12 April 2012

Book Review: "Forgotten Skills of Cooking" by Darina Allen

Quick review

Rating: 4½ stars

Summary: Far more than just a cookbook, Forgotten Skills of Cooking is like an encyclopedia of skills and knowledge that's invaluable to those interested in living a truly self-reliant lifestyle. The book also belongs on preppers' shelves since it will teach you how to find and prepare food when your local stores and restaurants will be shut down for an extended period of time. My one nitpick is that the massive amount of information complicates the book's organization. Happily, that's easily overcome as you use the book more often.

Full review

Forgotten Skills of Cooking by Darina Allen is more than just a cookbook. As the title mentions, the book also focuses on "forgotten skills" related to cooking. The back of the book claims to offer the "definitive modern guide to traditional cooking skills." I think it delivers on this in a big way.

As is common, the book kicks off with an introduction. Because of my writing background, I almost always read introductions, since they often discuss the structure of the book or present other helpful information about it.

However, in this case, Allen's introduction is valuable reading in its own right. Spanning eight pages, the introduction is essentially broken into five essays, with subheadings that include "eating good food in season" and "thrifty cooking." Although they're essentially separate pieces, they all  generally describe what modern generations have lost in food knowledge and skills.

The bulk of the book follows the introduction, and is divided into 13 primary chapters as follows:
  • Foraging
  • Fish
  • Game
  • Beef
  • Dairy
  • Eggs and Poultry
  • Pig
  • Lamb
  • Vegetables, Herbs, and Salad
  • Preserving
  • Desserts
  • Cakes and Cookies
  • Bread

Each of these chapters holds a wealth of information. They start off with some basic information about the topic, typically as it relates to Allen's life and experiences. She then provides how-to material on acquiring the food in question (growing, hunting, etc.), along with related terminology and tips interspersed.

For example, the chapter on Lamb (one of the shortest ones) starts with the introductory narrative, then discusses the cuts of lamb along with a simple, clear diagram. Next is a discussing on Roasting lamb, with several subsections of advice on how to prepare the meat, roasting it, resting the finished product, and making gravy. After that is several pages of lamb recipes, each with a paragraph of overview and tips. Following the overall Roasting part are some pages focused on Slow Cooking lamb meat, then others for Stews, Offal, and Mutton and Hogget, before concluding the chapter with "the Doyenne of Mutton Pies."

Each chapter is set up more or less like the Lamb example above. The text is also broken up with side bars and/or full pages of related trivia or other useful information. There are plenty of full color photographs within  Forgotten Skills of Cooking. Many are decorative, but the majority are presented to illustrate a recipe or some portion of the narrative.

The book concludes with very brief sections on Household Tips, Resources, a pretty good Index, and Acknowledgements. The Household Tips cover using common household ingredients as cleaning agents and household first aid remedies. The Resources are two pages of additional books and websites (divided up by the chapters' topics) for the reader to find out more.

Honestly, the layout and organization of the book is why I docked my rating by a half star. It's not terrible, but it's not immediately obvious and clear either. It may take some readers a while to settle in with how it's organized, and could be off-putting to a few.

To be fair, part of the issue is that there is a ton of information here. As such, it'd be exceptionally challenging to really improve things without reducing the photographs or increasing the page count. The images are necessary, not only to communicate more effectively, but also to give the reader a rest. And, since the reader is already at risk of a hernia with Forgotten Skills of Cooking (it clocks in at 600 pages, sized at 8½" x 11"), increasing the page count is probably not an option.

With a book this size, it's fortunate that Allen writes in clear, relaxed, and engaging manner. It's kind of like how a very knowledgeable mentor or grandparent might pass along practical information intermixed with stories about "how it used to be." It turns out, that's a very natural approach for her, since she founded and runs the "world-reknowned" cookery school at Ballymaloe in County Cork, Ireland.

All in all, this book offers the information that most people would have naturally learned 100 years ago. Learning the skills described in Forgotten Skills of Cooking, and then using them, will take you a long way toward being self-reliant.

The recipes the book contains might seem exotic or a bit foreign at first, but that's only because it's left the modern world of food behind. In its place is a more hands-on, visceral style of food preparation and eating.

One can (rightfully) get a sense of real accomplishment in preparing from-scratch recipes in a typical cookbook; however, using these recipes can move beyond that. How much more amazing would it feel to actually be involved in finding, hunting, or growing food on your own, processing it, and then making it into something that's delicious?

That's real self-reliance.

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