One of the hardest things I know of, is trying to condense an entire book of knowledge into a few pages—how do you reduce to a few paragraphs the bulk of information that someone has spent months, or even years, compiling? And how do you do it in such a way as to convey to your readers the value of what you have just read?
I feel that way about “THE BEST THING I EVER TASTED” by Sallie Tisdale. It could have been subtitled “Everything but the kitchen sink” for Tisdale’s book, while part memoir, covers a wide range of culinary history, and, actually, is subtitled “The Secret of Food”. In recent decades, numerous books have been published about our culinary history, some reaching back into medieval times; books that range from Reay Tannahill’s “FOOD IN HISTORY” to Gerry Schremp’s “KITCHEN CULTURE”, from Sylvia Lovegren’s “FASHIONABLE FOOD” to James Trager’s “FOOD CHRONOLOGY”. I, myself, have almost entire bookcase devoted to books of this particular genre. So, you may ask, does the culinary world need another? And my answer is yes, we do, because each writer brings his own particular slant to a subject and this is ever so true in Sallie Tisdale’s “THE BEST THING I EVER TASTED”. She will start out telling you about some of her own life’s experiences and segue into facts and statistics regarding the evolution of our kitchens, the how and why of what we eat and how we eat it. One reviewer noted, “weaving together childhood memories of Fritos and Orange Crush with meditations on the history, psychology and economics of food, she explores the complexities of how we satisfy the most basic of human needs”.
We are introduced to Tisdale as a nine-year-old attempting to make acorn meal the way the Indians did. Sallie grew up in California where, to this day, fourth graders study Indians—particularly tribes of California. The author discovered that making acorn meal was a long tedious process and from there segues into here and now in the kitchen.
She says, “My own generation is the one whose grandparents and great-grandparents tried to leave the past behind in the process of making things brand new….I was born three years after Swanson’s first television dinner appeared—turkey with dressing, peas, and whipped potatoes, and grew up eating good food and bad….”
She explains that both of her parents were teachers and during the school year, they ate “tamale pie: made with hamburger and cream of tomato soup, scalloped potatoes and Spam, canned spinach, iceberg lettuce leaves as big as plates with dollops of reconstituted ranch dressing on top.
To start this book, Sallile began with her mother’s BETTY CROCKER’S PICTURE COOK BOOK, a first edition from 1950 ; she writes, “…I viewed the cookbook as a kind of anthropoligical artifact, a set of clues into my mother’s life. But as I looked more carefully, with more objective eyes, I began to understand that it wasn’t simply an artifact of her life but also of mine—that this seemingly distant world was mine as much as hers, marked my generation as much as it did hers….”
Elsewhere in her book, Tisdale visits General Mills and learns a great deal more about Betty Crocker. “General Mills,” she observes, “has had test kitchens for many decades and the seven in use now look a lot like the pictures in the 1950 Betty Crocker cookbook. The Williamsburg kitchen is blue and pink, with flickering candle ‘flames’; the Arizona Desert kitchen is poppy orange…Each kitchen has a false window looking out on a false view of a false landscape. All the views are sunny….” She explains that all of the kitchens are “working” kitchens, meant to be as much as possible like the kitchens we have in our homes today, fitted with the most popular brand of appliances, the most widely used muffin tins and blenders, the top selling oils, ketchup and margarines. All of the shopping is done at retail prices in grocery stores. Teams of employees—which happen to all be women and are divided into teams of technicians led by home economists—spend much of their time in these kitchens, testing recipes.
“The same attitude that inspired Betty Crocker to tell grown women how to peel a potato prevails here” writes Sallie. “General Mills gets more than 600,000 queries a year to the various Betty Crocker help lines and a lot of them have to do with following simple directions….”
And while you and I, accustomed to following directions in cookbooks, may find this a little hard to believe, a team leader for Dessert Mixes told Sallie, “There was a ready-to-spread frosting mix…We found that people took the plastic container and put it on the burner…that just taught us a lot about what people do not know….
Elsewhere in “THE BEST THING I EVER TASTED,” Sallie delves deeper into the history of Betty Crocker and how the “Betty Crocker Cooking School of the Air” began in 1924 and lasted for 24 years. We have dealt in depth with that subject ourselves, in “DON’T TOUCH THAT DIAL” (CCE May/June 1994 so I won’t repeat myself, except to say that Sallie Tisdale’s “take” on this subject, which is focused on Betty Crocker, provides us with another slant on the topic.
However, Sallie’s reflections on Betty Crocker are just the tip of the iceberg and I don’t mean lettuce. She somehow manages to cover an amazing range of subjects. I was especially interested in her thoughts and comments on how Americans handle foreign foods. “Foreign cuisines are first transplanted, then assimilated” she writes. After assimilation comes transformation. Elsewhere in this book, she observes, “We like to eat the cuisine of foreigners in two ways—traveling and one step removed. “
Much of what she writes about how Americans handle foreign cuisine struck a familiar chord; it reminded me of some of Ruth Reichl’s observations about her trip to China, and her discovery that the Chinese food Americans eat is not the same as the Chinese food Chinese eat in China.
In the Epilogue, Sallie summarizes by saying “Food has always meant more than feeding. Food is bonding, sacrament, joy. A quotidian public light…We have a very long history of treating food as a potent, holy, and mystically precious thing….
What is the secret of food?” she asks. “Do you think I have it? … The secret of food, for me, is a steady walk through the middle of the cultural thicket, glancing only now and then to the extremes on either side. A little simplicity—local food, seasonal food, plain food. An apple. Good Oregon cheese on fresh bread, unadorned…a sacher torte made from scratch for a friend. Simmering complex stews….” And in closing, she quotes Fernand Point, “I have been so well nurtured throughout my life that I’m sure to die completely cured.” “What luck to eat well,” she summarizes “and to believe that we deserve to eat well. What luck to be so very lucky. This is the real secret of food”.
‘THE BEST THING I EVER TASTED” by Sallie Tisdale, though not a cookbook, is worthy of our attention. It’s what I consider “a good read”.
Those of you who like bibliographies (and you know who you are) will be properly impressed; you will recognize many familiar names, people like Mary Anna DuSablon, Betty Fussell, John and Karen Hess, Jane and Michael Stern—and a host of others.
“THE BEST THING I EVER TASTED” is available in paperback by Riverhead Books and has a copyright of the year 2000. It sells for $13.00. You may be able to find a copy through Amazon or Barnes & Noble’s used book websites. (And I often find a lot of great cookbooks at the bi-annual Friends of the Library sales).