Jo Brans captivates me in the first chapter of her book, “FEAST HERE AWHILE” as she writes “…many Americans of my generation, for better or worse, no longer eat the food they grew up on…instead, over the years, we have radically altered our menus. With typical American curiosity, we peer into each other’s carts at the supermarket, crane to check out the steaming dish being brought to the next table, read the food pages in the daily paper, pay attention to what television characters eat…my friends grapple, as I do, with memories of the admirable or reprehensible attitudes at their family table, the best and worst meals of their lives and their own triumphs or catastrophes in the kitchen…”
I’m hooked. I want to sit down and write a letter to Jo Brans. She has written a book I think I COULD have written, that I wish I HAD written. I want to share with her my foodlore stories, explain to her that, although she praises her own southern mother’s culinary skills, MY mother was really a godawful cook who boiled everything—even canned vegetables –for hours until the foodstuff, whatever it was originally, ended up a soggy unrecognizable mess. I want to tell her how my sisters and brothers and I all grew up believing we HATED cabbage HATED rice, HATED beets, when the truth was, what we hated was the way our mother cooked it. What we DID have, however, was a European grandmother who was a culinary genius, whose Dobos torts and goulashes and Paprikas, Wiener Schnitzels and flaky strudels were all works of art. No wonder we all vied for any opportunity to go to Grandma’s…but I digress. This is Jo Brans’ story, not mine.
Ms. Brans goes on to state that in 1950, most households had one cookbook (My mother’s was an Ida Bailey Allen Service cookbook that I wore out and spattered with stains as I learned how to make brownies and hermits and salmon croquettes) Ms. Brans acquired her first cookbook, the Betty Crocker Picture Cookbook, in the late fifties. My first cookbook of my own was a little Methodist Church cookbook that my father bought from a coworker for one dollar – he bought several, one for me, my mother, and my older sister. The one after THAT was Meta Given’s “THE MODERN FAMILY COOKBOOK”. (That Methodist church cookbook was what made me start wondering if there were other cookbooks like it “out there”. There certainly were!)
Jo Brans writes “Americans love reading about food, even if they never plan to go near a stove. In bed at night, cookbooks, like travel books or novels, soothe us to sleep, where we dream of other places, other lives, other meals. Browsing at libraries and bookstores across the country, in communities as dissimilar as Minneapolis, Dallas, and Manhattan, I have observed all kinds of people, men and women, young and old, sitting at a table and reading cookbooks, sometimes for an hour or more at a time…”
Ah, yes, we know what she is writing about, don’t we? How many cookbooks might be found at our bedsides, on any given night? How often do we borrow cookbooks from libraries and Xerox all the pages we find “interesting” with no particular intention of going into the kitchen to MAKE all those interesting recipes.
Jo Brans says she thinks about food all the time. I can relate to that. I think most of us, cookbook and recipe collectors, know what she means. I have been thinking about food, recipes, and cookbooks—not necessarily in that order—all of my life.
“Feast Here Awhile” is a food odyssey; it carries you along, with the author, from her Southern roots and early childhood foodie experiences, to a widely diversified adult life that traversed from Texas to New York. You will chuckle over her lamentable “farm life” experiences and you will nod understandingly when she explains that a successful menu was likely to be served over and over again. You’ll love her Texas chili story and the Cod Rotterdam story. Personal experiences blend with food history—an interesting account of the Betty Crocker story—her interview with Julee Rosso, co-author of the Silver Palette, personal, sometimes hilarious accounts of Ms. Brans and her husband as restaurant critics.
I may not agree with everything Jo Brans has written about. I am grateful to her for the statistics she has provided for me regarding community cookbooks but I have the sense that she doesn’t appreciate them as much as I do –but I can easily relate to her Lafayette Park cookbook story, as it reminded me of my Beachy School PTA cookbook experiences.
There are NO r ecipes in “FEAST HERE AWHILE” – this is not a cookbook…excuse me, I am mistaken – there IS a recipe for Best Ever Rum Cake for which Ms. Brans credits the Bethel Presbyterian Church in Olive Branch, Mississippi. However, may I say that – if you like talking about food and recipes and cookbooks, if you like thinking about them and reading about them, I think you will enjoy this book. It’s sort of like sitting down with a good friend over coffee and cinnamon rolls, and talking over your favorite culinary experiences. As for Best Ever Rum Cake, this “recipe” has been making the rounds for years. I first saw it in a daughter in law’s homemade cookbook created by her mother as a wedding present.
BEST EVER RUM CAKE
1 or 2 quarts rum
1 cup butter
1 tsp sugar
2 large eggs
1 cup dried fruit
1 tsp baking soda
Before you start, sample the rum to check quality. Good, isn’t it? Now, go ahead, select a large mixing bowl, measuring cups, etc. Check the rum again. It must be just right. To be sure the rum is of the highest quality, pour one level cup of rum into a glass and drink it as fast as you can. Repeat. Now, with electric, beat one cup of butter in a large fluffy bowl. Add one seaspoon of Thugar and beat again. Meanwhile, make sure rum is of high quadidy. Add 2 argeleggs, 2 pucs fried druit, and beat until high. If druit gets stuck in the veaters, pry it joose with a drewscriver. Sample the rum again checking for highest conscisticity. Next, sift 3 cups pepper or salt (it really does not matter which). Sample the rum again. Sift ½ pt lemon juice, add 1 babblespood brown thugar (or whatever you can find) . Wix mell. Gease oven and turn cake pan to 350 gredees. Now, pour the mjole wess into the boven and ake. Check the rum again and go to bed.
FEAST HERE AWHILE by Jo Brans originally sold in 1993 for $18.95. It is available at Amazon.com for $1.68 new, or as low as 13 cents for a preowned copy. It can be purchased on Alibris.com for 99c.