Holiday Gift Guide, Part 2: Food

Posted in books, marketplace (goods & services) by Editor on December 6, 2011

By Courtney Barnes and Craig Hanson

Culinary gifts — whether primarily about cooking or eating — regularly appear on holiday wish lists, but how much more fun it could be to give a taste of the eighteenth century.

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1. A Two-Day Historic Food Course with Ivan Day on Georgian Cookery — With forty years of experience cooking period food, Day is well-known for recreating historic tables, particularly in museum contexts. He’s also worked in television and radio and written books and articles on the history of English food. To judge from the website, I think it would be an incredibly fun experience — even better with four or five friends (Day’s blog, Food History Jottings, is also pretty wonderful). From the Historic Food website:

Ivan Day's Historic Food kitchen in Cumbria

We are located at Wreay Farm, a small seventeenth-century farmhouse in Cumbria, on the edge of the Lake District National Park. The farmhouse kitchen (known locally as a firehouse) is equipped with a wide range of antique kitchen utensils and a roasting range complete with clockwork jacks. It has frequently been used as a television kitchen (recently in the US Food Network’s Food Fit for a King and for BBC2 Open University’s Open Minds). We also have a confectionery room and a small bakehouse with wood-fired oven. We limit our group size to six participants per course, which means you get plenty of individual attention. . .

And if this isn’t enough to tempt you, there’s a lovely account of Day’s period sugarworks course at Fiona Leahy Designs (from May 2010).

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2. A Visual Feast at Houston’s Rienzi House — We noted the exhibition back in August here at Enfilade, but a visit to English Taste: The Art of Dining in the Eighteenth Century (organized by the Museum of Fine Arts Houston and installed, incidentally, by Day) would be a lovely way to spend an afternoon during the holidays. From the MFAH website:

The 18th-century English dinner table was a feast for the eyes. In order to impress their guests and assure them that they were dining amid fashionable people of consequence, hosts served sumptuous dishes, adorned with towering sugar constructions and amusing trompe l’oeil (fool-the-eye) jellies of playing cards or bacon and eggs, all on exquisite silver and porcelain.

Rienzi re-creates this elaborate dining experience in English Taste: The Art of Dining in the Eighteenth Century. The first special exhibition ever held at Rienzi, the MFAH house museum for European decorative arts, English Taste treats you to a dining-room extravaganza typical of a 1760s English country house. Lifelike fish, fowl, and flummeries—complete with lavish, Georgian silver fittings and place settings—grace the table, created with guidance from the influential period cookbook The Experienced English Housekeeper by Elizabeth Raffald, the “Martha Stewart of the 18th century.”

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3. A Taste of Life at Mount Vernon — Stephen McLeod, ed., Dining with the Washingtons: Historic Recipes, Entertaining, and Hospitality from Mount Vernon (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2011), 224 pages, 9780807835265 $35. From the publisher:

Combining vivid photography with engaging essays, Dining with the Washingtons explores the menus, diet, and styles of entertaining that characterized the beloved home of the nation’s principal founding father. Compelling accounts, historic artwork, and images of gardens, table settings, prepared food, and objects from the Mount Vernon collection blend to shed fresh light on the daily lives of George and Martha Washington, on their ceaseless stream of household guests and those who served them, and on the ways food and drink reflected the culture of eighteenth-century America. . .

Janet Blyberg provides a fine sampling of the book at her blog, JCB.

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4. A Guide to Kitchens in Eighteenth-Century France — If the food gets you wondering about the cooks who produced it, this new book might be just the thing for a cold winter day, ideally curled up next to a crackling fire. From the Johns Hopkins UP:

Sean Takats, The Expert Cook in Enlightenment France (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011), 216 pages, 9781421402833, $60.

In the eighteenth-century French household, the servant cook held a special place of importance, providing daily meals and managing the kitchen and its finances. In this scrupulously researched and witty history, Sean Takats examines the lives of these cooks as they sought to improve their position in society and reinvent themselves as expert, skilled professionals. Much has been written about the cuisine of the period, but Takats takes readers down into the kitchen and introduces them to the men and women behind the food. It is only in that way, Takats argues, that we can fully recover the scientific and cultural significance of the meals they created, and, more important, the contributions of ordinary workers to eighteenth-century intellectual life. He shows how cooks, along with decorators, architects, and fashion merchants, drove France’s consumer revolution, and how cooks’ knowledge about a healthy diet and the medicinal properties of food advanced their professional status by capitalizing on the Enlightenment’s new concern for bodily and material happiness. The Expert Cook in Enlightenment France explores a unique intersection of cultural history, labor history, and the history of science and medicine. Relying on an unprecedented range of sources, from printed cookbooks and medical texts to building plans and commercial advertisements, Takats reconstructs the evolving role of the cook in Enlightenment France.

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5. Dinner at Husk or McCrady’s in Charleston, South Carolina — Over the past year, Sean Brock has managed to astound quarters of America’s food establishment that don’t necessarily pay much attention to the South. Writing in The New York Times in February, for instance, Sam Sifton judged the experience “well worth . . . the flight from New York.” In September, Bon Appétit named Husk the year’s Best New Restaurant in America, and Brock has been featured in a dizzying array of publications from Esquire to The New Yorker. In the latter, Burkhard Bilger details what’s driving Brock’s success — an intense commitment to traditional Southern ingredients that have all but disappeared from the American table. There’s nothing purely eighteenth-century going on here, but there is a profound if simple point to be made: without ingredients that were used two or three centuries ago, it’s ultimately impossible to recreate what people ate. We can only hope this is more than just a passing trend and that other regions with rich culinary histories take up the challenge.

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