`Jane Grigson's Vegetable Book' by the leading English culinary writer, recently deceased, Jane Grigson is ample evidence that the greatest legacy left to the culinary reading world by the great Elizabeth David is the tradition of English food writing, of which Grigson is the most brightly shining star. The tradition includes such diverse other writers as Nigella Lawson, Nigel Slater, Tamasin Day-Lewis, Claudia Roden, Antonio Carluccio, and the irrepressible Jamie Oliver.
Short of Elizabeth David's own books, I can think of no better armchair culinary treat than Grigson's larger books such as her `English Food', `Jane Grigson's Fruit Book', `Good Things' and this title on vegetables.
It is very easy to see the value of this book, as there are a number of excellent vegetable cookbooks easily available to us today. In spite of the number, most of the best books by the likes of James Peterson, Jack Bishop, Barbara Kafka, Alice Waters and Faith Willinger are mostly simply collections of recipes. Some, such as Bishop and Willinger's works, are even limited to Italian vegetables and recipes, although that subject is certainly large enough for a whole bookshelf of volumes.
The best book with which to compare Grigson's work is Elizabeth Schneider's `Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini', which covers 131 different species or groups of species, while Ms. Grigson covers 71 named vegetables and vegetable families (both authors cover more than one species in many of their articles). Part of the difference is that Ms. Schneider includes articles on twelve (12) mushroom species, while Ms. Grigson has her own separate book on mushrooms. Another difference is that Ms. Grigson includes much more culinary information, both general advice, techniques, and recipes, than does Ms. Schneider. The biggest difference is in the general tone of the two books. Ms. Schneider's work is clearly based on the German-influenced American style of reference book where the premium is in matter-of-factness and completeness. To that end, Ms. Schneider certainly has the superior book when you may want to track down a fact about a vegetable, but if you simply want to find out as much as you can about cooking in as enjoyable manner as possible, you simply must get Ms. Grigson's book. And... the fact that Jane Grigson's Penguin paperback book costs about one-fifth of Ms. Schneider's hardback tome is no small concern.
A small sample of the kind of rare and enchanting detail you will find in Grigson is the following quote on Lettuce and Lettuce Salads. "In his carved chapel at Karnak, the pharaoh Senusret I, of the Middle Kingdom, offers the god Min two flasks of milk. Min raises a smooth arm against the background of three tall lettuces in detailed relief. They stand on a grid that is thought to represent the filed they are growing in. For the Egyptians, Min was the ithyphallic god of increase. Lettuces were sacred to him, perhaps because of the `straight vertical surge' of their growth..." See, vegetables were sexy long before Frank Zappa wrote a song about them! And, Grigson sprinkles her narrative with stories from both the ancient past and her own travels in search of seasonally interesting vegetables.
This is not to say Schneider offers no interesting anecdotes. She does. But her hard culinary advice always seems just a bit off the point. Comparing the two authors' articles on asparagus, we find Schneider concentrating on white and purple asparagus, which is odd, because while I see white asparagus only in high end megamarts, and then only now and then, I can get green asparagus at any greengrocer department any time of the year. Schneider also has but four relatively ordinary recipes for asparagus compared to Grigson's nine much more interesting recipes. And, Grigson gives us tips on cooking asparagus that I simply have never read elsewhere or seen in spite of half a decade dedicated to watching the Food Network.
Some may be annoyed by Grigson's Anglocentric point of view, but I simply find this a delightful change from both the Italiophiles and the Deborah Madison / Alice Waters farmer's market Mafia. To aid the provincial among us, there is an Anglo-American glossary for translating aubergines to `eggplant' and other local terms. If your culinary library is a bit light, the Appendices contain much useful information on basic techniques. Even if you are an experienced foodie, these notes may offer some useful tips you have not encountered in other books. The digest of sauce and stock recipes alone is worth the visit to this chapter. Like Patience Gray's great book `Honey from a Weed', you constantly find yourself encountering rare, but unusual intelligence. For example, in a short paragraph on pancakes, Ms. Grigson questions the wisdom of letting a batter sit for an hour before starting the cakes on the griddle. Alternately, she recommends adding a bit of beer, ale, or even brandy to lighten things up. Yowzaa!
The only drawback of Ms. Grigson's otherwise superb book is the fact that it has no photographs of her subject or on the techniques used to prep them. The proper ways to deal with an artichoke certainly come to mind. In contrast, Schneider's big, glossy book has plenty of pics. But then, if you happen to have three or more cookbooks, odds are good that one of the others has the lowdown in pictures on how to wrangle a mature artichoke. Ms. Grigson has what you need to make the best of it once you have wrestled it to the ground.
For serious foodies, this book is a must!