If your nightly cooking ritual involves doctoring up a bagged lettuce, The Lost Art of Real Cooking by food historian and prolific author Ken Albala and blogger Rosanna Nafziger probably isn't for you. If cooking the old fashioned way — meaning from scratch and without fancy equipment or detailed recipes — sounds like pure Saturday fun, an afternoon of cracking raw olives with a hammer awaits (followed by a two-week quick cure or longer, should you have the patience for an eight month endeavor).
As noted in the forward, “this book is an effort to loosen up… dictating strict recipes really teaches aspiring cooks very little, apart from a slavish obedience to directions.” But for folks who consider the process of cooking as much fun as the end result, The Lost Art of Real Cooking is a reminder that inspiring cookbooks can be more useful kitchen tools than any appliance.
Novice cooks should note that recipe instructions are not listed in the now-standard 1-2-3 step format. Nor are the recipes concerned with 1/8 teaspoon precision. As the authors write in the introduction, “to insist that a quarter teaspoon of some particular seasoning is correct while anything more or less, or, heaven forfend, a substitution, altogether amounts to culinary heresy, this is just too much to bear.” Instead, the recipes are written in the story-like prose you find in 19th century cookbooks, only here, in a more casual modern banter. Albala and Nafziger do note, however, that more precision is often necessary with baking.
As for the book itself, it is small, compact, and designed to look like a cookbook from the turn of the century (1901, not 2001). You know, before Betty Crocker and canned chicken broth replaced homemade cakes and chicken stock (and recipes for the homemade versions became long, tedious chores rather than general guidelines). It includes black and white drawings by Marjorie Nafziger (Rosanna's mother) that are neither cute nor overly clever. They simply illustrate a point: how to stuff grape leaves, what jam looks like when it coats a spoon, how to fill sausage casings by hand using a funnel rather than a fancy contraption.
The eleven chapter headers also get straight to the point, thankfully without silly titles. The emphasis is on recipes that are pantry staples, so you can use them more as a guideline to create your own variations. The chapters are dedicated to fermented vegetables (pickles and sauerkraut, homemade miso), fresh vegetables, fruits and nuts (jams, preserved lemons, homemade almond milk), bread (pizza, sprouted grain and wild yeast versions), meat/fish/poultry (cured meats, confit poultry), dairy products (Nafziger's cultured butter, homemade yogurt and Albala's aged cheese), and pies/pastries, confections (heavy on the pies).
Our favorite is the chapter on fermented beverages that includes recipes for a Medieval-style spiced wine (Albala, the food historian, clearly can't resist) along with a beginner's recipe for making your own beer by laboriously sprouting, drying and grinding the grain (many beginning home brewers simply buy malt extract). That last step is aptly described by Nafziger as “quite the chore without a grain grinder. Perhaps you can find somebody with a mill — a good brewing supply store, the hippie next door, or your grandma.”
That each section is written by Albala and Nafziger individually, rather than in a singular voice as with so many co-authored titles, only adds to the book's charm. You get the sense that while one talks, the other listens. Or cleans up the dishes.