“IS THERE A NUTMEG IN THE HOUSE”, originally posted July, 2011
The following is a cookbook review that I wrote in either 2000 or 2001 when “Is There a Nutmeg in the House” was published. Elizabeth David passed away in 1992 at her Chelsea home in England, where she had lived for forty years. Still, her books are eagerly sought after and new cookbook collectors would do well to search for them. In 2006, the BBC released a made-for-television film starring Catherine McCormack as Elizabeth. It was called “Elizabeth David: A Life in Recipes”. Not surprisingly; Ms. David led a most interesting life. You may want to find a copy of “WRITING AT THE KITCHEN TABLE: THE AUTHORIZED BIOGRAPHY OF ELIZABETH DAVID” by Artemis Cooper.
This is what I wrote for the Cookbook Collectors Exchange a decade ago:
Devoted fans of Elizabeth David will be delighted to learn that, although one of the world’s greatest cookbook authors died in 1992, a new book of her work has been published.
The intriguing title, “IS THERE A NUTMEG IN THE HOUSE?” begs investigation.
“Along with M.F.K. Fisher and Julia Child,” the publishers begin, “Elizabeth David changed the way we think about and prepare our food. Her nine books, written with impeccable wit and considerable brilliance, helped educate the taste (and taste buds) of the postwar generation. Insisting on authentic recipes and fresh ingredients, she taught that food need not be complicated to be delicious…”
Elizabeth David, they explain, was a very private person who seldom gave interviews. However, a 1984 collection of her essays, entitled “AN OMELETTE AND A GLASS OF WINE” greatly revealed Elizabeth David to her readers and is now considered the best food book written in the 20th century. Now, nearly 20 years later, comes the sequel to that book.
“IS THERE A NUTMEG IN THE HOUSE?” contains work covering four decades. Included is a considerable amount of material previously unpublished, found in her own files or contributed by friends to whom she had given recipes or to whom she had sent letters.
Jill Norman, Elizabeth David’s editor and friend for over 25 years is now the literary trustee of Elizabeth David’s estate. She was responsible for the posthumous publishing of “HARVEST OF THE COLD MONTHS” and then persuaded many of Elizabeth David’s friends to contribute notes on their favorite pieces for the anthology “SOUTH WIND THROUGH THE KITCHEN”.
In the introduction to “IS THERE A NUTMEG IN THE HOUSE?” Jill explains, “in the early eighties, Elizabeth and I spent many very agreeable hours selecting the articles which appeared in her first anthology, “AN OMELETTE AND A GLASS OF WINE”, published in 1984.
The kitchen in her house in Halsey Street may have been crammed with utensils of all sorts, but bookcases and shelves took up every wall in the other rooms and corridors overflowing with her substantial library of cookery, history, travel and reference books, and numerous files and folders of assorted papers”. (Be still my heart!).
Their routine, she explains, was to take a number of files each, select the pieces each found most stimulating, most expressive of the pleasures of good food, and likely still to appear to readers, and then to compare notes. It was, Jill says, “one of the most enjoyable editorial tasks I have ever undertaken. The articles were a pleasure to read, and Elizabeth’s reminiscences about the research and writing of many of them often kept us talking until late at night…”
In the end, they discovered they had too much material and decided to put some pieces aside for a later volume. “This, at last,” Jill writes, “is that volume: during the last years of her life, most of Elizabeth’s energy went into gathering material for “HARVEST OF THE COLD MONTHS” which was finished after her death and published in 1994”
“Elizabeth,” Jill says, “always read widely in early cookery books in English, French and Italian and enjoyed trying out their recipes. Many of those which she adapted from well-known English writers have appeared in her English books…”
“During the 25 years I worked with Elizabeth,” writes her friend and editor, “she was constantly experimenting and trying out new dishes, sometimes for a book, sometimes because a food she or one of her friends particularly liked was in season, or because there was a dish she wanted to explore more thoroughly. When she was satisfied with the recipe and it was typed in its final form, it was her custom to give copies, usually signed and dated, to friends. Many subsequently appeared her later books but others which did not are included here. The folders from her house yielded many unpublished recipes, and occasionally accompanying articles….
