I love browsing through old cookbooks for many reasons. It’s fascinating not only to learn what foods people ate in earlier times, but also how they acquired them and how they prepared them. And how much a cook back then could be expected to know how to do without needing the minutest of step-by-step instructions.
For example, I once found a recipe for rabbit pie that began: “Skin and clean rabbit and wash. Joint and take out bones.” How many of us could do that without a dozen pages of detailed instructions and illustrations? When an old recipe tells you to “go get a young chicken,” it’s understood that you’ll head out into your yard and look around until you spot a bird that’s of the appropriate age and size. And that you’ll dispatch it and clean it yourself. Then you can get around to actually making the dish.
Measurements in those times required similar ingenuity. Take a trip in the wayback machine, courtesy of an aged cookbook, and you’ll find recipes routinely calling for a wineglass of buttermilk, a coffee cup of beef stock, or a knob of lard the size of a walnut. Still, these steps are easier to follow than those of a lot of the cooks I grew up around in the South, who couldn’t have told you the precise measurements for making any of their specialties if their lives had depended on it. As with Thoreau’s conviction that he was too busy living his life to record it, they were too busy getting those meals onto the table to write down exactly how they made them.
A lot of us cook this way, though, especially once we’ve seen that a particular recipe has merit and potential, but needs a tweak here and there to make it even better. Or to accommodate our preferences, dietary requirements or available ingredients.
In honor of those who still have the temerity to measure things the old fashioned way–and to devise whatever measurements work best for them–I share with you a recipe from Peter Ward of Country Choice in Nenagh, County Tipperary, Ireland. He devised
for his son when he headed off to college, for he knew that the only thing the lad would have to reliably measure with was a pint beer glass. (Here’s Saveur‘s version of Peter’s Pint-Glass Bread, which details the ingredients, measurements and temperature required for American cooks.)
I raise my Guinness to Peter’s ingenuity. Sláinte!