The history of food is a tale of two cities-- the urban cuisine of European aristocrats married to the lesser known fare of the common laborer. Until recently, the former has dominated the culinary landscape in America. Our imagination is captured more by the haute cuisine of France and Italy than by tales of unleavened bread. As the rich indulged in luxurious ingredients they could afford-- beef, butter, and cream-- the poor were making do with broth, black bread, and the occasional piece of fish or pork.
For example, the history-book description of nineteenth-century England is really the story of a mere ten thousand aristocrats at the height of the Victorian period. One London dinner party described in What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew (Simon & Schuster, 1993), not atypical for the times, included turtle soup, turbot with lobster, red mullet with Cardinal sauce, oysters, chicken, sweetbreads, lamb cutlets, asparagus, peas, roast saddle of mutton, salad, beetroot-- and this is merely the first course. For seconds, one tucked into goose, plover's eggs in aspic jelly, and a mayonnaise of fowl. For sweets, one confronted a macédoine of fruit, meringues a la créme, a marasquino jelly, and chocolate cream. Dessert was a separate course including two ices, cherry-water and pineapple cream, and then fruit. During the height of the social season, the diners would then adjourn to a ball which, of course, included a sit-down supper (dances with but a simple buffet were considered déclassé).
While these gentlemen and ladies were, as an English friend of mine puts it, "shoving it down the old cake-hole," the rest of England was making do with somewhat simpler fare. The poor lived on gruel made from oats or barley, bread, and onions, potatoes, or bacon. Lower-class Englishmen ate cheese rather than butter and fish rather than meat, because they were cheaper. The average farm laborer had but one hot meal per week - fuel was prohibitively expensive. On Sunday and Christmas, the poor took their geese or other meals to the local baker to get them cooked, as did the Cratchits in A Christmas Carol.
Although America's true culinary legacy is one of immigrant cooking, more peasant than noble (in Joy of Cooking one finds both Bouchées à la Reine and poached muskrat - a mind-boggling range of culinary pursuits), a majority of cookbook authors and cooking schools have, up until the 1980s, preferred the cuisine of courts and kings. Even today, many culinary academies are more likely to include Charlotte Russe in their curriculum than how to cook pot roast (Jan/Feb 1994) or how to roast beets. But times are changing.
Due perhaps to an interest in healthy eating, the trend in America and in Europe is finally headed downstairs. The three-star restaurants of Paris are in trouble - bistro food is gaining the upper hand. Cookbooks that offer recipes for vacherins, terrines, meat pies en croñte, galantines, or ballotines seem dated, like cigarette ads from the 1950s. Julia Child's definitive The Way To Cook (Knopf, 1989) devotes 112 pages to vegetables and salads. Good old-fashioned peasant cooking - more root and green vegetables, more grains, less meat, less butter - meets the needs of home cooks in the 1990s: it's easy to prepare, healthy, and satisfying.
As we simplify our approach to the culinary arts, we are coming closer to the notion of good cooking expressed in this publication - fresh, wholesome ingredients honestly prepared with attention to technique and detail. A perfectly prepared tomato sauce with fresh garlic, aromatic olive oil, good canned tomatoes, and shreds of basil is more inspiring and more of a tribute to the culinary arts than a sideboard groaning with cutlets, meringues, and ices. It isn't just that the haute cuisine of Europe is not practical for home cooks (it isn't, unless drastically modified, as with our puff pastry recipe), it's that simpler fare is often better, bringing out the true nature of foods, their natural flavors, textures, and aromas.
On the first anniversary of Cook's Illustrated, I can say that we have rediscovered complexity in simplicity and have been inspired by revelations found in the loving pursuit of good home cooking. I'm reminded of a well-known Italian cook's response to my question about fancy plate presentation. He said, with more than a hint of irritation, "Properly cooked food always looks good on the plate." That's exactly right. Cook's Illustrated is firmly ensconced, downstairs in the kitchen - and we hear footsteps on the stairs. We think it's about time.