The Piglet2016 / First Round, 2016

Senegal vs. A Bird in the Hand

Senegal

Pierre Thiam and Jennifer Sit

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A Bird in the Hand

Diana Henry

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Judged by: John Birdsall

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John Birdsall writes about food and places and lives in Oakland, California, with his husband. He is a winner of the James Beard Award for food and culture writing, and curates crumbling stacks of the faded cookbooks he's acquired.

The Judgment

(My 30-year obsession: Elizabeth David Penguin paperbacks, published in the 1950s through the early 1970s. They smell like oxidized wood and vanilla. Caramel-colored penumbras seep around the margins, staining blocks of text. The pages shed like quills if you don’t pry the covers open gingerly, with just the right degree of tension—no bending. A necessary strictness, out of respect, rules the way you approach them.)

A bubblewrap-padded envelope arrives. Ah! My first Piglet book. It’s Diana Henry’s A Bird In the Hand: Chicken Recipes for Every Day and Mood—every recipe is for chicken. Henry is an Irish writer; the bio bit in the back of her book says she has a weekly column in The Sunday Telegraph. I picture newspaper broadsheets open on breakfast tables; toast and jam. Cloth napkins. A Bird In the Hand is not huge or bombastic-looking. You could take it with you to Whole Foods and not struggle with the bulk or feel ridiculous. The cover seems one you could daub with a sponge without hurting anything, though—seriously—who ever wipes down a book?

(This is my Elizabeth David paperback collection: Summer Cooking (1955); French Provincial Cooking (1960); Spices, Salts, and Aromatics in the English Kitchen (1970); three or four more. It’s a faded stack. I assembled it shadowing bookshops in San Francisco and Berkeley, across a year I can still remember the taste of.)

“I wish I had written this book!” Nigella’s blurb is literally on the front cover, above the title. Yes: Diana and Nigella seem part of some urbane and decorously pleasure-loving circle of British food writers. They probably pretend to be amusingly jealous of each other, waving at one another from tables at smart London restaurants. They know the world. Henry’s chicken recipes show an easy-going range of reference, from Spain and France to Korea, Japan, Brazil. North Africa.

If A Bird In the Hand were an American book, there’d be some crushingly, hyperbolically definitive formula for the ultimate roast chicken, but this is not an American book. “It sounds like a cop-out,” Henry writes, “but what I found is that there is no ‘right’ way to roast a chicken.” On the same page: “So much about cooking is to do with your mood, what you can manage, and what’s available.” 

(David, who died in 1992, is the fiercest, most introspective, and caustically intelligent food writer England ever reared. Her writing taught me the importance of evoking place in my own. Her recipes—sketchy; almost, in her early books, impressionistic—conjured moods. Unlike the precise recipe authors who were her contemporaries in America (Julia Child, for instance, tells you how many fractions of teaspoons of pepper to add), David favored loose instructions that trusted readers to rely on their own judgment, even their imaginations. This was partly the times, and the convention of British cookbooks, partly David’s temperament. Maybe she knew some readers would scan her recipes purely as entertainment. She certainly wanted them to know the world better.) 

I cook Chicken Piri Piri, which takes two days—a marinating of jointed legs and thighs overnight in a roasted pepper sauce, then broiling. They’re good: blackened skin, very slight amount of heat, whine of vinegar. Then it’s Pomegranate and Honey-Glazed Chicken Skewers, squarish pieces of thigh meat left to soak with Lebanese pomegranate molasses (had to stop at the Middle Eastern grocery for that), olive oil, honey, and spices, the next night threaded on skewers and grilled. Chicken with Prunes in Red Wine is a Sunday braise that yields tasty juices. These are all dishes with the right scale for a life of work obligations and house clutter you struggle to get an upper hand with. They’re smart, built around simple processes, enhanced by little glory touches and modestly bright flavors. They’re practical—imaginative in a way that doesn’t tax you.