With few exceptions,” says Jill, “none of the material in “IS THERE A NUTMEG IN THE HOUSE?” has appeared in book form before…”
She further explains that Elizabeth recipes were written as a text to be read, not, as is currently the norm, a list of ingredients in the order to be used followed by a list of instructions.
The essays in “IS THERE A NUTMEG IN THE HOUSE?” are charming and witty, and provide more than a glimpse into the world of Elizabeth David, a woman whose life would have been fascinating even if she had not embarked on cooking and writing about it!
I was especially intrigued with what Elizabeth David had to say about making stocks and broths. This is something I am personally acquainted with, having recently turned my attention to making my own stocks and broths. (The major drawback, when someone wants to know how you made this soup…is that you’ll never have this recipe again—much of what goes into my vegetable stock depends on the vegetables in my refrigerator (or what is in season and growing in our garden) at the time I have decided to make soup. I make a ham stock out of ham bones and left over ham bits, then strain it, remove any fat, chop up the meat, and then chill it. The next day I make my bean or pea soup. But I digress).
Elizabeth David had very definite ideas about the making of stock, and thoroughly disdained the old English cookbooks, including those of Mrs. Beeton, who instructed the cook that “…everything in the way of meat, bones, gravies and flavourings (sic) that would otherwise be wasted” should go into the stock-pot. “Shank-bone of mutton, gravy left over when the half-eaten leg was moved to another dish, trimmings of beef, steak that went into a pie, remains of gravies, bacon rinds and bones, poultry giblets, bones of roast meat, scraps of vegetables…such a pot in most houses should always be on the fire.” Ew, ew!
Elizabeth responds, “Heavens, what a muddy, greasy, unattractive and quite often sour and injurious brew must have emerged from that ever-simmering tub…”
She goes on to tell her readers how to make a good stock and why a bouillon cubes don’t really make the grade. “Taking Stock” is an essay from the Spectator, published in 1960.
There are numerous essays in “IS THERE A NUTMEG IN THE HOUSE?” (plus over 150 recipes), and I think you will, as I did, enjoy them all. But I was most curious to learn how the title of the book came about. Sure enough, beginning on page 91 is an essay, “IS THERE A NUTMEG IN THE HOUSE” which was, I discovered, taken from a Williams-Sonoma booklet published in 1975.
Elizabeth tells the story of Joseph Nollekens, an 18th century English sculptor who was famous for his portrait busts of famous men and women of his day. While Mrs. Nollekens had the peculiar habit of scrounging free spices from the grocer, her husband filched nutmeg from the dinner table of the Royal Academy of Arts.
Mrs. Nollekens, when she shopped for tea and sugar, would always request, just as she was ready to leave the store, to have either a clove or a bit of cinnamon to take away an unpleasant taste in her mouth—but was never seen to actually put it into her mouth. Between the two of them, they managed to accumulate a little stock of spices – free.
Elizabeth goes on to provide an essay on nutmeg, which was enormously popular in the 18th century. “It was a civilised fad,” she writes, “that eighteenth-century love of portable nutmeg graters for the dining-room, and the drawing room hot drinks, and for travelling. I see no reason why w shouldn’t revive it. It is far from silly to carry a little nutmeg box and grater around in one’s pocket. In London restaurants, such a piece of equipment comes in handy. Here, even in Italian restaurants, I find it necessary to ask for nutmeg to grate on to my favourite plain pasta with butter and Parmesan, and for leaf spinach as well…?”
She continues with a bit of history on nutmeg and explains the difference between nutmeg and mace. “Mace,” writes Elizabeth, “is a part of the same fruit as nutmeg and has a similar aroma, but coarser, less sweet and more peppery…”
Elizabeth would be pleased to learn, I think, that I have whole nutmeg and a nutmeg grater in my kitchen cupboard. I would have never thought to take it with me to a restaurant, though.
