Where’s the Tamale Pie?

This week’s book is Helen Evans Brown’s West Coast Cook Book, published in 1952. Brown was a close friend of James Beard and published widely in magazines. This book contains recipes that Brown thought were especially, though perhaps not uniquely, “West Coast,” including recipes from California, Oregon, and Washington.

She wrote about West Coast cooking as part of an improvisational, casual culture: “This is a book of West Coast cuisine–if anything as simple as our cookery can be called a cuisine.” The casual style is reflected in a chapter titled “Barbecuing and Charcoal Grilling.” Although Brown referred to great pit barbecue feasts in California’s history, she focused on the smaller scale: “When we speak of barbecuing, we usually mean charcoal grilling, and refer to individual or family-sized pieces.”

Brown includes an unusually large number of recipes identified as Chinese and Mexican throughout the regular sections of the book. Her introduction tells readers that of all the “foreign” foods cooked in California, “I have admitted only those that have been generally adopted or adapted by us,” assuming an Anglo-American audience. What she seems to mean is those Chinese and Mexican dishes that were most often enjoyed by readers like herself in restaurants. For example, her recipe for “Chinese Garlic Lobster, begins “Chow hung hai is what this is called, or so it sounds to me. It’s a favorite among habitues of the best Chinese restaurants.” Although she gives a recipe for making tortillas, she admits that “most of us bow our heads to progress and purchase the inferior machine-made jobs.”

As we might expect, there are lots of seafood recipes featuring abalone, crab, and salmon, foods that are special to this region. Brown also wrote a section about wine which marked her as a “gourmet”or taste leader and also as a booster of California’s wine industry. “The most important thing,” she argued “is that we have our own wines, and that they are worthy ones … Today there are many of us who, knowing the really fine wines that can be produced by California vintners, are well content to forget those of Europe. Forget, not compare them.” She wasn’t going to give up drinking French wine, just stop drinking Californian wines with France on her mind.

Something that sets this book apart from others of its era is a section dedicated to descriptions of local cheeses. While Americans ate cheese in this period, they do not seem to have thought about varieties of cheese very much or to have thought of themselves as a cheese-making nation. Brown wrote about Oregonian Tillamook, which is still well known, but also the much more obscure Sierra, made in Novato, California. She described Sierra as “small and round, weighing only 4 ounces, it is somewhat like a Neufchatel, somewhat like a Camembert.” Eating cheese at breakfast, Brown noted, “is a pleasant West Coast habit.”

For me, the most interesting recipe is the refusal to give a recipe.

Her entry for Tamale Pie, a popular dish in the first half of the Twentieth century, reads:

“Tamale pie is disowned by many Mexicans, though there are recipes for it in some of their cook books. There are, in fact, recipes for it in far too many cook books, so those who like it—and many apparently do—should have no trouble in learning how to make it.”

She refuses to give a recipe, and yet she mentions the dish all the same. What is happening here? Brown is establishing her credentials not only as someone who knows all about “authentic” Mexican food (even better than some Mexicans, she implies), but also as a taste-leader for Americans. For Brown, striving to improve what she saw as errors in American food culture, it was not enough to exclude tamale pie, she had to mock it, too.

The entry is inspiring in a way. What would a cookbook look like that only included foods the author did not like?


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