Summer seven years ago, my partner Tyler and I both worked at a bakery in our Virginia hometown. One day, a mid-Atlantic millionaire who lived a couple of blocks over and was a chicken-salad-with-tomato-on-croissant regular, asked the two of us to help with a dinner she was hosting.
When we arrived an hour before the guests, Barbara (that was her name) asked, “Do you cook?” Suddenly, I found myself making sense of an unlikely pie recipe involving cream sauce, oysters, sliced white onions, and cracker crumbs. We soon realized that there must be such a thing as formal dinner-service training, and that we had no such preparation.
In between courses, we laughed off our missteps and Tyler scanned the kitchen bookshelf. Ann Rogers’ A Cookbook for Poor Poets and Others caught his eye because the two of us were just that: poor poets who cook.
He left for grad school in Maine that August and returned at Christmas with a copy for me. In January he bought the later edition, The New Cookbook for Poor Poets and Others. We cooked out of these books in our separate kitchens because the recipes were fun, cheap, and they drew a thread between us while we were eight-hundred miles apart. Now that we live together, the book has permanent residency on our pantry shelf.
On the fiftieth anniversary of its original publication, A Cookbook for Poor Poets and Others is out of print (as is 1979’s edition), as happens to great books sometimes. But you can still find both for reasonable prices online, as well as on the shelves of secondhand bookshop and in library stacks.
As a mid-century, Californian cookbook writer, Rogers is part of a pantheon that includes Alice B. Toklas and M.F.K Fisher. Rogers was not as glamorous as Toklas or as prolific as Fisher, and she is not as well-remembered now. I think that there may be some socio-economic reasons for Fisher's celebrity and Rogers' relative anonymity over the past several decades: Fisher started off in the upper middle class, made celebrity friends, and regularly wrote about the glamours of Europe and dining out. Rogers, on the other hand, didn’t start out in the upper class, or make tons of famous friends, or hobnob at fancy restaurants. She lived in a smallish town and wrote about how to keep yourself happily snacking despite penury.
Frankly, it's a testament to Rogers’ cooking, writing, and humor that she's remembered as well as she is. In their 1965 catalog, Kirkus pithily designates A Cookbook for Poor Poets “gourmet-in-a-garret,” while John Thorne in Outlaw Cook counts it among his favorites "because the personality of the author somehow gives you the courage to sustain your own culinary persona against the prevailing trends." Rogers always feels like she’s playfully, helpfully suggesting rather than laying down the law of lunching.
Of course, there are many cooks in California, and I don't think that it's fair to either Fisher or Rogers to set them up as if they were in competition. In fact, I have a suspicion that A Cookbook for Poor Poets wouldn't exist without Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf as a predecessor, itself the irreverent daughter of hefty and exhaustive cooking tomes like Fannie Farmer and The Virginia Housewife by Mary Randolph.
In 1942, Fisher demonstrated that a woman could write a cheeky and practical guide to making do with few resources. Because of How to Cook a Wolf’s success, as well as much of her later work, Fisher’s partly responsible for creating cultural space for smart women to write about home cooking. Major New York publisher Scribners published Ann Rogers, both A Cookbook for Poor Poets as well as her later A Basque Storybook, which seems unlikely had Fisher not already proven the genre.
Rogers' opens the book with, and often references, the nickel dinner (oh, food prices of the sixties), which is a fresh roll, real butter, and a glass of wine. This, when margarine was poised to all but replace butter in home cooking, especially for people with lower incomes.
Most all of Rogers’ more elaborate recipes work fine, but what makes the book special to me is her inclusive and anecdotal approach. She charmingly assumes you're scraping by yet open-minded and interested in eating (and living) well regardless. My favorite bits of the book are Rogers’ discursive prefaces to each chapter and her dreamy, abundant lists of possibilities. One of the best is in the introduction in which she explores the individuality of feeling food secure:
Staples are not necessarily a sack of flour and a box of salt. Staples are whatever it is that makes the Poor Poet, and others who cook, feel secure.
There is one who says, ‘When I come back from Chinatown with a sack of rice, I feel secure.’
And another thinks, ‘If I had a supply of dried beans—enough to last all winter—I'm sure I'd feel a lot more secure.’ Yet one more who announces, ‘I've just bought five pounds of chestnut paste. Isn't it marvelous; and it makes me feel quite well off.’
