Occasionally, amongst the noise of well publicised, celebrity endorsed cook books, there are the quiet, simmering types, which draw the reader in with gentle but evocative prose, and unassuming yet remarkable recipes. They tantalise tastebuds with stories of unfamiliar yet very real people, and the brilliant food they cook. The sum of it all managing to both gently satisfy and blow you away at the same time, like a seven hour lamb shoulder served with cheesy polenta and pitch perfect caponata [or insert your alternative Death Row meal here].
Victuals by Ronni Lundy does this. Its subtitle “an Appalachian journey, with recipes” is telling and apt — it could very well have been a prose only food-travel book, such is the quality of writing, and the way that the author’s personal journey, through this particular part of the Deep South, intertwines with recollections from her youth, and personal stories of the people she now meets. It’s captivating and enchanting. An account of a people and a food culture that makes you want to immediately jump on a plane and retrace her steps.
But thank goodness the recipes are there too, because they provide colour and texture. Plus you’ll want to cook them.
Lundy’s journey and the chapters of the book are structured by culinary themes of the area: roots and seeds; salt; corn; beans; apples; preserving; husbandry; and then ‘spring’ (i.e. what happens next). Through them we get to understand the region’s history, the small holding, hand-to-mouth nature of many of its residents, the produce, techniques and typical dishes of the area. Each chapter includes a handful of recipes that loosely fit the relevant overarching theme, as well as micro-themes housing a series of tightly focussed recipes — perhaps relating to a specific ingredient or person.
It’s clever and thoughtful and, crucially for us cooks, the recipes are of great quality too. The book feels like a sensitive and thorough catalogue of classic dishes, whilst also appearing contemporary and relevant. Look out, in particular, for the sweet tarts and cakes, like buttermilk brown sugar pie, country pie 4.0 and busy day cobbler. But also hearty food for hard working people, such as miner’s goulash and slow cooked but not pulled pork shoulder. Chapters on preserving and on properly cooking beans and pulses yield gems.
There’s so much in here that I want to cook, though I’ve only tried one dish so far: pork and sauerkraut with curly egg noodles — a simple but rich and sticky treat, full of deep flavour and tang. More will follow, including a ‘sweet potato sonker with milk dip’, which I guess is from a similar pudding family to pumpkin pie.
“A pudding made of vegetables?!” you say. I can see many raised British eyebrows, and I should note that some of the regularly referred to ingredients aren’t readily available on our isles — sorghum syrup (a molasses), hominy corn, tinned smoked oysters, various specific green beans and brassicas …
This is inevitable; Victuals is not about British food tastes (and is an American book, so look out too for cups and quarts). Yet I do think interested cooks and readers of any region will find a great deal to enjoy within its covers.
Format and design
Classic crown quarto shape; glossed but uncoated paper with photography highlighting the beautiful scenery, characterful people, and glorious, simple produce of the region; maybe 50-60% of the recipes are photographed, and are done so in a bold, clean and uncluttered way.
It’s a lovely design and very tactile book.
Recipes that tempt
Spiced pickled peaches. Sumac oil flatbread with country pickled ramps. One-eyed Jack toast.
Who is it for?
Curious cooks. Readers who want something more than personality-led cook books and the same recipes and stories that appear every weekend in the papers. People who are fascinated by the food and culture of the Deep South.
If you’d like something similar with UK measurements, consider Brad McDonald’s excellent Deep South; New Southern Cooking, recipes and tales from the Bayou to the Delta. Or cheffy types will enjoy Sean Brock’s Heritage.
Post script: I am indebted to Nic Miller for bringing Victuals to my attention. Her through review (and endorsement) is well worth a read.