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Grand Title – Great Expectations

18 juli 2022 door in Blog, English, Foodhistory |

When you choose a book, you want to have an idea about what it’s going to be like. The title and subtitle will tell you, of course. Or do they? The cover might give an indication what kind of book it is, whom it should appeal to. The back cover will tell you about the author and a bit about the reason the book exists. The index will tell you about the content and the introduction about the way the subject is tackled and presented. In the ideal situation.

Title, cover, first introduction don’t necessarily tell you about the book as it really is. Or as you expect it to be. So all of a sudden you might be reading a book written by anti-Darwinists because the title and index are related to evolution. But the content turns out to be the opposite. Just an example where expectations don’t match the reality. You have to learn to look beyond the external presentation and know a little about the subject, preferably. Even when a book is highly recommended.

This I learned a long time ago, at university.  We organized biweekly course during a trimester to learn how to analyse and value a book or an article. What were the things to look for, to judge, to ponder about, to discuss. Of course, the first was: does the title cover the content of the book. And for this little blog I’ll stick to that first item.

Let’s take a book I was reading about spices. It has a grand title: ‘Grand traité des épices’ and was published in 2011, the author is Mireille Gayet (large format, 229 pages). A ‘grand traité raises expectations. Further reading told me that Gayet also published a couple of books starting with ‘Petit traité’. Interesting.

Mireille Gayet works at the National Research Centre CNRS in France and has travelled widely looking for fossils, but as she also is a keen cook, she researched the spices and herbs and the spice mixes as intensively on all the continents she visited. Her books you’ll find here:

So, when I see a book with a great title, like ‘Grand traité des épices’ I expect a book that has a scientific footing and a ‘gründliche’ (why a German word? Well, that’s almost self-explanatory ) approach. In this case, the book follows those ‘rules’. The introduction – also something to be studied – explains how she tackled the subject. A definition of ‘spices’ as well. A botanical description, a quick history since it was discovered (what does she mean by that?), a presentation in its function of spice, medicinal and toxic powers, how it can be used in the kitchen, and possibly cosmetics and perfume. Gayet limits herself to 70 spices, leaving the herbs to another volume.

Two pages are dedicated to the definition, a bit more to the ‘short history’. Then a detailed description of the selected spices. I won’t go in detail, I’ve scanned a page. Be kind to yourself, buy the book, when you’re interested in spices. And no commercial ties, readers, I never have or I mention them clearly. I buy books, it’s good for the authors, the publishers and the bookshops. An expensive hobby, but I don’t do sports, all I need is a comfortable chair and good light and a cup of tea or a glass of water. Can do. If not, there’s the library, and many publications are on line these days, such as the excellent Histoire des Légumes (2003), also a CNRS-publication:

Klik op de afbeelding voor een grote versie
Klik op de afbeelding voor een grote versie

So, when a ‘grand traité’ covers all this, then maybe a book with an XXL title like ‘The Philosophy of Curry’ should be a smash hit. It’s THE philosophy, not A philosophy, not MY philosophy. We’re not zapping through the subject of curry, with a title like that, are we? Well…

That’s where I went wrong. I didn’t know that it is part of a British Library series ‘The Philosophy Of’, and that the publishers are happily throwing their authors in a snake pit. For it is of course rather impossible to write The Philosophy of an intriguing subject as curry on the back of a postcard (small format, 106 pages). Or coffee, or tea or beer for that matter. With limited pages to fill on such a vast subject one has to make a careful selection, and try to kill all your darlings over and over. It can only be done if you stick to the helicopter view and don’t get side tracked or dive too deep into some well-loved sub-subjects, in which case the narrative will get out of balance. With help from a good editor it can be done, I expect. It’s a proposition that would probably frighten me into years of writers block.

It’s also why in my opinion this book is disappointing. Grand title, big expectations. Couldn’t be met, weren’t met. Apart from perhaps trifling things like a pretty myopic British approach to the spice trade (p. 24, 32 etc), and a sort of geographical hiatus between India and Europe, and a rather odd take on the history of sugar (p 21 “Jewish settlers [ in India] introduced sugar …”) and the ‘Indische Rijsttafel’ (p 84; blog: ) it’s a nice, though at time rambling and confusing read. Because of the details on certain themes and the short cuts on others. I very much liked the chapter on the earliest Indian curries, being a great fan of the books of K.T. Achaya.

I have totally different memories when being introduced to the Indian restaurants of Salisbury and London in the early seventies, btw, where a fellow student from Surinam-hindu background guided us through the menu (with a lot of interaction with the kitchen staff). With much laughter and beer, I’m afraid. Not representative of course. But nothing like the description on pages 65 etc.

I read on line that the author of The Philosophy of Curry, Sejal Sukhadwala, is currently writing an Encyclopaedia of Indian food. I have great expectations. I’m sure it will be a great book.

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