Monday, March 28, 2005

BOOK: Annette Hope, "A Caledonian Feast"

Annette Hope: A Caledonian Feast. Canongate Books, Edinburgh, 2002. 184195375X. xv + 318 pp.

Buying this book seemed somehow a natural thing to do. Some years ago I had read Scott's Waverley, and there first heard of the two famous medieval Scottish narrative poems, The Bruce and The Wallace. Since I am fond of epic poetry, this excited my curiosity and I eventually noticed that an affordable paperback edition of The Bruce is available as part of the Canongate Classics series from Canongate Books (since then, they also published The Wallace). The series also contains a number of other interesting books by Scottish authors, and soon a considerable “to buy” list formed itself in my mind. A Caledonian Feast was perhaps not near the very top of the list, but it was high enough that last year, when Canongate's web site offered a fantastic 50% discount on most of their Classics titles, I bought it in addition to about ten other books from that series. After all, why not? It's a book about food in Scotland; I am somewhat interested in Scotland, and certainly very interested in food, and if the book is being offered at half the price surely it would be silly not to buy it.

And yet, as soon as I started reading it, it dawned on me that it has perhaps been a long time since I had bought, and read, anything quite so outré. For most of the books I buy and read, if somebody sees me reading them and asks what the book is about, I can usually provide at least a moderately reasonable answer; it's a novel about this or that, it's a book of poems, it's the biography of So-and-So, it's about the history of such-and-such a period or country, etc. Even if the person who asked the question is not an avid reader or a fan of that subject, he or she can understand that it is a subject that someone might conceivably be interested in, and that it is not too bizarre to find someone actually reading a book on that subject. But as soon as I had been asked about the Caledonian Feast, what was I supposed to say? “Well, it's a book about the history of food in Scotland.” As soon as I had said it, it was clear to me how utterly absurd this sounds. What a supremely out-of-the-way topic! What's next? The history of bowhunting techniques in Inner Mongolia? A practical guide to the restoration of antique banana straighteners? And sure enough, although none of the people who asked me about the book explicitly suggested any of these things, it was clear from their reactions that they must have been thinking along these lines: Why on earth would anybody be interested in something like that? How could anybody even come across such a topic, let alone find a book about it, let alone buy it and read it? And in truth I couldn't provide a good answer to such questions. I had to mumble something about the book having been offered at such a discount that I just couldn't turn it down.

Not that I regret having bought and read the book, of course. It's just that never before, I think, has a book seemed so natural for me to buy and read and yet so outlandish when I had to describe and explain to others what it was about. And never before have I been quite so explicitly aware of the fact that from our point of view, Scotland is (quite reasonably) an extremely obscure part of the world. It is, after all, only a small and remote part of the UK, a country with which we never had much to do, and of which we are therefore only dimly aware; we are thus very reasonably even less aware of its individual components, such as Scotland. The only thing we know about Scotland is that its inhabitants have a stereotypical reputation for stinginess. Surely if I threw a dart into a map of the world and read the name of the region or province which had been hit by it, the result could hardly be significantly more obscure than Scotland. Surely it wouldn't occur to anybody to think about Scotland, much less read a book about the history of its food. And I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with that; I think it is all quite reasonable. There is not much more reason to be interested in Scotland than there is to be interested in Inner Mongolia, and surely nobody (well, hardly anybody, in this country at any rate) is interested in Inner Mongolia. It's just that I have never really thought about this before, and I find it somehow interesting now.

(Yes, yes. I know. Shame on me for using Inner Mongolia here as some kind of stereotypical nobody-ever-heard-of-it backwater kind of place. Feel free to think of whatever stereotypical boondocks you prefer instead.)

