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This turned out to be terrible. Aargh.

Riley is a translator and historian of food literature, and the point of this book is meant to be that it contains adaptations of a selection of recipes from Renaissance Italy. Understandably, the author needed an organizational system; because this is not a reprint of the entirety of any one cookbook, she had to have a way to justify and explain which recipes she includes from the famous recipe collections. She decided to center her work around famous people: the food that Michelangelo, for example, would have been familiar with based on the things he said in his letters and the things we know about his household accounts.

This is not a bad idea for a cookbook. We have a lot of information about what the famous humanists and painters and writers and churchmen ate. However, she simply does not do it well. If you don't know who these people are and why they're famous when you pick up the book, you are not going to find out from her. She does not give more than the most cursory biographical overview of anyone, and even that infrequently. And she does not put in the text the citations that I know perfectly well exist concerning how we know about the food these people ate. I mean, I trust her to be telling the truth about it, but she needs to quote more letters, quote more account books. Her paraphrases do not communicate the way people thought about food, which was, of course, not the way we think about it nowadays. (I do appreciate that she explains exactly when the tomato entered Italian cooking, and how. That is helpful.)

The book is illustrated, too, with many contemporary pictures centered around food, but, and this amazes me, the subjects of the paintings are often totally irrelevant. True, there are several pictures by painters she discusses, but a fair number of the plates aren't even from the right time period-- I have faith that there are surviving pictures of melons from the fifteenth century! You don't need to turn to the eighteenth! This resonates with the weirdest thing in the book, which is, I suspect, an attempt to show the way in which recipes from Renaissance Italy got passed down and handed into the culinary vernacular even in quite separate countries, but which is in fact a completely unprefaced and out-of-the-blue chapter about, of all people, Martha Washington.

Of course, if the recipes were awesome none of this would matter very much. She is up against a known problem with them, which is that you cannot accurately translate the way things were written down at that time into modern measurements; accepted practice, however, is to do a lot of kitchen-testing until you come up with something. Riley is scattershot about this in an aggravating fashion. She will tell you to chop a very specific amount of chicken and then suggest that you season it with herbs-- without saying which herbs, let alone how much of them. She does not manage to accurately communicate the thing that can be readily deduced from old recipes, which is the ratio of one ingredient to another. It does not matter so much what amount of parsley you are using if you know that you have to use half as much rosemary as parsley and the total volume of herbs is to be one third that of the wine. That is the sort of thing the original collections will tell you, because that is one way people thought before standard measurements, and she basically leaves it out.

Because I have a lot of kitchen experience, and because I know something about old recipes, I can tell approximately what many of them are supposed to be doing. But I do not think that would be true for all readers. Also, there is an additional issue with about ninety percent of the recipes in the book, which is that, of course, the ingredients then and the ingredients now are rather different. Late medieval and early Renaissance cookery is swimming in verjuice, which you are only going to get mail-order unless you live near a winery or in New York City, and another staple ingredient is bitter (Seville) orange juice, which as far as I can tell is a seasonal farmer's market thing in vast swathes of the U.S. if it is available at all (I was not turning up anything mail-order). The two usual ways to deal with this sort of thing in a cookbook are a) a list of ingredient providers and relevant stores at the back of the book, and b) (and this is the really important thing), a list of adequate substitutions. Riley gives neither. (I conjecture that mixing balsamic vinegar with white grape juice would give me a reasonable fake of verjuice. Bitter orange? I got nothing.)

This means that the book, having already failed at entertaining and erudite, drops out of the category of useful. I mean, I made zabaglione from it this evening for New Year's, which was delicious, but I think it may have been the book's only usable recipe, and I think it's telling that that's one that's still in the culinary repertoire and has a fairly standard and common set of instructions. Avoid this book. It will only annoy you.

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rushthatspeaks: (Default)
This turned out to be terrible. Aargh.

Riley is a translator and historian of food literature, and the point of this book is meant to be that it contains adaptations of a selection of recipes from Renaissance Italy. Understandably, the author needed an organizational system; because this is not a reprint of the entirety of any one cookbook, she had to have a way to justify and explain which recipes she includes from the famous recipe collections. She decided to center her work around famous people: the food that Michelangelo, for example, would have been familiar with based on the things he said in his letters and the things we know about his household accounts.

This is not a bad idea for a cookbook. We have a lot of information about what the famous humanists and painters and writers and churchmen ate. However, she simply does not do it well. If you don't know who these people are and why they're famous when you pick up the book, you are not going to find out from her. She does not give more than the most cursory biographical overview of anyone, and even that infrequently. And she does not put in the text the citations that I know perfectly well exist concerning how we know about the food these people ate. I mean, I trust her to be telling the truth about it, but she needs to quote more letters, quote more account books. Her paraphrases do not communicate the way people thought about food, which was, of course, not the way we think about it nowadays. (I do appreciate that she explains exactly when the tomato entered Italian cooking, and how. That is helpful.)

The book is illustrated, too, with many contemporary pictures centered around food, but, and this amazes me, the subjects of the paintings are often totally irrelevant. True, there are several pictures by painters she discusses, but a fair number of the plates aren't even from the right time period-- I have faith that there are surviving pictures of melons from the fifteenth century! You don't need to turn to the eighteenth! This resonates with the weirdest thing in the book, which is, I suspect, an attempt to show the way in which recipes from Renaissance Italy got passed down and handed into the culinary vernacular even in quite separate countries, but which is in fact a completely unprefaced and out-of-the-blue chapter about, of all people, Martha Washington.

Of course, if the recipes were awesome none of this would matter very much. She is up against a known problem with them, which is that you cannot accurately translate the way things were written down at that time into modern measurements; accepted practice, however, is to do a lot of kitchen-testing until you come up with something. Riley is scattershot about this in an aggravating fashion. She will tell you to chop a very specific amount of chicken and then suggest that you season it with herbs-- without saying which herbs, let alone how much of them. She does not manage to accurately communicate the thing that can be readily deduced from old recipes, which is the ratio of one ingredient to another. It does not matter so much what amount of parsley you are using if you know that you have to use half as much rosemary as parsley and the total volume of herbs is to be one third that of the wine. That is the sort of thing the original collections will tell you, because that is one way people thought before standard measurements, and she basically leaves it out.

Because I have a lot of kitchen experience, and because I know something about old recipes, I can tell approximately what many of them are supposed to be doing. But I do not think that would be true for all readers. Also, there is an additional issue with about ninety percent of the recipes in the book, which is that, of course, the ingredients then and the ingredients now are rather different. Late medieval and early Renaissance cookery is swimming in verjuice, which you are only going to get mail-order unless you live near a winery or in New York City, and another staple ingredient is bitter (Seville) orange juice, which as far as I can tell is a seasonal farmer's market thing in vast swathes of the U.S. if it is available at all (I was not turning up anything mail-order). The two usual ways to deal with this sort of thing in a cookbook are a) a list of ingredient providers and relevant stores at the back of the book, and b) (and this is the really important thing), a list of adequate substitutions. Riley gives neither. (I conjecture that mixing balsamic vinegar with white grape juice would give me a reasonable fake of verjuice. Bitter orange? I got nothing.)

This means that the book, having already failed at entertaining and erudite, drops out of the category of useful. I mean, I made zabaglione from it this evening for New Year's, which was delicious, but I think it may have been the book's only usable recipe, and I think it's telling that that's one that's still in the culinary repertoire and has a fairly standard and common set of instructions. Avoid this book. It will only annoy you.

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