“IS THERE A NUTMEG IN THE HOUSE?” is utterly delightful and charming, written in Elizabeth David’s unique style. Compiled by Jill Norman, it was published by Viking in 2000. The price is $29.95.
Anyone who enjoys “reading cookbooks the way other people read novels” (how often have we heard that!) will be sure to enjoy this delightful book.
*I checked with Amazon and there are dozens of Elizabeth David’s books available, both new and used. The lowest price for “IS THERE A NUTMEG IN THE HOUSE?” is under $1.00 preowned. A new copy is available for $12.98.
A copy of “WRITING AT THE KITCHEN TABLE” is available 39cents for preowned copy available at this time on Amazon.com. (plus $3.99 shipping charges for pre-owned titles) But don’t overlook Barnes & Noble’s website or sites like Alibris.com when you are searching for particular titles.
And Oh! Be still my heart! Released March 1, 2011, “AT ELIZABETH DAVID’S TABLE; CLASSIC RECIPES AND TIMELESS KITCHEN WISDOM” by Elizabeth David, Rick Rodgers and Ruth Reichl. (Rick Rodgers and Ruth Reichl are both well known cookbook authors. Ruth Reichl was the editor of “Gourmet” magazine before it closed its doors but is now devoting her time to writing; She is the author of RUTH REICHL, MY KITCHEN YEAR, published in 2015).
Elizabeth David is the author of the following:
*MEDITERRANEAN FOOD, 1950
*FRENCH COUNTRY COOKING, 1951
*ITALIAN FOOD, 1954
*SUMMER COOKING, 1955
*FRENCH PROVINCIAL COOKING, 1960
*SPICES, SALT AND AROMATICS IN THE ENGLISH KITCHEN, 1970
*ENGLISH BREAD AND YEAST COOKERY, 1977
*AN OMELETTE AND A GLASS OF WINE, 1984
OTHER POSTHUMOUS PUBLICATIONS:
*HARVEST OF THE COLD MONTHS, 1994
*SOUTH WIND THROUGH THE KITCHEN: THE BEST OF ELIZABETH DAVID, 1998
*ELIZABETH DAVID’S CHRISTMAS, 2003
*ELIZABETH DAVID’S CLASSICS (Mediterranean Food, French Country Cooking, Summer Cooking) 1980
*AT ELIZABETH DAVID’S TABLE: HER VERY BEST EVERYDAY RECIPES, 2010
You may also wish to find a copy of “ELIZABETH DAVID: A BIOGRAPHY, by Lisa Chaney.
Happy cooking and happy cookbook reading!
–Sandra Lee Smith
WHO WAS COOKBOOK AUTHOR/RECIPE COLUMNIST MARY MARTENSEN?
Originally posted 2011
Sometimes it simply starts with an old recipe card or a clipping with a name on it and you aren’t always sure where on earth you found it, especially if the clipping is very old and yellowed. Well, I do collect old recipe boxes, preferably with old recipe collections intact and this is sometimes where interesting clippings, or clippings pasted onto 3×5” cards turn up. Such is the case with the first recipe I found of Mary Martensen’s. It was a clipping pasted on a 3×5” card with directions for making pea soup.
From the introduction in one of her cookbooks, we learn that Mrs. Martensen was a graduate in Home Economics and Dietetics, having studied at the Boston School of Domestic Science, Simmons College and the Teachers College of Columbia University. Her first experience was as Director of Home Economics for the schools of Concord, New Hampshire. While there she also conducted courses in dietetics at the Concord City Hospital each week, and in Home Economics at Mount St. Mary’s Academy at Hookset, New Hampshire.
Following this, Mrs. Martensen became dietitian at Lake Forest Academy in Lake Forest, Illinois, leaving this position for the Home Economics Department of “a great packing company” (presumably Armour founded in 1867 by the Armour brothers following the Civil War). Here, in four seasons Mrs. Martensen conducted newspaper cooking schools in thirty-five states, lectured to women’s clubs in Chicago and its suburbs, and contributed to the household page edited in her department. She also prepared many recipe booklets, among them “Sixty Ways to Serve Ham” which I believe was compiled for Armour around 1935. During the last 2 years of this period Mrs. Martensen was the directing head of the department. Then followed five years as head of a Home Economics Department which she established for one of the largest baking powder companies in America. (No indication is given for the name of the baking company. Royal, Clabber Girl, and Rumford were three popular baking powder companies getting a strong foothold in the food industry in the late 1800s, early 1900s, however.)
