There was this book I had when I was four. Just like all my books at the time, I had inherited it from my elder sister. It was this beautiful cloth-covered hardbound volume called ‘365 stories‘ with ostensibly a story for every day of the year. (Apparently the authors pretended the extra leap year day didn’t count or that it could be be swept under the rug like so many cookie crumbs). There is a marked difference between my sister and I. She is marvellous at maintaining her things. Me? Not so much. At the time, I thought this was only because I was four and she was fourteen. But as it turns out, the only thing I got better at taking care of, was books. Practically everything else I had, including my haircuts, look like they have survived the ravages of war. But my sister, she had used socks and stockings that looked brand-new seven years later. (Granted, she had little use for stockings in tropical Indian climes, but you get the picture). Her books, toys, clothes had this amazingly unused air about them, as if she tenderly placed them in crystal cases and refused to even breathe on them. Fact is, she did use them, and often. She played with all her toys and most certainly wore all her clothes. But she treated with a tremendous amount of respect for someone so young.
I, on the other hand, drew a moustache on her wooden dog, glued a tail to her teddy bear and coloured outside the lines on all her preciously maintained fairy tale books. I’m not proud of it, but in my defense, I was four! I didn’t know better. Giving me access to all my sister’s stuff was probably not the best move my mom could have made. (She thought the second one would be just like the first. We all live and learn.) Keeping the books away from me didn’t help. All those beautifully preserved words had woven their spell. At one time I had been read to, but allegedly I had started grabbing books and doing it for myself very early on. Once positioned on this path, I could not be dislodged, much like a limpet on a favourite rock. I loved books. I eventually learned that you don’t colour on all books, and have several of my childhood books saved in fair condition to this day. But every book I had before this had already lost its shot at such posterity. Which, as I think about it, might be why my younger sister never took to books and reading quite like us older ones. (Would you want to look at the words on the pages when the gingerbread house next to them, tastefully decked out in virulent green and electric blue vied for your attention? I didn’t think so.)
Cue forward a couple of dozen years and the love of books has stuck. Nothing gets my blood running quite like discovering a new book store. So try and imagine, if you will, the sheer, unabashed, would-have-done-cartwheels-if-I’d-ever-learned-how-to-turn-cartwheels euphoria I experienced when I discovered a book store in San Francisco that is dedicated only to books on food and drink! It must be what Brendan Fraser’s character felt like when he met a girl who looked exactly like the girl he was secretly in love with for four years in Bedazzled. (Only this one gave him the time of day. It’s complicated.) Or something else that would make a person wildly happy. (Oh and that news-flash that I’m a nerd who finds odd comedies memorable? That’s airing about twenty-four years too late. Also, no dumping on Brendan Fraser. He made cave men cute and cool.)
I found out about Omnivore Books in an odd way. It was written on a post-it note that someone had left in a library book I borrowed. A quick search on Google led me to this charming bookstore. While the website wasn’t quite as informative as I would like it to be on the books there, it certainly whetted the appetite (easy pun alert! Yike!). In the last days of last year, I finally got the opportunity to go to this small little bookstore tucked away in a residential corner on Cesar Chavez. The lights in the store shone warmly on a rainy evening, beckoning you into the cozy, appealing space. This was once a butcher’s shop. You can still see the old spring balanced weighing scale (overhead by the cash register in the photo) that was retained when the space was converted. Books by current chef royalty like Ferran Adrià jostle for space with old 1930s and Victorian era cookbooks. The food writings of M.F.K Fisher are well-within reach of Nigel Slater. It is a veritable smorgasbord of words in the culinary way. The store cuts swaths across world cultures and time with discerning taste. I walked around it with this kid-in-a-candy-store look plastered across my face, having a hard time deciding what I wanted. I finally settled on three books, The New James Beard, The Omelette Book and a 1962 edition of The Sunset Cookbook.
Few things reflect the culture of its time better than cookbooks. You look into these vintage tomes and catch a glimpse of what people ate or aspired to eat at home. Some are questionable (like jelly salads, what were they thinking? Blech!) but others are engaging, like Nut Rum bread. Ingredients like venison and goose seemed more mainstream once than they are today. The Sunset Cookbook endeavors to exemplify West North American cuisine of the time. There is a whole chapter on wine, which is to be expected in a book on Californian cuisine. There are helpful little hints like the one about putting a couple of drops of oil in an opened bottle destined for cooking. Not drinking! Then there is the stuff that makes you giggle. Like the section on Special Picnics. Planning a Champagne (?) or Cantonese (!) picnic? There are whole menus for such occasions, should you have been thinking of one. There are references to salad oil – Amey got uncharacteristically excited about this; it proved to be simply oil, olive or canola. There were also casual references to consommé, almost as if every cook had access to prodigious quantities of it back then.