Rogers follow this up with her own long list of ideal assurances (including a lizard-guarded herb garden!) that ends, "I would have a tiny German nutmeg grater and a porcelain mortar and pestle. And last, and very much, a tall jar full, full, full of vanilla beans." Here is cozy, imaginary space to revel in desire without worrying about affordability.
When, in the following paragraphs, Rogers gets down to what she sees as an essential batterie de cuisine for someone of limited means, this list inspires no less exuberantly and has no less relevance for people cooking now. I love the spice paragraphs best:
For spices the Poor Poet must have paprika because it’s pretty and pepper because it’s necessary. He must have dried mustard so he can mix his own mustard sauce to taste. Or make a poultice.
He must have cinnamon for apples and for toast. And whole cloves to chew, and nutmeg for milk punch.
Then he will need chili powder and curry powder to remind him that life is love and warm and that the sun is hot. And flour and salt and oil and wine vinegar and a wire basket of garlic. And coffee and tea.
Yesterday, when I carried a tin of smoked Spanish paprika home from the store, I felt well-supplied and in exactly the right spirit to cook with Rogers.
An English and history teacher in Mill Valley, California, Rogers' proliferous personal recipe collection forms the bulk of the book (if Rogers published her own poetry, I can’t find them, and though she refers to herself as a poor poet in the book, she includes no verse). According to a 1966 article in San Rafael's Daily Independent Journal, the poet Louise Bogan was one of Rogers’ supper guests and encouraged her to write a cookbook—she even supplied the title.
The same Independent article cites Rogers’ own world-roving and her hosting visiting members of the Sierra Club hosted as sources of her wide-ranging repertoire: Panettone and crisp Moravian cookies rub elbows with Irish soda bread, ambrosia, borscht, nasi goreng, Javanese sambal, and pot roast with honey and lemon.
A community of people, a history of interactions and adaptations and picnics, exist behind this book. These recipes are remembrances that, every time they’re made, create new places for gathering. In that aspect, it feels like an ancestor of new cookbooks like The Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook and Near and Far, as well as community sites like Food52.
The recipes in A Cookbook for Poor Poets skew towards the frugal with occasional delightedly indulgent prescriptions: There are lots of variations on omelets, stews, and cookies, a profound number of canned vegetables in the soup and salad chapters, but also "A Dinner for Instilling Hope," which calls for caviar, Champagne-Cognac cocktails, and a friend.
When I want pretty cookies, I make Rogers’ spicy Moravian crisps. When I’m picnicking, I make a stuffed bread loaf of her suggestion (really, anything delicious stuffed into a hollowed-out loaf of bread and allowed to set for a few hours). When I’m in need of some coddling and good cheer, the weather is a touch cool, people are coming over, and/or leftovers will come in handy, I head for her black beans and rum.
- 1 pound black beans, soaked
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- 1 celery stalk, finely chopped
- 1 ham hock OR a knob of butter/spash of oil and 2 dried chipotle peppers or 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 1/2 teaspoon thyme
- 1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
- 1 adventurous splash of of hot sauce
- 1/4 cup rum
- sour cream
- Parsley leaves, torn
This recipe is true to the spirit of Rogers, but it’s written here with a few of my tweaks. First of all, Rogers suggests throwing a whole celery stalk and a halved onion into the beans—this infuses the broth with flavor but leaves one with big pieces of soggy, bean-stained vegetables to either be thrown away or awkwardly eaten behind the scenes. Why? I chop them finely and leave them in the finished dish for flavor and body. Similarly, rather than stew a couple sprigs of parsley with the other vegetables, I leave a big bowl of torn fresh leaves on the table for everyone to heap on their beans as they wish. I encourage a lot of parsley heaping, saving me the trouble of making a salad. Usually I pressure cook this in under an hour, but Rogers encourages an equally effective and atmospheric long simmer on the stove.
Finally, if you want to make this vegetarian or vegan, I have had good success leaving out the ham hock and replacing it with about a tablespoon of additional butter or oil, either a couple of dried chipotle peppers or a teaspoon of smoked paprika, and a bit more salt. You could use both the hock and a dose of smoky pepper, but I like the thriftiness of one or the other.
I'm never going to live on a Swiss farm and dispense soothing kirschwasser to ailing villagers as M.F.K. Fisher does in A Cordiall Water, and I'm not even going to cook with oysters enough to really merit owning Consider the Oyster. But I will simmer savory black beans and a splash of rum at Ann Rogers' suggestion, make a dark and stormy because the rum is down from the cabinet anyway, and feel among friends.
Do you have a cookbook—or a cookbook author—you wish were better remembered? Share with us in the comments below.