Book two arrives in cardboard I have to cut open with an angled scissor: Senegal by Pierre Thiam (with Jennifer Sit). "Modern Senegalese Recipes," the subtitle goes, "From the Source to the Bowl." Blurbs by Robert Sietsema and Akon (that Akon?), and an intro by Jessica B. Harris. It’s handsome: large, heavy-papered, densely illustrated with photos by Evan Sung. A travel book, too, and a plea for understanding West Africa’s food and traditions—its spirit. 

“I hope,” Thiam says in the preface, “that the readers of this book come away understanding the depth of this cooking and its place in the world so that it is no longer unfathomable, alien, misunderstood—not just forgotten, but unseen.” That’s beautiful.

(David was writing her first recipe collection, A Book of Mediterranean Food, at the end of the 1940s, when British readers under a heavy regime of post-war rationing would have struggled to find a lemon or olive oil, much less a couple of pounds of beef to braise en daube. In the context of its time, it was less a practical manual than a manifesto for pursuing vividness and pleasure and the limits of your own intelligence, written, David later revealed, from a sense of rage at British complacency, mute acceptance of a dreary imposed reality. A Book of Mediterranean Food reaches and aspires. It subverts. This is the test of a cookbook for me: Does it expand my experience of the world, even in small but indelible ways? Does it play on my imagination, urging me to complete a gesture the author’s begun? Does it persuade through seduction?)

Thiam is a chef who lives in New York City, grew up in Senegal, and owned a couple of Brooklyn restaurants, Yolele and Le Grand Dakar, now closed. He’s handsome on page 210, smiling, in good glasses and the simple cotton clothes a fashion site would call “smart menswear basics.” You sense his confidence. “He looks like a J. Crew model,” a friend says, intending it as a compliment. 

I love Thiam’s exposition of Senegalese eating culture—the ingredients and flavor categories that built it, the geographic spread of tastes and dishes. More than anything, I love reading about teranga (“hospitality” in Senegal’s dominant language, Wolof). It’s a style of eating from a big central serving bowl with right hands, everybody taking what’s offered, dipping in for fonio or another grain.

I’m fascinated by fonio, a species of millet with extremely small grains. Taking Thiam up on the book’s promise of modern Senegalese recipes, I make Moringa Veggie Burgers—patties of cooked fonio mixed into mashed yucca with spinach (Thiam’s suggested substitute for moringa leaves, which I can’t find). They’re tricky to fry, and the recipe’s too salty, though the topping of Yassa Onions (caramelized, peppery) is good. So is Tamarind Kani Sauce, a tomatoey condiment throbbing with habanero heat. Tabbouleh-like Mango Fonio Salad is nice, except it has way too much dressing (a whole cup of olive oil in a recipe serving four!). Coconut-Lime-Palm Ice Cream looks amazing—a vivid burnt orange from the red palm oil emulsified into the custard base—but the flavor’s flat, the eau de cologne taste of orange flower water seeping everywhere. Senegal walks confidently as travelogue, an introduction to an intriguing and strangely familiar food culture, but as a cookbook it wobbles.

Henry knows how to satisfy the raw need to get something on the table while slapping gently against your imagination with flavors, cuisines, and ingredients that feel lively but non-dogmatic, leave you curious or wanting more. Senegal is an intriguing dive but frustrating—Thiam is way better at crafting an argument through words and pictures than with recipes. And in any good cookbook, ultimately, it’s the recipes that carry the narrative. A Bird In the Hand is the book I know I’ll prop open on the kitchen counter, conspiring with Henry’s taste, intellect, and experience, almost like we’re acquaintances, flicking an admiring look at each other through the pages.

And the winner is…

A Bird in the Hand

A Bird in the Hand

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Do you Agree?

35 Comments

David March 11, 2016
Love Elizabeth David too, like the author and many commentators here, however, with the inclusion of so many digressions had me wondering whether the reviewer was reviewer the books he was supposed to or self indulgently informing us of his love for Elizabeth David...
 