Anyway, to say a few words about the book itself. It's a very nice book, readable, informative, full of interesting facts and amusing anecdotes. It discusses the history of various aspects of food from the middle ages down to the present time, and is based on many different sources, including well-known authors such as Dr. Johnson or Walter Scott, old memoirs and cook-books, writings of various early experts on and improvers of agriculture, as well as modern academic studies. Each chapter deals with a different topic: hunting, fishing, farming, livestock, fruit and vegetables, the history of meals, culinary influence of other countries, and the food of Scots who emigrated abroad. Below are some bits of information that I found particularly interesting.

Scotland used to be covered by forests, which were slowly cut down by people. However, the rich landowners didn't want to be deprived of their game, which led to the first steps to preserve some of the forests and the animals in them, even in cases where they were damaging their tentants' crops (pp. 1-5). Game was the only source of fresh meat during much of the year (p. 9).

This is how the ripeness of grouse used to be judged: “If they could hear maggots moving in it, it was declared fit to eat.” (P. 24.) So much about fresh meat, I guess.

For many centuries, most of the fishing around Scotland was done by the Dutch, who were much better organized (p. 39).

It's interesting how the price and popularity of some kinds of food may vary with time. Oysters were very plentiful and cheap in the 18th century (p. 57). As for crustaceans, “they were regarded simply as a nuisance by Scottish fishermen” until the 1960s, when the British tourists returning from Italy brought the concept of lobsters as a delicacy (p. 60). Artichokes used to be much more common in the previous centuries than now (pp. 183-4).

A certain kind of herrings are “so plump and succulent that they are nicknamed ‘Glasgow Magistrates’” (p. 63).

Until the 17th century, fields used to be divided among farmers based on a system known as “runrig”, where efforts were taken to give each farmer both some good and some poor land, and redistribute it every few years to minimize any injustice (pp. 80-81). Alas, this wonderful system was eventually abandoned as being too inefficient. When will humankind learn that efficiency and quality of life are quite, quite incompatible?

Students and apprentices brought a bag of oatmeal from home; “Meal Monday, that day in January when classes in universities were suspended so that students might return home and replenish their meal bags, was abolished as an anachronism only in the late 1950s” (p. 87).

In the 18th century, a Sir John Sinclair promoted sheep-farming to alleviate the poverty of the peasants, but the result was that landlords took up sheep-farming themselves, evicting their tenants and causing even greater poverty (p. 126-7).

A wonderful, touching praise of a leg of mutton by a 19th-century judge, Lord Cockburn; “It left its savour on the palate, like the savour of a good deed on the heart” (p. 127).

“When meal began to run short in spring, cattle were bled and their blood was boiled into cakes” (p. 128). Unsurprisingly, the animals ended up being so weak that they couldn't stand up on their own.

Often, improvements in agriculture were first promoted by educated and wealthy people, while the poor farmers resisted them. However, sometimes the reason is simply that they were too exhausted by their ordinary farming work to be able to spend extra time on e.g. gardening (p. 176). Potatoes also took time to establish themselves, despite many good qualities (pp. 95-7). Nonetheless production of fruit and vegetables improved a lot in the 18th and 19th centuries. Nowadays, Scotland is “the largest exporter of raspberries within the European Union” (p. 181); but the cultivation of many kinds of vegetables is being abandoned due to economic and structural factors (pp. 182-3).

The very interesting Chapter Six shows how the meals changed over time. For example, dinner may have been eaten as early as eleven or noon during some periods (pp. 201, 212), and as late as five or six o'clock during others (p. 222). In the 18th century many people rose very early; “Lawyers were consulted at four or five in the morning” (p. 202). Early dinners meant that supper was a very important meal, and during the age of Enlightenment the supper was often the occasion for intellectual discussions (p. 220). The Scottish breakfast is somewhat legendary due to the writings of Dr. Johnson, Scott, and a number of 19th-century travellers, but before the 18th century breakfasts were really quite modest affairs (pp. 199, 202, 205). As an alternative to supper, a curious meal known as “high tea” became popular in the late 19th and in the first half of the 20th century (p. 225).

