canal House Cooks Every Day (Andrews McMeel $45) to a photograph and a poem that would seem to have more to do with what is “good and valuable” than with cooking. The first image you see after turning the title and dedication pages is a blurry vision of blue sky and cloud mass photographed through the window of a plane en route to Istanbul; taking up the facing page is C.P. Cavafy’s poem “Ithaca,” which begins, “When you set out on your journey to Ithaca,/pray that the road is long,/full of adventure, full of knowledge” and ends “Wise as you have become, with so much experience,/you must already have understood what these Ithacas mean.”

As someone whose heart has never soared at the sight of a cookbook, I was more impressed by the association of cooking with a “beautiful voyage” than with any of the celebrity testimonials on the endpapers, except perhaps the tribute to “this kitchen bible” from actress Jamie Lee Curtis, a Canal House devotee who, like me, is not a “foodie” and admits to “no discernible culinary talent.” In fairness to Jamie Lee, the resemblance is strictly superficial; she cooks every day for “lots of people” and I’m a back-up cook, occasional sous chef, grater of cheese, composer of salads, and cleaner-upper.

Autumnal Radiance

Another example of Hirsheimer and Hamilton’s subtle understanding of the “good and valuable” is the photograph of a Dutch Oven on the cover of Canal House Cooking Fall and Holiday (Canal House paperback $34.90). I should admit that I’ve never been responsive to gastronomical photography, even when it’s as artfully done as it is in the Canal House series. Take the cover shot on the newly published Cook Something: Recipes to Rely On (Voracious $35). The clarity of the image is striking, the presentation state of the art, but no visual artist this side of Paul Cézanne could make a cluster of scallions aesthetically appealing or appetizing to my eyes. If, as Cavafy says, the road to Ithaca is “long, full of adventure, full of knowledge,” the green onion route is not for me.

The image of the Dutch Oven on the cover of Canal House Cooking Fall and Holiday has a yellow-orange hue that absolutely radiates autumn. Better yet, this sturdy piece of cookware clearly has a history. Memorable meals have simmered inside it, and it is what it is without benefit of photographic tarting up. Compared to the minimalist clarity of conventional, air-brushed, soft-core food porn, it has the depth of a Rembrandt. Its blemishes, flecks of red, specks of black, are in full view, marking its passage through generations of use, a kitchen poet’s equivalent of Cavafy’s journey to Ithaca. With its lid ajar and the track of some long-ago overflow baked for all time into the enamel, it’s worthy of a Cézanne still-life or at least a place of honor in his kitchen. More than the patina of age, an aura both painterly and human, its primary beauty is that autumnal radiance.

Cooking à la Downton Abbey

Speaking of “what is good or valuable, especially in connection with social activities,” if you’re a fan of a certain wildly popular Masterpiece Theatre series, you’ll want to check out food historian Annie Gray’s Official Downton Abbey Cookbook (Weldon Owen $35), which contains over 100 recipes showcasing, says the publisher, “the cookery and customs of the Crawley household — from upstairs dinner party centerpieces to downstairs puddings and pies. The emphasis is on original recipes of the period, replicated as seen or alluded to on screen,” or typical of the period covered (1912-1926), all the recipes reflecting “the influences found on the Downton Abbey tables.” There’s a foreword by executive producer and co-creator of Downton Abbey Gareth Neame, along with a host of color photographs, including stills from the PBS series as well as the recently-released feature film. Besides providing notes on the etiquette and customs of the times, the book includes quotes from the characters, and descriptions of the scenes in which the foods appear.  A sample of the upstairs menu includes Oysters au Gratin, Quail and Watercress, and Charlotte Russe. Downstairs in the kitchen, the heart of the series, it’s Toad-in-the-Hole, Beef Stew with Dumplings, and Jam and Custard Tarts.

“Joy” Returns in Time for Thanksgiving

One of the most notable new fall arrivals, with a title that should evoke fond memories in cooks of all sensibilities, is the 2019 Joy of Cooking, revised and updated for the first time since 2006, with a release date just ahead of Thanksgiving.

The first commercial edition of Irma S. Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking was published by the Bobbs-Merrill Company in 1936. Subsequent editions were revised and updated by Irma Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker throughout the 20th century, selling hundreds of thousands of copies by the end of World War II. Marion Rombauer Becker took over with the publication of the popular 1963 edition. Her son Ethan Becker helped her revise the 1975 edition, and then oversaw the releases of the 1997 and 75th Anniversary (2006) editions rewritten by Irma’s great-grandson John Becker and his wife, Megan Scott. Besides being the first revision since the 2006 edition, this is the first Joy of Cooking available as an eBook.

A Wedding Present

In my years lurching cluelessly around the kitchen, the book I turned to in times of stress was the 1966 edition of Joy of Cooking, a wedding present, which means we’ve had it more than 50 years. The big book has held up beautifully, the only sign of age the slightly torn rear dust jacket, probably from the times I pulled it off the shelf in a panic looking for how to make something embarrassingly basic like cinnamon toast or scrambled eggs. Just now, opening it at random, I landed on the pumpkin page, where it’s suggested that “each of the children carve his own pumpkin and then stack them into a totem pole.” Sounds like a recipe for disaster. I wonder if this idea made it into later editions.

The Heart of Things

Like the kitchen in Downton Abbey, the one in the new Canal House Station restaurant is at the heart of things — as you walk through it on your way to the dining rooms, you might find yourself saying hello to Hamilton and Hirsheimer, who were there the day we had lunch.