Commonplace, Vol 2, Issue 4

In which the writer talks, at length, about some of his collection of recipe and food books

Hello! There’ve been a few responses to my confession of acquiring recipe books along the lines of “so what books do you use" and “can you review some good books?”. I feel like this would have been much more useful in November or so if people wanted to buy books as presents or the like, but if I write some of it up now, I can link to it again later this year. I won’t put in links to shops, because I’m uncomfortable enough dealing with Amazon as much as I already do, and doesn’t operate in Europe yet. Searching title and author on your local independent bookshop’s site should sort it out for you. Or, that’s good too. And these are very much the top-level I-have-to-mention-these ones; there are plenty more for future issues, where I am intending to review one or two in each.

[ Commonplace is an occasional newsletter about food and food history. Drew, who needs to eat as well as ramble and swear, has a Patreon page at, about which people have said some nice things of late. Show your support, enable Drew’s book-buying habit (still constrained by unemployment), and get a look at the behind-the-scenes thinking on both this newsletter and Gentle Decline. Sign up today! ]

So first on the list is what is undoubtedly my most influential book of 2020, May Bsisu’s The Arab Table.

Soon after I started working on historical Arabic recipes from al-Warraq, I discovered there were a number of techniques and processes in Middle Eastern cookery that I didn’t understand, or didn’t know about. This was most notable in a recipe called Tabahija, "um al-tabahijat", in which the following text occurs:

"Slice 3 ratls (3 pounds) meat from a yearling lamb, wash it, and put it in a pot. Pour 1/4 ratl (1/2 cup) olive oil and 1/4 ratl (1/2 cup) rendered fat of sheep's tail, ad 2 dirhams (6 grams) salt. Sprinkle the meat with about 1/2 ratl (1 cup) water. It should be enough to cook the meat and then evaporate. 

So, when the meat is cooked and the pot is dry..."

If you follow this as written, the water steams off fairly quickly, leaving the meat cooking in about a centimetre and a half of oil; the combination of the olive oil, the animal fat, and whatever is coming from the meat itself. The oil then cooks away over quite some time, leaving the meat dry, almost crisp, no matter how large a piece it was to begin.

I discovered afterwards, with the aid of one of the SCA’s foremost researchers into historical Arabic food, Urtatim al-Qurtubiyya (as in, she told me, and kindly didn’t call me an idiot) that what’s actually intended here is a technique called yahni, which is done at a much, much lower temperature than I was working with, and which results in a soft, tender meat, roasted in the fat. It’s the name of the resulting dish in the modern Middle East, and has spread as far as the Balkans as well.

So I reckoned that a book on modern Arabic cookery was necessary, and a friend recommended this one as passing the grandmother test. That is: a grandmother or relevant ethnicity, when shown it, did not scorn it. And it is a fantastic book. I think I’ve cooked more dishes from it than I have from any other (modern) book short of Nigella Lawson’s How To Eat.

That said, I can’t lay a hand on How to Eat at all this year, and may need to acquire another copy of it. In the meantime, Feast, also by Lawson, has been appearing quite a bit.

Lawson is one of my favourite food writers, not least because her enjoyment of food comes across so very well, and her style of cooking suits me. She acknowledges her sources, she’s not pretentious about having just the right ingredients, and at the same time, she doesn’t pretend to have anything other than the wealthy background she has.

There’s a degree to which food writing is still, even though we’re in a time and place of 100% literacy, an elite pursuit, and a record of elite life (and I need to follow up on a conversation about gender roles in non-elite social classes, because there’s potential for a lot of blowing up of 20th-century expectations in that context in domestic history). Sometimes it’s even a performance of elite life separate from the writer’s own, which is an aspect of historical cookery books as well. Some of the 18th and 19th century manuscript recipe collections I’ve seen, for example, have recipes in them that are almost identical duplicates of others in the same book, but which are distinguished by being “Lady X’s Recipe for Preserved Oranges”, or “Strawberry Jam, according to the Duchess of Y’s housekeeper”. In late 20th century cookery books, this can be seen in the idea that one would have something like freekeh or dukkah or maza or canned tomatillos in the house as a matter of course (this from the Irish point of view; I know some of you live in places where that is ordinary, don’t @ me)(also, I have at various point had all those in the house, so there). Anyway, Lawson is pretty clear on the fact that she can put her hands on a bottle of madeira at no notice, and equally clear on the fact that at least one dish in this book is chicken nuggets made ‘Ritzy’ by rolling them in broken up Ritz crackers.

I would be remiss not to mention one of my other favourite cookbook authors, Nigel Slater.