The diet of the poor remained very insufficient as late as the early 20th century; during the first world war, only a third of the conscripts were found fit for military service (pp. 207-8). I think it's very important to remember things like this whenever you hear somebody praising the olden days. Sure, our time is miserable in all sorts of ways, but for the majority of people, going back a hundred or even just fifty years would make things only much worse, not better.

A recipe for gingerbread ends with this remark: “Best if not eaten for three days — but I know few who have proved this” (p. 243).

Chapter Seven, about foreign influence on Scottish cuisine, is also very interesting. Vikings introduced a greater awareness of the sea as a source of food (p. 249). In the 16th and 17th centuries, there was much trade with the Dutch, leading also to some culinary influence (p. 250). English influence grew in the 18th century, after the union of England and Scotland (p. 251). Tea also became popular in that period (p. 252). Italians brought ice-cream in the late 19th, and Asians brought all sorts of exotic dishes in the 20th century (pp. 255-6). French influence was the strongest and most lasting of all, however (p. 257).

At the end of each chapter there are also a few recipes for dishes somehow related to the topic of that chapter. Since I don't do much cooking myself, I read these recipes as somewhat of a curiosity. One could say that recipes are a (non-literary) genre of their own, a peculiar subspecies of technical language with its own terminology, usages, expressions, even jargon. Of much of this terminology, and indeed of the objects and processess to which the terminology refers, I have only a vague understanding; so that, although I can't say that I learned anything meaningful from reading these recipes, I nevertheless found them charming reading; recipes as a genre remind me somewhat of alchemy, equally full of mysterious processess described with terse and to me fairly opaque terminology. It's a fairly different language from the sort that I am used to reading; this is why it fascinated me. Of course, I'm sure that a person who knows more about cooking would also appreciate these recipes for their contents, and might get many interesting ideas from them. I for one cannot bring myself to really appreciate the details of these recipes, although I respect the effort that was undoubtedly required to discover them. For example, suppose that you are interesting in baking some kind of cake. There are several dozen possible ingredients for the dough (a number of different kinds of flour, sugar, fats, dairy substances, eggs, etc.), of which each particular recipe selects but a handful. There are thousands, perhaps millions (perhaps gazillions!) of possible combinations, but only a comparably small subset are really used in actual recipes. And once you have selected a set of ingredients, you have to mix them in the correct proportions. You need half a pound of A, half a pound of B, a 1/4 pound of C, a tablespoon of D, half a tablespoon of E, and 1/3 of a pint of F. Again there are millions of ways of choosing these proportions, and whoever discovered the recipe somehow had to alight upon the correct one. Now what I am wondering is: how did they discover the correct set of ingredients, and having done that how did they discover the correct set of proportions? There are too many possibilities to do it all by brute force. Even doing just local optimization (adding or subtracting one ingredient at a time, or increasing or decreasing the amount of one ingredient at a time) would probably require too many steps, especially since each step of optimization requires one to actually use up the ingredients and prepare and eat the dish in question. No, it can't have been done that way. Apparently the people who invented these recipes, who were undoubtedly cooks and housewives with decades of experience behind them, have a good (perhaps an intuitive) understanding of the processes going on in the preparation of food, and are able to use this knowledge to select a good combination and proportions of ingredients fairly quickly, after trying and discarding perhaps only a handful, at most a few dozen, rather than thousands or millions, of less successful or tasty combinations. It would be great if the cookbooks taught these principles, the true fruits of decades-long experience, rather than merely providing recipes which one can follow like a robot but without really understanding what one is doing. But perhaps they do; I'm after all not in a position to comment on this, as I never read the preliminary matter in the cookbooks (where things like this would presumably be explained). Such an explanation of the background of cooking would also have to open the reader's eye to an understanding of the little but presumably important differences between the recipes. For example, in this book there are a number of recipes for various kinds of cake. Obviously each of them contains some kind of flour, some water, perhaps some butter or some other fatty substance, perhaps some milk or water; this is what they all have in common. But the details are different in each case; for example, there seem to be a myriad of different kinds of flour, made of half a dozen different kinds of grain, and to make things more interesting two kinds of flour are sometimes mixed together in the same recipe. A naive reader such as myself wonders: what if I used flour of type A instead of flour of type B in this recipe? And in general, how does the influence of type-A flour differ from that of type-B? And must I really know all this for twenty different types of flour? How important are these little details really? I guess they must be at least somewhat important, because if one disregarded them, one would use the same ingredients every time and one would end up with one kind of cake instead of twenty different kinds of cake. But by simply reading the lists of ingredients in the various recipes, I found it impossible to really visualize the differences and gain an understanding and appreciation for them. I guess this is simply because of my lack of experience in these matters, for many of the ingredients (different kinds of flour, for example) are to me mere names only, with no first-hand experience associated to them in my mind. One doesn't really gain any information from reading about things of which one has so little experience. I have a similar problem with names of birds, plants, insects, and many other kinds of living beings; for example, I know that robins, starlings, nightingales, etc. are birds, but that is really the only thing I know about them. Their names are mere words to me, any of them might be substituted for any other and it wouldn't really make a difference to me (except for the fact that the different species have different literary associations). (This is not merely a language problem, but a genuine ignorance of the things signified by the words in question. I wouldn't be any better off if the robins, starlings, and nightingales were replaced by taščice, škorci in slavčki.) Nevertheless I am glad that this book contained all these recipes; I rarely read recipes, so seeing them in this book provided a rare and welcome glimpse of a genre that is largely new to me.

