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Vintage California Cuisine: 300 Recipes from the First Cookbooks Published in the Golden State

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The 'Only Competent Book' on Vegetables

In the crowded field of chroniclers of cuisine in California, Jules Arthur Harder may rank as the most pompous. He was chef de cuisine at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco in the 1880s, the latest stop in a glittering career cooking in all the leading capitals of Europe, when he started work on his magnum opus, grandly entitled "The Physiology of Taste: Harder’s Book of Practical American Cookery (in Six Volumes)."

Nevermind that he never got past the first of the six, there wasn’t a hint of self-doubt in the preface to Vol 1, which was published in San Francisco in 1885.

More than two dozen of Harder's original recipes are reprinted in Vintage California Cuisine:

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" ‘What’ – the reader may exclaim – ‘Another book on cookery!’ " he wrote in the first sentence (an observation that sounds a bit ironic today, more than 4,000 volumes about just California food and wine later). Harder asserted that virtually all of the literature on cooking published to date was a morass of misinformation. His series would "dissipate this fog enveloping the literature of the kitchen." Referring to himself in the third person, he went on to assert that the author was confident, "fearless of successful contradiction, that the result of his labors will be the only competent treatise – applying culinary science especially to the material conditions of this country – ever written."

It’s no wonder Harder took a breather after publishing the first volume, entitled "Treating of American Vegetables, and all Alimentary Plants, Roots and Seeds." It was an exhaustive achievement, 481 pages long, cataloging the cultivation practices and culinary uses of 300 different herbs, fruits and vegetables, from alecost to wormwood, listing a dozen or more specific varieties of many of them.

Harder advocated buying vegetables when they are at their freshest. He went so far as to suggest that vegetables should be freely consumed only during the spring and during a shorter window of propitious growing weather in the fall.

Writing in an era when many looked with suspicion on undercooked foods, Harder showed a glimmer of understanding that some vegetables are perfectly delectable when eaten raw.

"There is not a vegetable more generally used than lettuce, yet few people know how appetizing it is when brought to the table fresh and in an unwilted condition," he noted. Yet he proceeded to reel off a long list of lettuce recipes that belied this observation.

He offered recipes for German- and Spanish-style braised lettuce, parboiled and stuffed and stuffed and fried lettuce, lettuce boiled with cream, pureed in gravy, gratined, preserved whole and made into "lettuce water," a potion recommended for "those whose stomachs are deranged and also for those afflicted with nervousness."

Harder made room for just one recipe that called for raw lettuce -- the basic tossed salad. But he gave the topic characteristically thorough treatment, listing the distinguishing ingredients of salad dressings from around the world. In New England, salads were typically dressed with sugar and vinegar and in the South with mayonnaise, he wrote. The French tossed in chopped chervil, tarragon or garlic, the Mexicans green peppers and green onions, the English egg yolks and the juice of shallots and onions. But whatever the dressing, it had to be done right. "It requires an expert to dress a salad well," Harder asserted.

Here’s an idea from Harder’s book that could be used to dress a salad.

Celery Vinegar

Cut four heads of celery in small pieces. Put them in an earthen jar with four ounces of celery seed, one ounce of pulverized sugar and half an ounce of salt. Pour two quarts of boiled vinegar, when hot, over this. Cover the jar, and in two weeks strain it through a filter. Bottle and cork well.


Copyright 2005 Seasonal Chef