The Frugal Gourmet Celebrates Christmas (1991) by Jeff Smith (1939 - 2004) is the best holiday cookbook I know of. Both my latkes and my mincemeat are from this source. One of my sisters gave me this book for Christmas back in 1996, and I gave a copy to one of my brothers a couple of Christmases after that.It's that good. Once you've read it, you'll want to give it as a present to someone else!
More than a collection of recipes, it is also a fascinating narrative of cultural history and seasonal tradition, ingeniously illustrated and creatively organized. Each chapter presents a dish for a different character from the traditional manger scene: angel hair pasta for the angels, green olive soup for the shepherds (I tried this recipe one year -- odd), lamb chops for the tax collector, Persian meatballs for the Magi, right down to milk and honey for the Baby Jesus.
Then there's The Frugal Gourmet Keeps the Feast: Past, Present, and Future (1995), a book about food as sacrament and celebration. Smith was an ordained minister as well as a chef, and the first half is a collection of articles about theology and feasting. The second half is organized into chapters such as "Old World Soups," "Salads from the Ancient World," and "Eggs on the Biblical Table." All things are ready! Come to the feast!
Which brings us to another favorite, The Feast of Christmas: Origins, Traditions, and Recipes (1992) by Paul Levy (b 1941). Filled with beautiful food photography, vintage illustrations, and lots of narrative, this book asks: "What is it that distinguishes the attitude of the feaster from that of the ordinary eater?" Answer: Sensory expectation, social pleasure, and intellectual reward. Levy says that "Instinctively we know the importance of feasting," but only rarely do we practice the art of eating reflectively: "Once a year [Christmas!] our dismal diet disappears, and . . . we are given a glimpse of what food can mean" (7).
In the same vein is The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection (1967) by The Rev. Robert Farrar Capon (b 1925), an ordained Episcopal minister who combines theology, food, and digression. How so? "It is easier than you think" says Capon, "the road from temple to kitchen is quite plain. It lies through the subject of knives. . . . The oldest fingerprints in the world are those on tools: and of all tools, the knife remains supreme. . . . the one tool used by more people, more of the time, than any other. All the kitchens . . . are filled with knives. With your permission I shall" . . . digress! (53 - 54). You get the idea.
Along with these books I just have to mention once again the goddess Laurie Colwin (1944 - 1992). How we miss her! What a gift she had for keeping the feast! Whether or not you like her fiction, you just have to read her two narrative cookbooks Home Cooking (1988) and More Home Cooking: A Writer Returns to the Kitchen (1993). The recipes are great, but even better is her sister - to - sister commentary. Totally engaging! Recommended by Jes. I have been touched and inspired by the honor Colwin ascribes to the custom and ceremony of food preparation:
"These two delicacies ["Spiced Beef" and "Country Christmas Cake"] have that profound, original, home-made taste that cannot be replicated, no matter what you spend. They make the person who made them feel ennobled. After all, it is holiday time. Aren't we meant to draw together and express our good feelings for one another? What could be better than to offer something so elementally, so wholesomely down-home and yet elegant? And both go a long way: You can feed a lot of loved ones with them. . . . If I did nothing else, I would still make this cake and spiced beef and fill my head with visions of candles and pine boughs. The sun goes down at four o'clock, the air is damp and chill, but in the pantry my cake is mellowing, and soon I will spice my beef as centuries of people have done before me" (More H C, 209 - 210).
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