In January, 1927, Mrs. Martensen established a Home Economics Department for “a large western newspaper” where she remained until she was selected by the Chicago Evening American for the position she was holding at the time her first cookbook was published–not counting pamphlets or booklets she may have authored prior to this. [I’m thinking that Mrs. Mary Martensen would have given Ida Bailey Allen a run for her money, as a contemporary in the 1920s writing for food manufacturers, conducting radio recipe programs and then branching out to compile cookbooks.]
Within a few months, the auditorium originally fitted for the newspaper Home Ec department of the Chicago Evening American had to be enlarged to double its size and capacity. Three courses of lessons were given in the first year of the department’s operation, with a total attendance of 6,600.
Editorially, Mrs. Martensen conducted a daily column in the Chicago Evening American, which was amplified to four columns on Mondays and Fridays, and a full page every Saturday in the American Home Journal. Her material was illustrated on Mondays and Saturdays with photographs and sketches made in her department of special dishes and table settings created in the department (The recipe page that a Sandychatter subscriber sent to me was published on a Thursday in the Chicago Herald American and along with recipes for strawberry chiffon pie and pineapple cheese pie, featured lovely illustrations – even in black and white—of a coconut wreath circling the pineapple cheese pie and another illustration of an ice cream pie.) And, apparently, at some point in time, Mrs. Martensen’s recipe columns were picked up by King Syndicate for release to other newspapers throughout the USA.
In the department’s first year, over 21,000 letters were received from readers and over 4,200 telephone calls responded to. Twenty five lectures before women’s clubs, farmers’ institutes, parent-teacher associations and high school classes were conducted. In addition to all this, Mrs. Martensen conducted weekly radio talks.
Mary Martensen was writing a column for the Herald American newspaper in 1950. I believe she was writing newspaper columns in the 1930s and 1940s as well. She also wrote “Mrs. Mary Martensen’s Recipes Cookbook/Chicago American” which I would SWEAR that I have, but to date have been unable to find. This was a newspaper-sponsored cookbook for the Chicago American.
Prior to this, the author worked for the meatpacker Armour Company* where she authored the popular, “Sixty ways to Serve Ham”
*Sandy cooknote: The information I discovered online about the Armour Company and the many different products they manufactured nearly sent me into a tailspin, wanting to read and learn more about Armour—I had to force myself to stay on track with Mary Martensen.
In 1933, Mrs. Martensen wrote “Century of Progress Cookbook*” – so far I have not been able to lay my hands on any of Mary’s cookbooks. However, any number of her newspaper columns have survived over the decades. In fact, a Sandychatter subscriber bought some perfume bottles and found a 1950 sheet of newspaper with Mary Martensen’s Strawberry Chiffon Pie and Pineapple Cheese Pie featured on that date, June 22, 1950 – and sent a copy of it to me.
In addition to its widely syndicated Sunday magazine “The American Weekly”, the Journal-American had a Saturday supplement called Home Magazine, as well. Mary’s columns appeared in this newspaper supplement as well.
Zirta Green, who balanced a career with motherhood and home long before it became fashionable was a test kitchen chef for the Chicago Herald American and Chicago Tribune newspapers for their cooking and recipe columns from 1953-1966, and later for the Mary Martensen TV cooking show, broadcasted on WBKB Chicago, ABC-TV, around 1954. (*This short paragraph about Mrs. Green was the only indication I discovered about Mary Martensen having a TV cooking s how –back in the day, long before TV cooking shows were so popular!
An illustration/portrait of Mary Martensen was published in her first cookbook; it shows a very pretty blonde haired woman, nicely dressed, with a sweet smile.