The book is quaintly illustrated with child-like sketches and there is not one photograph in sight. Simply poring through these pages with 60s recipes is a joy in itself and certainly makes you reflect on the time it was written, a time of butter and venison roasts. It was the year of movies like Laurence of Arabia and Hatari, and of the death of Marilyn Monroe. This book was printed in Menlo Park at a time when Silicon Valley didn’t exist. The Flower Children were still a good five years away from San Francisco. They certainly must have been interesting times, on the brink of change as they were.
One of the things I found interesting was that this book has several remarkably simple and quick recipes, despite the fact that many women were still at home in this period, having more time to cook elaborate meals. While thumbing through the pages, I came to a recipe for an easy lemon chicken. Given the profusion of citrus we are seeing, I thought this was a good one to try this. Only I got pretty specific about the citrus, using the Meyer Lemon variety that is in season here in Northern California. The recipe is quick and simple and delivers what it promises, chicken with a bright lemon sauce. With a couple of modifications, it was a fabulous supper.
Meyer Lemon Chicken
Adapted from The Sunset Cookbook
Chicken breasts – 3
Meyer Lemons -2
AP Flour – 1/3 cup
Cayenne pepper – 1 tsp
Salt and pepper to taste
Olive oil – 2 tbsp
Honey – 2 tbsp
Chicken stock – 1 cup
Garlic – 6 cloves, peeled
Leek – 1/4 cup, diced
Carrot – 1/4 cup, diced
Celery – 1 stalk, diced
Mint – 2 sprigs
Parsley for garnish (optional)
– Heat the oven to 375ºF.
– Wash the chicken breasts and pat them dry. Cut each into 2 pieces lengthwise.
– Zest one lemon and juice it. Cut the second lemon into thin discs.
– Pour the lemon juice over the chicken and toss the chicken in it until coated.
– Put the flour in a large-ish ziploc bag along with the cayenne pepper. Season with salt and black pepper. Mix everything together.
– Put the chicken strips into the bag and shake the bag to coat the chicken with the flour mixture.
– Heat the oil in a non-stick pan. In this, brown the chicken on both sides.
– Arrange the chicken in a single layer in an oven-proof casserole. Sprinkle over lemon zest, followed by a dotting of the teaspoons of honey.
– Introduce the leek, carrot and celery in the gaps between the chicken pieces. Distribute the garlic cloves evenly in the spaces.
– Lay out the lemon discs over the chicken in rows, then place whole mint sprigs on the lemon rounds. Pour in chicken stock gently over everything.
– Tent the casserole with aluminum foil and bake in the oven for 45 minutes or until the chicken is tender.
Garnish with parsley (optional). Serve with couscous or some rice.
The chicken bathes in this broth of stock and veggies to go completely soft and tender. It hits the spot on a cold winter’s day. I took this basic concept from the book and embellished it a bit. I added the veggies and the garlic because it seemed a bit too basic. I also upped the amount of cayenne used. The original recipe asked for brown sugar, the lack of which made me switch to honey. There are sour, sweet and bitter flavours that the chicken gets infused with. It’s possible the faintly bitter flavour came in because it is hard to zest the notoriously thin skinned Meyer Lemon without getting some pith (at least it is hard for me). It all worked out quite alright in the end. Some of the flour from the chicken thickens the broth a little bit to form a nice sauce. A few crispy potatoes on the side would strike just the right note. And oh, move the lemon rings and mint sprig aside before eating or you might have some rather strong flavours to deal with.
I’m thrilled with this vintage addition to my collection of cookbooks. If you are in the San Francisco area and love to cook or read about food, check out Omnivore Books. It has some of the most wonderful culinary treasures you can find. (And no, they didn’t pay me to say this.) My sojourn there also got me looking at the old cookbooks I’d appropriated from my mum. I send out a fervent prayer of thanks that these didn’t end up in my hands when I was four.