Grant Smithies: Cooking the way it should be

Back then, it was just food. And the food we ate came from the Edmonds Cook Book.

History books: an early edition of the much-loved Edmonds Cook Book.

History books: an early edition of the much-loved Edmonds Cook Book.

A wreck, a joke, a travesty. A downright abomination. So old, so battered, so  broken, and yet I remain useful, and so does my old Edmonds Cookery Book,  which I have owned since primates first swung down from the trees and  began to walk upright and eat with a knife and fork.

What year was it printed? Buggered if I know. Both covers are long gone, so  this photo shows someone else's more presentable copy. My own ain't pretty,  with shredded and missing pages, a knackered binding, and the most popular  sections splattered with cake batter and home-made tomato relish. I slowly  peeled apart two food-glued pages one day to see what I was missing and  found a large yellow ring of mummified onion, perfectly preserved beside the  recipe for Mustard Pickle.  It's a feast for the eyes and the memory, this book. To read the recipes is to  smell warm baking in your mum's kitchen. These are the dishes I grew up  with, before anyone ever thought to call them "dishes." Back then, it was just  food, and the food we ate was in the Edmonds Cookery Book.

Date Slice. Neenish Tarts. Louise Cake. Lamingtons. It's an embarassment of  riches, this book, and proudly old-fashioned. Bugger Google. If you want to  make mustard sauce to go with hot corned beef, you look in here. If you  suddenly come over all nostalgically peckish for your nana's curried  sausages, that's here, too; it's just a basic white sauce with added curry  powder, slathered over sausages that have been boiled until the skins slide  off like saggy condoms. And yet- it's utterly delicious!

The Edmonds tells it like it is, or at least, like it was. It fights faddish food,  overly complex food and spurious food-wank during a time when so much  tried and tested tucker is being diminished by unnecessary reinvention.  Every second café now offers revved-up versions of old favourites that were  better the first time around. Do we really want Ginger Crunch without the  crunch, the oversweet icing studded with lumps of crystallized root ginger atop  a thick oaty base? We do not. Ginger Crunch should be hard as hell and thin as a poor man's wallet, the icing hot with powdered ginger.  

First published in 1908, the Edmonds has since sold over three million copies  across multiple reprints, making it this country's biggest selling book by a  country mile. Like The Beatles, the Edmonds is more popular than Jesus, with  The Bible way down the bestsellers list and persistently misclassified as non- fiction.

But while I have no truck with God, I have an unshakeable faith in the  Edmonds. That magnificent sunburst logo. The 'Sure To Rise' motto that's  now the punchline for rude honeymoon jokes and ravers' T-shirts. The  abundant weirdness to be found within its less-travelled pages.

I suppose it's possible that someone with an autumn glut of beetroot and a  spare packet of blackcurrent jelly crystals might want to boil and slice the  former then suspend the slices in a wobbly bowl of the latter to make Beetroot  Mould. "Delicious," it says here, "with cold meats." But do we really need to know how to make Colonial Goose, Veal Birds or  'Mysterious Pudding'? Is the world crying out for another helping of Luncheon  Sausage Cornets?

It's perhaps this scattering of the redundant and the unpalatable in ancient  "deluxe" editions like mine that's led to the publication this month of a  stripped-down version called Edmonds Classics: New Zealand's Favourite  Recipes (RRP $29.99) – a greatest hits collection, if you will, with the featured  recipes chosen by you, the general public.   Late last year, publishers Hachette NZ invited New Zealanders to nominate  their favourite Edmonds recipes, and the top five were Banana Cake,  Afghans, Ginger Crunch, Scones and Pikelets, with unimpeachable culinary  classics such as Yoyos, Pavlova and Bacon and Egg Pie further down the list.  

"A couple have disappeared since the last edition," says Ruby Mitchell,  marketing manager at Hachette. "But really, the Top 20 hasn't changed much  in over a decade. I'm not surprised Banana Cake's at the top. I made a lot of  things from the Edmonds when I was a child, but the only one I still make  today is Banana Cake."  The most notable newcomer is Cinnamon Cream Oysters, that unfortunate  name suggesting an unholy combo of salty mollusc, coagulated dairy product  and spice. "I know, yes, it does sound pretty dodgy, but they're delicious! Lots  of people wrote in saying how much they loved them, and that's why they've  made the Top 20."

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 - Sunday Star Times

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