Anne T. March 11, 2016
How gratifying to know that there are other collectors of Elizabeth David's paperback cookbooks. Elizabeth does indeed deserve a column of her own. Her Mediterranean Food, Italian Food, French Country Cooking, French Provincial Cooking, all inspire and delight beyond the food itself.
 
luvcookbooks March 7, 2016
Do you have Elizabeth davd's bread cookbook? Still remember ordering g it in 1980 as soon as it came out. Also love An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, a book of essays. I think it was published in the mid 80s. Love Summer Cooking in the small penguin edition. Thanks for sharing my obsession.
 
Pastraminator March 7, 2016
Thank you for a such a thoughtful review. Your inclusion and infusion of Elizabeth David mentorship shows the power of how cookbooks affect us and have weight well beyond just recipes. Paula Wolfert, Calvin Trillin, Rick Bayless, Patricia Wells, the list goes on, influence how i look at food and culture. You so gracefully and effortlessly reminded me of these influences. Thank you.
 
alana_chernila March 7, 2016
This review reminds me why I look forward to The Piglet every year--for the writing! There are so many "Best Cookbooks" lists out there, but for me, the stars of The Piglet aren't the books, but the judges. I love watching each of the writers find their way through developing their own criteria for what makes a great cookbook. And maybe it's because I always keep my tiny beat up Penguin copy of Elizabeth David's Summer Cooking close to my desk to remind me what I love in a cookbook? But this review gave me chills. So well done.
 
Dana V. March 7, 2016
Based on all the comments here, I think we should have a national meeting of the Cult of Elizabeth David's Penguin Edition Cookbooks! I imagine the company, and the food, would be fantastic! :)
 
[email protected] March 7, 2016
Yes! Love this book and have many more by the same author which are some of my most food-splattered and most used cookbooks. Good choice!
 
[email protected] March 7, 2016
Yes! Love this book and have many more by the same author which are some of my most food-splattered and most used cookbooks. Good choice!
 
[email protected] March 7, 2016
Yes! Love this book and have many more by the same author which are amongst my most used cookbooks. Good choice!
 
beejay45 March 6, 2016
Another Elizabeth David fan here. I enjoyed reading Birdsall's digressions because they reminded me how much I learned from ED. I have to agree on his choice of a winner. So far, I've been lucky in buying books on unfamiliar cuisines sight unseen, but even a beautiful and informative book, if the recipes are essentially unusable, is going to be a disappointment. Thanks for a good read.
 
Third F. March 5, 2016
I'm happy this book won because I have cooked several recipes that I loved. I would have loved to have read about more of the recipes being tested and less of the artful digressions into the author's fondness of Elizabeth David. (Since Nigella was mentioned I'd like to add how much I wish she could be a judge again. Her reviews of the two cookbooks she was assigned really honored each author. She tested several of the recipes and gave a reasoned analysis of each. Her choice of Heidi Swanson's Supernatural Everyday really opened me up to the body of that author's work. Please invite her back!)
 
duckfat March 5, 2016
Yes. I must use one of her recipes every other week (since it first became available in the US) and have yet to be disappointed. The chicken cooked in milk is a winner as is the chicken in red wine with prunes...they're ALL winners!
 
Radish March 5, 2016
I think we could have left Elizabeth David out of this. She should have a very long article unto herself. I used Diana Henry's book just last night. I have it on a kindle, and really most family cooks, people getting the food on the table, should definitely own this book and in hardback.
 
Bear March 5, 2016
Thrilled about the choice as Diana Henry's book has been THE one I have cooked from time and time again over the last year. And although it might seem a little unfair to have pitched it against 'Senegal' (with so many unusual-hard-to-find ingredients), the Henry book should hold its own all the way to the final! Definitely my top pick for cookbook of the year.
 