All in all, I think this is a great book for anyone interested in Scotland and/or food. The history of food in Scotland may sound like an obscure topic, but in this case it made for a very interesting and readable book.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


I must tell you how amused I was by your comments about `A Caledonian Feast` because they so cogently encapsulate my own reaction to the author`s latest book, `London`s Larder`.

I was much disquieted by the way Annette Hope has of dragging irrelevancies into the text and thus losing readers midstream.

The book about food could have been a classic about gourmandizing and gluttony. Goodness knows London (the capital of England) was notorious for the avarice and gluttony of the upper middle-classes.

One could almost paraphrase Dr. Johnson to read, `Whomsoever is tired of London....(has had too much to eat)`

It was, actually, your comments which got me to see the diversions for what they were.

At first I believed she has included large chunks about the London markets out of some intellectual rivalry with yours trully who has been running guided walks, teaching courses and penning articles about the markets since 1990 and who, sadly, is still looking for a publisher for my socio-historical overview of the London markets.

Make no mistake, this `vulgar little American` is up against it with regard to elegant food critics from Scotland treading similar territory.

If they would stick to their own territory.....

However I realise now it is not competition or smugness; rivalry or superiority. It is simply that the lady cannot stick to a subject and thus demeans a subject about which she COULD have written a good deal more with a lot of stuff about markets that actually does not belong.

Sunday, February 04, 2007 11:02:00 AM  
Blogger ill-advised said...

Thanks for your comment. I must admit that I as a casual reader with only a very superficial interest in culinary matters did not at all mind the fact that Annette Hope's writing includes a lot of digressions and "irrelevancies". I haven't read Londoner's Larder, but now that you mentioned it, I looked at its amazon page and it looks interesting -- I might read it eventually. Anyway, as for A Caledonian Feast, I enjoyed reading it, and I welcomed the numerous little factoids as welcome diversions and interesting bits of information, rather than as irrelevancies that somehow demean the subject. Maybe you were looking for a different sort of book -- something for people more seriously interested in the history of food? I hope that your book will be able to fill this niche better -- I wish you good luck in getting it published! (Just a thought -- if it's a more technical work, perhaps an academic press would be interested in it?)

Friday, February 09, 2007 10:48:00 PM  

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