Book Review: Memories with Food at Gipsy House (AKA Roald Dahl Cookbook!)

When I moved out of my mom’s house and into a room above a garage, I didn’t take many of my books with me. It didn’t really seem like it could possibly be a long term thing. But life took over and books found their way into my new home, and as a result, a lot of the books that I love so much are still at my mom’s house in a kind of cryogenic freeze.

A few weeks ago, I asked my mom if she had seen somewhere in her bookcases a book about roses. I knew right where it had been– in the shelf by the floor furnace, under the shelf with the 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica that I had used so much before the internet blew up (that explains a ton, doesn’t it?). There was a rose mystery I had to solve, and some things are just easier in a book than on the internet. Sure, there are entire rose databases online, but they have to load and they seem to take foreverrrrrr, and all I really want to do is look something up in a freaking index once in a while. And then turn to an actual page. Boom! No loading. I miss those days of research, where you surfed card catalogs for ideas instead of Google. But I digress.

This was the rose mystery. The one on the right is the rose that has been blooming in that spot for years. The one on the left is some kind of grandparent to it, but I wanted to know what, exactly.
This was the rose mystery. The one on the right is the rose that has been blooming in that spot for years. The one on the left is some kind of grandparent to it, but I wanted to know what, exactly.

Of course, as I was explaining the book’s last known location, my mom gently reminded me that I’d moved out in 2000. Fourteen years ago. Whut. Logically, in the tiny part of my brain that is sane, I must have known that since I have a nine year old daughter and since I will have been married for a dozen years in June, that I have been out of my mom’s house for a long time. Logically I knew this. It was still a shock.

Still, she gamely searched and found some cookbooks and other gardening books instead.

One of them was Memories with Food at Gipsy House. I remember buying it in the bargain bin of B. Dalton at the mall, before there was a Borders, and maybe even before there was a Barnes & Noble. It’s one of those talky sorts of cookbooks, which seemed odd and hodgepodge to me at the time, but now is the era of Lebovitz and Ottolenghi and blogs and lots and lots of talking and reminiscing about food, food, food. At the time, I was just ecstatic that the writer of some of my favorite books had collaborated on a cookbook with his wife!

My old Post-Its are still in there, too. Apparently, I was interested in cranberry sauce and Easter cakes. When I bought this, I was not a driver and I didn’t do the grocery shopping. I would have had to make do with whatever we had in the house already, so that sounds about right. Now I’m more curious about the sloe gin and a herring terrine.

It’s a very British– or maybe just pan-European?– collection of recipes interspersed with Quentin Blake illustrations and reminisences from the Dahls and their kids and former foreign exchange students and au pairs. I don’t know how many of these recipes I’ll actually make, but I see some of them very definitely as future experiments. That’s how I look at a lot of recipes, actually, if they aren’t Greek or at least Mediterranean-based. New vegetable? Hm. How can I fix it so that it has the right texture and doesn’t lose color? What the heck kind of fish is that? Can I bread it? Can I eat this flower? What can I do with teff? These are the kinds of things I take away from cookbooks, mores than actual recipes.

And so I got to thinking about what my life was like when I bought the cookbook, compared to now. My mom had just divorced my stepfather. My grandfather had either already died, or was still at the convalescent hospital in Fowler. I couldn’t drive and just went to school and home, school and home. I was an Anglophile and immersed myself in mysteries, PBS and collected Baedekers, dictionaries and atlases. I hadn’t had a boyfriend and wondered how that would ever be possible. In some ways I was incredibly insulated, but sometimes isolation can make you grow up quickly.

Now I’m married to someone who also collects cookbooks. We even buy them for each other, flip through them together at the kitchen table or on the couch, and think out loud about the ingredients. I still have a tendency to not leave the house– and I honestly don’t know if it’s habit or an actual thing. PBS is still really the only TV channel I care about, but my atlases are still at my mom’s house, and I had to buy one for my daughter a few weeks ago. I was appalled (appalled!!!) when she asked me if Sweden was in Europe. And to make matters worse, there wasn’t even an atlas in the house! Jeepers. It was a low-mom-point.

I suppose this isn’t really a book review, but a book reverie. But that’s kind of what the cookbook is, too. A collection of memories that you may or may not end up cooking, but you can read and reflect upon them and think about Dahl and the lives of his extended family. It makes a nice break from reading about his affairs and the drama associated with his earlier years and first marriage. I like the older, sedate Dahl, the one who hates Christmas and grows a ginormous onion patch in his back yard. And I also like that it makes me think about my own life and how my own memories are connected to cooking.

Maybe I should write a cookbook like this– just for myself and for my daughter to read when she is older and can follow a recipe. It’s tempting! But why not?

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