Nancy M. March 5, 2016
I love the beautifully written rumination About Elizabeth David ... but I don't think they belong here. I would love to see an expanded version in another context. He does review the books and I appreciate the analysis. I would have liked to see more about the recipes.
 
Sandra March 5, 2016
This review does not work for me at all. There is almost no discussion of the dishes cooked other than a listing of what was made. I found the paranthetical digressions distracting and irrelevant to the review. It does not matter to me what the reviewer thinks about his old cookbook collection in this context - it would be a lovely blog post, but not here. Also, I find it annoying to offensive to find an entire paragraph devoted to describing the Senegal author's appearance and clothing. Seriously? What relevance to the matter at hand does this bring? i did not learn enough about either book to know if I want to explore them further - the last few reviews were quite the opposite. I found myself going to Amazon and wishlisting books immediately.
 
LJ S. March 4, 2016
A very enjoyable examination of both books. And any writing that raises Elizabeth David's visibility is good with me. A Bird in the Hand goes onto my want list.
 
Mickie H. March 4, 2016
yes, great book <br />
 
Susan W. March 4, 2016
Bird in the Hand has, somewhat surprisingly, been my standout cookbook of 2015. Her recipes are decidedly not same old, same old, but nor are they especially challenging or unfamiliar. Birdsall nails it - "practical - imaginative in a way that doesn't tax you." They produce comforting, tasty chicken dinners that you can reasonably get on the table on a weeknight for the most part (some recipes require a little thinking ahead but mostly just for marinade). What Birdsall doesn't mention is that Henry mostly uses dark meat chicken, delicious and yet so often ignored. There are a few chuckles through out in the UK to US English translation (like a recipe that calls for 7 1/2 ounces of carrots - I'm guessing just an odd conversion of metric measurements rather than the need for that exact weight). Overall, it's a book that already has produced some family favorites that will need to be repeated and I look forward to finding more as I cook my way through it. This might not be the book to pull out on a day where you want a cooking challenge, but it's the book to pull out on a Tuesday night when you just want a nice meal and a glass of wine.
 
Ileana M. March 8, 2016
This is so helpful! I've heard Diana Henry interviewed on The Splendid Table podcast a couple times, and she sounds so fun and enthusiastic about good food. Maybe this is the cookbook of hers I finally add to my collection.
 
Susan W. March 10, 2016
It's definitely worth having - chicken is just something that we eat regularly and it's great to have some new recipes for it. The recipes in here are just unusual enough so that it's something different.
 
ChefJune March 4, 2016
I am sad to read this about Senegal. However I find the same is often true of chefs cookbooks who are written "with" a food writer. When it's not the writer's food, I often find the recipes missing "something." Chefs are not recipe writers, and if the person doing the writing is not seriously invested in the project.... well, the results can be -- "wobbly" might even be complimentary. I still want to get the book - for the cultural info if nothing else. I have a good friend who is a chef and educator in Dakar. <br />A book of chicken recipes? Not for me. I could have written that!
 
Greenstuff March 4, 2016
Interesting commentary, something worth exploring. A few Piglets ago, I discovered that cookbook writer JJ Goode was co-author on a diverse set of books I really liked--A Girl and Her Pig, Truly Mexican, and Pok Pok. Maybe I like him more than I like his chefs?<br /><br />As for chicken recipes! I've cooked a chicken or two a week for us at home for decades and thought there'd be no way I'd buy that book. But sometimes Piglet magic happens. At the very least, it will remind me not to ignore Elizabeth David just because I have to open them so gingerly.<br />
 
BoulderGalinTokyo March 7, 2016
ChefJune--interesting comment. But if "cookbooks are written with a FOOD writer", by definition, shouldn't they know how to write recipes?
 
cookinginvictoria March 4, 2016
I love everything about this review. John Birdsall really knows how to write. I adore how he evoked Elizabeth David in this review. I too have a much treasured collection of her Penguin cookery books. They are timeless and make for wonderful reading.