Not much more is known about Mary Martensen – although if anyone reading this knows more, I would love to hear from you. However, some of her recipes crop up if you take the time to surf Google patiently. The first one I am offering is the recipe I originally found on a recipe card.
To make MARY’S SPLIT PEA SOUP you will need:
1 cup dried split peas
2 ½ quarts cold water
1 pint milk
2” cube fat salt pork
3 TBSP butter or margarine
2 TBSP flour
1 ½ tsp salt
1/8 tsp pepper
Pick over peas and soak several hours in cold water to cover. Drain, add cold water, pork and onion. Simmer 3 or 4 hours or until soft. Put through a sieve*. Add butter and flour and seasonings blended together. Dilute with the milk, adding more milk if necessary. Note the water in which a ham has been cooked may be used. Omit the salt.
Sandy’s cooknote: If you don’t have a sieve, you can blend the peas in your blender but I would suggest cooling it down somewhat, first, and only do half a blender-full at a time so it doesn’t splash. When I make pea soup I like to cook the peas and whatever other ingredients (carrots, onion) -except meat – and blend it in my blender to make it smooth. Then add some leftover ham if you want it in your soup. We like very thick soups, more like chowders. What I usually do is cook a hambone and then set it aside. Use the stock from the hambone then to cook the peas. (And if you take the time to chill the stock, you can easily remove the fat that rises to the top and solidifies). While the peas are cooking, cool the hambone and remove all the bits of meat to put back into the pot later. Ok, it’s a little more work this way–but you will have a fine pot of soup. (Some things do take longer – but I guarantee, if you cook a hambone and use those scraps of meat – you will have a delicious stock AND most flavorful meat. It will beat a package of pre-diced ham bits from the supermarket hands down!)
Here is Mary’s recipe for SUNSHINE CAKE, 1946
1 cup sifted cake flour
½ teaspoon salt
5 egg yolks, beaten
7 egg whites, beaten
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 ¼ cups sugar
1 teaspoon any desired flavoring (I recommend lemon extract)
Sift the flour once, measure and resift twice with the salt. Beat the egg yolks until thick and lemon colored. Beat the egg whites until foamy, add the cream of tartar and beat until stiff, but not dry. Add the sugar gradually and beat until the mixture holds in soft peaks. Fold in the beaten egg yolks and flavoring. Fold in the flour gently but thoroughly to avoid breaking air cells in the egg mixture. Pour batter into an ungreased ten-inch tube pan and bake in a moderate oven, 350 degrees, for about 50 minutes, or until done. Remove from oven and invert for one hour, or until cool. When cool, frost with a thin coating of confectioners’ sugar, or sprinkle with sifted confectioners’ sugar.
MARY MARTENSEN’S POPCORN BALLS, 1946
1 cup molasses
1 tablespoon vinegar
3 tablespoons butter
1 cup dark corn syrup
3 quarts salted popped corn
Combine molasses, corn syrup and vinegar in a saucepan. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly until a small amount of syrup will form a hard ball when dropped into cold water. This is about 270 degrees if tested with a candy thermometer. Remove from the heat, add the butter and pour over the popped corn, stirring only enough to mix. Form into balls with the hands, using as little pressure as possible. Makes 16 to 18 balls.
(Sandy’s Cooknote *I can’t wait to make this. I buy a big bottle of molasses from a warehouse-type of supermarket in Palmdale, called Smart & Final because I love to make molasses cookies—and I like adding a small amount to the white Karo syrup when I am making caramel corn).
From a Sandychatter reader: “I have my grandmother’s collection of recipes and cookbook. In there I found 2 pages of dumpling recipes from the Chicago Herald American, Home Economics Department, Mary Martensen, Director. They are hand typed and the photo copied from some sort of note book then mailed to my grandmother. I was interested so I did a little research. The Newspaper was the Chicago Evening American from 1914-1939 then it became the Chicago Herald-American 1939-1953 then the Chicago American from 1953-1969.” Tina Aiello Milwaukee, Wisconsin
(*Sandy’s Cooknote: Tina, if you happen to read this, would you share some of your grandmother’s recipes with me?. When Mary’s first cookbook was published some pages were deliberately left blank just so someone could add their own recipes or clippings.)
