If summer in the city means anything to New Yorkers, aside from the sticky and ubiquitous jangling of Mr. Softee trucks, it’s picnicking. Picnicking on fire escapes and dubiously accessible rooftops, on stoops and benches, spread out in the park.
Something about picnicking calls for the food of nostalgia. In her new book, New York writer and cook Tamar Adler takes it a step further, beyond the food of nostalgia and well into the food of days gone by—foods so “antique” that it’s hard to imagine what they might taste like or even look like. Which is exactly why Adler wrote Something Old, Something New: Classic Recipes Revised (Scribner, 2018) in the first place.
The idea for the book began when Adler would encounter a recipe in an old cookbook or novel—like M.F.K. Fisher’s writings, children’s books, Little Women. Instead of being able to integrate it “into [my] own internal narrative seamlessly, because [I] know what it is” (as many of us can, for example, with a roast chicken), she would have the sense of bouncing off of it. “These names were signs without signifiers, labels without anything attached to them, because I’d never tasted them.”
For someone who makes a career of tasting, this proved a maddening conundrum. Food, Adler told me, “is something we consume, not something we have an intellectual definition of. If you don’t taste it, you’re missing something of it. I really had the feeling of being reflected off of it.”
So she set to work compiling and researching recipes of the past, drawn by their “old-fashioned tastes” and “fanciful names.” Something Old is full of the latter: Eggs Pierre de Lune-Nosrat, Four-Day Spinach, Garbure in Three Courses, A Respectful Omelet, Honey Flummery, Steak Diane Hallelujah!
But the old-fashioned tastes are where the title’s “something new” enters the equation. Old recipes, often recorded in colloquial language and without much in the way of precise measurement, received real testing and fiddling and precision. Of course, the old-fashionedness was part of the original draw. But, said Adler, she’s not a purist. “Figuring out what they were was an inevitable process of updating and revising. I didn’t want it to be an authentic chicken fricassée from 1938; I just wanted to know it.”
The result is old-school foods made modern not by invention but by translation: by determining what in the original recipes was worth keeping and recreating it in a contemporary kitchen for contemporary eaters. (Jellied chicken received a pass from Adler. Tomato aspic, on the other hand? “Incredible.”) The result is a collection of suggestive recipes—“a little bit suave and soft,” just the way Adler likes them herself—set in prose as weaving and lucid as a walk in the park.
What would Adler herself pack on an old-school summer picnic? “Definitely the Pâté d’Oeuf,” she said of a smash of boiled eggs, grated Cheddar, and grated onion, perfect for spreading on toast or crackers. Next, “If I had time, I’d make Vegetables à la Grecque”—that is, poached in a spicy, potent blend of olive oil and vinegar and wine—plus “little sandwiches of Anything and Pickle Salad” (which, as the name suggests, involves a combination of pickles and anything else you like or have around: meat, fish, eggs, beans). And to finish? Good old-fashioned plum cake. Or shortbread.
¼ cup grated sweet onions and/or finely sliced scallions
A squeeze of fresh lemon juice
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 ounces good cheddar cheese, like Cabot Extra Sharp or Cabot Clothbound, or bits and bobs of any sharp, gratable cheese but blue, grated
2 eggs, boiled and mashed
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 tablespoon olive oil
Soak the onions in a squeeze of lemon juice with a pinch of salt for 10 minutes. Add the rest of the ingredients. Taste for salt and adjust.
Excerpted from Something Old, Something New by Tamar Adler. Copyright © 2018 by Tamar Adler. Reprinted with permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Featured photo credit: Ella Olssen / freshnlean.com/blog