Monday, January 11, 2010

Blame it on the Ambrosia

Admittedly, until about four years ago I had never heard of Meta Given. I grew up in a Better Homes and Gardens cookbook household that was occasionally supplemented with old church cookbook recipes. My grandmother was strictly a Farm Journal cookbook gal and my favorite aunt, a Betty Crocker devotee. Surrounded by all those volumes of yumminess it's no wonder there was not any room for Meta Given to enter into my cookbook culinary world at a young age. I, unlike my relatives before me, however, am a vintage cookbook junkie so Meta Given was bound to cross my path sooner than later. (You can read the sordid tales of how and why I became a vintage cookbook collectorator here on my other blog )

I first leafed through an expensively priced Meta Given cookbook to try to find out why a set would cost upwards of $100. I later found out, as I explained in the link above, there's nothing $100-magical about the set. It's priceless to those seeking it because it represents their culinary memories of Sunday dinners when they were a kid or meals they made a hungry husband as a new bride. However, after I secured my copy of Meta Given's Encyclopedia of Cooking thanks to CollectoratorOne's ( unyielding efforts, and dove into the world of Meta Given my views on cooking would never be the same. It's not to say that Crocker, Farmer, Rombauer, Corbitt et al, could not teach me something similar, it just took Meta to make me truly appreciate the art of simple cooking.

It started with a new year's resolution in 2009, one to say that I happily met about 55% of the time that year. The resolution was to include some sort of fruit with dinner every night. Of course, my first instinct was to very proudly put a bowl of berries on the table, but I realized pretty quickly, as it sat there untouched throughout dinner that fruit by itself belongs with lunch not dinner. For fruit to work with dinner, it has to be more interesting. So I turned to a fruit section of my then brand new Meta Given encyclopedic cookbook set for ideas. There I saw Ambrosia as the first recipe. I almost skipped right over it, because I thought Ambrosia, that's dessert not a healthy side of fruit. Granted, the typical marshmallow-laden delicacy is no doubt yummy, but new year's resolutions involving food are rarely supposed to be THAT good. Erring on caution, I started to skip over it, but then quickly realized hey there's no marshmallows in this recipe... I read on... no whip sour cream... hmmm, just oranges, bananas, coconut and a dusting of sugar. I immediately went to the pantry and served it up and it was a hit and beyond that simple. Exactly what my I needed to implement my resolution.

It dawned on me there might just be something to this Meta Given so I read more. I learned Meta was a nutritionist not just a culinary expert or recipe author. Her philosophy was to offer people numerous choices (and there are 1400 plus pages of choices) to piece together a diet in which all of the major nutrients were included through food while at the same time heeding certain creeds with respect to selecting and serving foods. A noble effort no doubt. I am not sure though where all the cookies, cakes, pies etc fit into the nutritional framework but hey, what's life without dessert?

Let me stop here, before I go on, and say that Meta Given's cookbook was first written in the 1940s and reprinted in the 1950s and therefore what Meta recommends from a nutritionist viewpoint would probably not exactly echo what modern nutritionists and the government's newest food pyramid would recommend. That aside, she makes some pretty good points that at the time were based on recommendations from the RDA and the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Research Council. Nevertheless, I was intrigued because I think all parties today would agree it's best to get your vitamins and minerals from food sources, and here was a cookbook not just rattling off recipes because they are interesting, but instead recommending that if you make foods from these categories using these recipes, you'll get all the recommend nutrition you need. It's hard to argue with that kind of wisdom even if you disagree with the nutritional choices of the time.

And honestly, her ten daily recommended categories are not so bad:

1) milk,
2) meat (or cheese for those who don't eat meat)
3) green or yellow vegetable
4) another vegetable
5) potato (once a week pasta or rice can take the place but increase vegetable)
6) egg
7) butter
8) whole grain
9) citrus fruit or tomato
10) another fruit

It quickly became a game for me, daily. Did I include all 10 today?

So not only were her recipes simple and good, they also had a purpose. Not that everyone used her cookbooks in that way. I am certain many just loved the variety and goodness alone tucked away in the volumes. I would be lying if I didn't say I would very much like to start at the beginning and work my way through Meta's two volume set. Not only has that been (over)done before with other cookbooks, I am not sure I would finish with my love for food in tact, and I am quite sure my husband would not stand for umpteen variations of French dressing night after night (multiple version of chocolate cake yes, dressing no) That's not the intention of this blog anyway. My intentions, like the recipes I love, are simple. With this blog I want to formally reinstate simplicity back to our kitchens. Don't misunderstand me, I am equally as impressed, as anyone who loves food, of the lucky ones who can create art out of food, but my personal goal when it comes to food is to get it on the table as quickly, as simply, and as deliciously as possible. I hope to share a little of that.
Do you have any memories, thoughts or favorite recipes to share about Meta Given cookbooks?