MARY MARTENSEN’S CHOCOLATE CUPCAKES
½ cup shortening
1 cup sugar
2 squares unsweetened chocolate
2 cups sifted flour
1 teaspoon soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk or soured milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
Cream the shortening, add sugar and cream together until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the chocolate which has been melted and cooled, and blend well.
Sift the flour once, measure and resift twice with the soda and salt. Add to the batter alternately with the buttermilk, beating until smooth after each addition. Add vanilla. Fill twelve cupcake pans which have been greased, two thirds full with the batter. Bake in a 350 degree oven, for about 20 minutes or until done.
When cupcakes are cool, with a small sharp pointed knife cut a cone-shape from the top of each. Remove and fill hollowed out portion with slightly sweetened whipped cream. If desired, a larger hollow can be made in the cupcake. Also, ice cream can be used in place of whipped cream to fill the hollow centers. Place top (which was removed from cupcake) on top of whipped cream and pour chocolate sauce over the top.
To make the chocolate sauce: Combine in a saucepan, one square unsweetened chocolate, cut in pieces, one cup sugar, two tablespoons corn syrup, one tablespoon butter and one-third cup hot water. Blend well and cook over low heat, stirring constantly until mixture comes to boiling point, then cook for five minutes. Cool slightly and add a few grains of salt and one half teaspoon vanilla. Serve warm or cold. Contributed by
MARY MARTENSEN, 1946
From another Sandychatter reader, Rebecca Christian “I was interested in the Mary Martensen recipe. I worked as a test kitchen home economist in the test kitchen of Chicago’s American newspaper from 1967-1970. Mary Martensen was the nom de plume of the food editor who at that time was Dorothy Thompson. We had about 35,000 recipes in our files and they are still some of my best ones. Wish I had those files now!
Rebecca also wrote “Chicago’s American was eliminated as the afternoon paper of the Chicago Tribune around 1970 or 71. Don’t know if the Tribune kept the recipes or not. There are Chicago Tribune cookbooks but I don’t think they had any American recipes. Each paper owned by the Tribune as well as the Chicago Daily News had test kitchens at the time. We tested every recipe that went in the American. Those days are long gone! Becky.
(*Sandy’s cooknote – Oh, Rebecca – what wouldn’t we all give to have Mary’s recipes today! I’m pea-green with envy that you had the opportunity to work in the test kitchen of Chicago’s American newspaper from 1967-1970—I was busy giving birth during most of those years. Lol).
*Sandy’s cooknote – there are a lot of gaps in my story about Mary Martensen. I don’t know where she grew up or where she spent most of her life. I don’t know how long she lived even though we DO know that Zirta Green was a test kitchen chef of Mrs. Martensen’s who lived to the age of 97! On previous occasions when I mentioned Mary Martensen, readers responded with comments I have included in this post.
The best I can hope to achieve is more details becoming available to us – I am reminded of writing about Myra Waldo, first years ago (around 1990) when I was unable to learn ANYthing about Myra’s later life – and then years later, when I was rewriting my manuscript about Myra, I found obituary details on Google, not previously available to me. I like the idea “if you build it, they will come”
Cookbooks by Mary Martensen:
Home Canning and Freezing Book- or The Canning, Freezing, Curing & Smoking of Meat fish game – date unknown, possibly 1935
CENTURY OF PROGRESS COOKBOOK 1932
Mrs. Mary Martensen’s Recipes Cookbook Chicago American”
SIXTY WAYS TO SERVE HAM, Armour Ham, 1935
RECIPES FOR WILD GAME 1935?
(Sandy’s final cooknote: If anyone knows more about Mary’s cookbooks, such as dates of publication, or any other food editors writing under Mary Martensen’s name—or her other book titles please write!)
Happy Cooking & Happy Cookbook collecting!