Recently, I added a few more titles to my bursting-at-the-seams cookbook library. I had purchased the classic "The Great Book of French Cuisine" by Henri Paul Pellaprat - complete with the most astounding photos of French dishes intricately plated out. I had stumbled on this old copy at a specialist bookstore in Midtown for US$45. What a steal. Another recently purchased book, hand-carried from Singapore, was the latest edition of Ellice Handy's 'My Favourite Recipes". Guess which book got my first-class treatment of plastic cover wrapping? Mrs. Handy's.
Ellice Handy's cookbook is a permanent fixture in a Singapore kitchen. Not exactly a Julia Child or Elizabeth David - these two focused on one particular cuisine - Mrs. Handy is more of a Fannie Farmer who had culled a collection of recipes that exemplify the average national palate comprising of Eurasian/European, Chinese, Malay and Indian dishes and desserts. Much like Fannie Farmer's American book would feature sauerbraten, hollandaise sauce and Lady Baltimore Cake, you would find Steamed Crab in Chili Sauce, Babi Tauyu and Mulligatawny Soup in 'My Favourite Recipes'. Another good comparison could be 'The Joy of Cooking'. What all three cookbooks left as a phenomenal legacy was to teach generations of women how to cook a wide repertoire of dishes that reflected a span of cultures.
My mother based several of her daily home-cooked meals on 'My Favourite Recipes', tweaking them to suit herself as evidenced by the pencil markings in her old copies. Eventually, these recipes evolved into her own interpretations. She had several editions of the book - one had a cover featuring chili crab, another of laksa with fish balls. Naturally, I took a copy back with me to New York and looked forward to the latest edition.
I read the new book diligently each night. I came away with mixed feelings. Indeed, the book was everything that I had anticipated. It had the look and feel of nostalgia (retro 1950s) and authority, designed to look seamless with other reference cookbooks on a well-used kitchen counter. Imagine an Asian Betty Draper in a full skirt poring over the book figuring out how to make coconut candy. The book frames a generation in time - my mother's and her friends'. Those ladies in the black and white pictures, circa 1954 in cheongsam and horn-rim glasses, trimming recipe columns from magazines at the patio on a breezy evening. Not much was edited or updated from the original book. The measurements and ingredients were pretty much the same, a smart and convenient move on one hand judging from the challenges I had faced in working on my mother's cookbook. (See blog entry "Why and How I Wrote 'Growing Up in a Nonya Kitchen'".) Yet on the other, dicey because it leaves one to judge what a 'teacup of coconut milk' is or differentiate a dessertspoon from a measuring tablespoon. A more experienced cook would be more well-versed to 'agak', especially as ingredients have changed in quality over time.
Whether we will go back to that same palate, it's hard for me to tell. Perhaps the book will serve us the memories of a bygone era, and a yearning for a time when things were simpler and more cherished.
Also check out, Singapore's Pantheon of Cookbook Legends