Notes from the Larder (which inevitably becomes “Tales from the Larder” in my unreliable onboard memory) is one of the finest cookery books in existence. It sits in a place of special honour in the kitchen here, on the windowsill beside a lamp, just left of the oil bottles and over the eggs. This is so that in the meditative state of cookery, when I am left with a gap in stirring and scraping and whatever else needs doing, but that isn’t long enough to go back to the keyboard, I can grab it, open it at random, and engage in bibliomancy according to St. Nigel.

It has dates on which various foods were cooked, but they’re not all from one year. This makes it, in my mind, more commonplace book than diary, but a commonplace sorted by a seasonal index. For whatever date you open it, you’re probably looking at something more or less seasonal, or at least suited to the weather at that time of year. Slater is good at the kind of cookery I often engage in - and to be honest, frequently produce the best food from - which is to open the fridge and see what’s there, including leftovers from previous days, or to have one ingredient snagged in a shop or market on impulse (well, not this year, but you get the idea) around which to build a meal. He gives recipes, certainly, but since the narrative around them is “I found half an avocado in the fridge and had some onions…”, you don’t feel you need to stick anywhere near them, and can just go with the flow.

It’s one of my favourite books to just browse through. It’s pretty close to what I think of as being the ideal of cottagecore, too.

Next up is a book that I think will probably influence my historical cookery over the next several years, although it’ll be a bit-by-bit sort of approach. This is Nawal Nasrallah’s Kanz al-fawāʾid fī tanwīʿ al-mawāʾid, aka the Treasure Trove of Benefits and Variety at the Table, a Mamluk-era Eygptian cookbook. I refer to it as the Kanz, because it’s the only word I have much chance of pronouncing, and I’m fairly sure it’s the bit of the Arabic that that’s translated as “treasure trove”. If the Arabic speakers reading this could confirm that, I’d appreciate it.

Sadly, as with any book published by Brill, it is savagely expensive, but it’s definitely worthwhile. Interestingly, while there’s a definite continuity from al-Warraq, four centuries before and some considerable distance away, the dishes in the Kanz are often far sweeter, with sugar and mastic gum added.

Also interestingly, while al-Warraq has a few ingredients that were difficult or impossible to get (fat from the tail of a fat-tailed sheep being the main one), the Kanz is stuffed with them. It took me a while to locate the mastic gum, Finne had to bring me betel leaves from the Netherlands, and the “fruit of the Syrian ash” is essentially not available, so I’m settling for the fruit of the Irish ash and hoping it’s not massively different. And that’s from just a few recipes; I have every confidence that over the summer I’ll be making inquiries about where to get half a dozen more obscure ingredients.

In some future issue or issues, I’ll do some reviews and commentary on the books about food, because there are a lot more of them. And in some ways I feel a lot better about them, because they’re “proper” reference books, and it’s their job to sit there, in some cases not ever more than glanced through, until I need exactly that reference to wheat processing in the 17th century or 19th century Irish country fairs, or whatever.

Outside of books, I’ve been following with interest the things that are (mostly intermittently) not on supermarket shelves this year. There are definitely more of them than there were, and I can track this because, when I’m ordering online from Tesco, I can see the previous stuff I bought and how it’s not available. This is notably different from when you’re browsing the shelves and there’s no gap (which usually indicates that they’re out of it today and expect to have it back in stock shortly). I’ve been making notes of what’s not there in Centra and Lidl too, though, in my brief get-the-stuff-Tesco-didn’t-have visits.

One of the most notable ones recently was gluten-free breakfast sausages. Tesco normally carry two brands (one of which comes in three sizes of sausage), Centra one, and Lidl never have them as far as I can see (although they’ve plenty of German sausages which are gluten free by their nature). Tesco did not have either brand for three weeks straight, and Centra were out at the same time. When they are in stock, I recommend the Clonakilty Ispíni Móra gluten-free sausages, and any gluten-free sausage is going to be better than its carb-stuffed less-actual-meat counterpart. I note, too, that Tesco’s inventory system apparently can’t handle accents in product names.

Cauliflower - fresh or frozen; I don’t think it comes in canned - was also completely off the shelves in Tesco for two weeks. Centra did have some fresh (… -ish; being fair, it’s not a great time of year for fresh vegetables), and were also out of frozen, but I didn’t try Lidl at the time.

I’m not at all clear whether this is Brexit-related, COVID-related, or just a testament to the fragility of supply lines now that I’m paying attention to them, but it’s definitely something. Finally, while I mention supply lines, and also books, I suppose, and otherwise totally off-topic for this newsletter, K.B. Spangler, who is one of my favourite writers ever, has a new book coming out.

So you might go pre-order that, if it sounds like your kind of thing.

Anyway. This issue has been brought to you by a bag of pecans, incessant rain, client queries at odd hours of the day and night, and an even fuller desk diary. Eat well, and I shall write again soon.

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