Books on the Hide&Seek Shelves: The Art of Eating

23 May 2011 | 0 comments

(This post is part of an occasional series about books on the Hide&Seek bookshelves and why we have them.)

The Art of Eating is a collection of food writing by MFK Fisher. It’s really lovely – Fisher was one of the twentieth century’s best food writers, and The Art of Eating is a great collection. It has recipes, and essays, and advice, and history, and little snippets of stories, and then some more recipes, everything from rationing-era tomato-soup cake to hare pate.

It’s on the shelves because… well, here are some of the things that you need to do when you write up the rules for a game:

  • Make sure the rules work for you
  • Write them up so that other people can understand it, and play it
  • Test to be sure that they can understand what you mean
  • Test to be sure that when they do understand what you mean, and follow instructions, the game works for them

Coincidentally, here are some of the things that you need to do when you’re writing up a recipe:

  • Make sure the recipe works for you
  • Write it up so that other people can understand it, and make it
  • Test to be sure that they understand what you mean
  • Test to be sure that when they do understand what you mean, and follow instructions, the recipe works for them

I had a (haphazard, largely-neglected) food blog for a while, and the “write up a ruleset” process for a game feels so much like the “write up a recipe” process used to – but it’s easier with recipes, because there’s a massive set of conventions about how to do it, and a history of hundreds of years leading to a standard structure that’s easily decoded.

A recipe typically tries to give its readers:

  • An idea of what the food will be like when it’s finished
  • An ingredients list (though not, interestingly, an equipment list, unless there’s something unusual – there’s a standard set of kitchen goods that readers are assumed to have)
  • Details of what you need to do to make it
  • How long it takes
  • Information about how many people it serves and, sometimes, what you might like to combine with it

We all know what a recipe tends to look like, nowadays, and thinking about what you need to tell people before they make some food is really handy when you’re thinking about what you need to tell people before they run a game. It’s interesting too because you can follow the evolution of recipes over time really clearly. If you look back at the Forme of Cury, the first English cookbook, you get recipes like this:

“Take Caboches and quarter hem and seeth hem in gode broth with Oynouns y mynced and the whyte of Lekes y slyt and corue smale [2] and do þer to safroun an salt and force it with powdour douce”.

Even translated, it’s not something you’d find in a cookbook today:

“Take cabbages and quarter them and cook them in a bit of nice broth, with some minced onions and some of the whites of leeks cut up small. Add some saffron, salt and other spices.”

Or there’s this:

Take Colyandre [2], Caraway smale grounden, Powdour of Peper and garlec ygrounde in rede wyne, medle alle þise [3] togyder and salt it, take loynes of Pork rawe and fle of the skyn, and pryk it wel with a knyf and lay it in the sawse, roost þerof what þou wilt, & kepe þat þat fallith þerfro in the rosting and seeþ it in a possynet with faire broth, & serue it forth witþ þe roost anoon

Or to put it another way:

Take coriander, finely-ground caraway, pepper, and some garlic that’s been ground into red wine. Mix it up together and salt it, then take some pork loins and remove the skin. Prick the skin with a knife and lay it in the sauce, roast it with whatever you like, and keep whatever seeps out during the roasting and put it in a posset with some nice broth. Serve it with the roast straight away.

1747, and Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery is broadly similar:

To boil pigeons

BOIL them by themselves, for fifteen minutes, then boil a handsome square of bacon and lay in the middle; stew some spinach to lay round, and lay the pigeons on the spinach. Garnish your dish with parsley laid in a plate before the fire to crisp. Or you may lay one pigeon in the middle, and the rest round, and the spinach between each pigeaon, and a slice of bacon on each pigeon. Garnish with slices of bacon and melted butter in a cup.

This is easy enough to follow for a simple, pigeon-boiling recipe, but the longer recipes – half a page or more of close-set type – begin to get harder and harder to follow: there’s no ingredients list, no idea of how long it might take, just this list of things to do, not even listed in the order you need to do them.

It’s when you get to the nineteenth century, and books like Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, that recipes begin to look more like what we’re used to now:

INGREDIENTS.— To every pint of new milk allow 2 dessertspoonfuls of brandy, 1 dessertspoonful of sugar, and 1–1/2 dessertspoonful of prepared rennet; thick cream, pounded cinnamon, or grated nutmeg.

Mode .— Make the milk blood-warm; put it into a deep dish with the brandy, sugar, and rennet; stir it altogether, and cover it over until it is set. Then spread some thick or clotted cream over the top, grate some nutmeg, and strew some sugar over, and the dish will be ready to serve.

Time .— About 2 hours to set the milk. Seasonable at any time.

And that’s pretty much recipes as we know them. Not quite – the ingredients are often still given as proportions rather than absolute numbers, and formatted as a paragraph rather than a list; the informal “list your ingredients in order of use” rule isn’t yet established. But it looks like a recipe. A twenty-first century cook can follow a Beaton recipe without grumbling.

Structures for game rulesets are much less clearly defined, but they do follow a similar trajectory, growing more specific and itemised – this, from Philip Sydney, in the late sixteenth century…

Then couples three be straight allotted there,
They of both ends, the middle two, do fly;
The two that in mid-place Hell called were
Must strive, with waiting foot and watching eye,
To catch of them, and them to hell to bear,
That they, as well as they, may hell supply;
Like some that seek to salve their blotted name
Will others blot, till all do taste of shame.

…through to the careful, clear rules in the recent flurry of parlour game books like Josie Curran’s Organised Fun.

So that’s part one of the reason for having Fisher around: food writing and game writing have some useful parallels, at least to people who are really keen on (a) food and (b) games. But why Fisher specifically?

Well. Back in food writing, and parallel with the development of recipe conventions, books began to come out from  people like Brillat-Savarin, whose his Physiology of Taste is a gorgeous discursive rambling book full of everything its writer thought about food (it turns out that this is quite a lot – see for example Are Truffles Indigestibles?). There are game books that are a bit like this, too: Jesse Schell’s The Art of Game Design and Raph Koster’s A Theory of Fun for Game Design are broad and occasionally gently tangential, and bring in lots of different stuff that Schell and Koster think about games. There’s a strong sense of personality, there are miniature essays, there are tiny anecdotes.

So there are analogues in game writing to a lot of food writing: to straightforward recipe books, to more abstracted or sociological thinking. But there’s not, as far as I’m aware, a real analogue to MFK Fisher.

Fisher uses recipes to illustrate her essays, and essays to link her recipes. She has chapters titled “The Social Status of a Vegetable” and “How To Make a Pigeon Cry” and “Love and Death among the Molluscs”. And although she’s unusually good, within food writing she’s not unusual in her mode of communication, her mix of essay-advice-history-autobiography-recipe; it’s one of the standards of food-writing now, turning up everywhere from little-read food blogs to massively-selling books like Nigella Lawson’s How To Eat.

It’s a mode I really like, and I haven’t yet found it in games writing (with the exception of books that chronicle playground games) – so instead there’s Fisher on the shelves, filling the conceptual gap between The Penguin Book of Word Games and Man, Play and Games - just, you know, without actually being about games at all.

Pictures by PetersPic924 and The Purple Foodie.

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