The Dahl House : MEMORIES WITH FOOD AT GIPSY HOUSE, <i> By Felicity and Roald Dahl Viking: $30; 239 pp.</i>
If there’s anything I can’t stand, it’s a celebrity cookbook, especially one filled with color photographs of the food and the Great Person. That’s why the pleasantness of “Memories With Food at Gipsy House” comes as a complete surprise. It’s one of those oddities that occasionally waltz into print, an improbably successful meshing of elements that sound quite feeble in the abstract.
Planned and partly completed by Roald Dahl and his wife, Felicity (“Liccy”), before his death in November, 1990, this British import is an untidy scrapbook of recipes and reminiscences from a few dozen people who have at times traipsed through their lives. Mostly this means siblings, children, colleagues, friends, and a succession of young women who have occupied the post of cook/housekeeper at Gipsy House, the Dahls’ home in Buckinghamshire. The whole is vaguely pasted together by the couple’s introductions to the highly confusing dramatis personae , autobiographical snippets and random thoughts on any subject from children’s parties (“The problem, of course, is how to keep the little stinkers amused in the hour or so before the tea-feast”) to the golden age of British chocolate bars, along with Jon Baldwin’s photographs and scads of family pictures.
The effect of everything, remarkable to say, is exactly what somebody wanted it to be. The Dahls’ part of it is like passing a leisurely afternoon in the company of some agreeable conversationalists, hearing all about their backgrounds and travels and prejudices (“I loathe Christmas”). The assorted kith and kin’s part is like a large, laid-back party where you never remember just who everybody is but have a good time anyhow.
Baldwin’s photographs may be the key to the mystery of why all this works--the sort of harmonious, human, natural-looking accompaniment that professionally styled food photographs almost never are. Even the spot art that is liberally used to fill out columns (cutouts/pasteups of more photographs by Jo Stilwell) have just the right feeling. The one effort that seems to me not to come off is a facsimile section, for which a handful of notables such as P.D. James and Dustin Hoffman were invited to submit their private notions of a night-before-the-execution “hangman’s supper"--a great idea, but the results strike me as on the thin side.
Then there is the food. Needless to say, nobody buys a book like this for the recipes, but it delivers the goods in terms of a solid and genuinely interesting (if unpredictable) selection. The contents are arranged in more or less usual menu categories (the chapter heading “Puddings” doing duty for desserts from fruit salad to jam omelet and “First Courses” including both soups and miscellaneous hors d’oeuvres). A large number of the roughly 150 recipes come from one of the young Gipsy House cooks, Josie Fison (who also tested all the recipes), another sprinkling from a chef/caterer named Marwood Yeatman, who became a friend of the Dahls and also weighs in with some sound thoughts on shopping for food. The rest of the contributors devote themselves to whatever comes into their heads.
And I mean whatever. A page may turn up anything from jugged hare to chile-spiked vodka to a salad dressing consisting entirely of “1/4 tsp salt, 1 clove garlic, 2 tbsp olive oil.” “Savoury Crocodile"--or at least a helpful diagram of same beginning, “Succulent Children or Equivalent as Available"--is supplied by the children’s book illustrator (and Dahl’s longtime collaborator) Quentin Blake.
It’s impossible to generalize about this fare other than to say that most of it is English. Other strains filter in from time to time--even an occasional Americanism. Bananas Foster shows up pretty recognizably as “Rose’s Cajun vanilla bananas” (apparently a contribution of the same in-law elsewhere reverently described as “a far more interesting and complex person than most of us Anglo-Saxons,” on the strength of being “a pure-bred Cherokee Indian”). On the other hand, I have no idea what was the inspiration for “American mustard sauce,” a cornstarch-bound sweet-and-sour custard.
Though not without a Russian-roulette aspect reflecting the varied abilities of 40-odd (some very odd) cooks, this anarchic visitors’ register of dishes certainly could be fun to fool around with. Some of its more attractive byways are rose petal sorbet, a smattering of Norwegian dishes Dahl and his sisters remember from childhood, “Stilton pate,” a very old English cold meat dish called “beef royal,” and a dried apricot-fig-prune compote accented with tea, orange juice and a good slug of brandy. Vegetables are no particular knockout except for several refreshingly unadorned salads. Most people will be sure to find a few things to be deeply unenthusiastic about (I don’t foresee being converted to love of lemonade mixed with a nice nourishing egg, or a baked peanut-oatmeal loaf), but it would be surprising otherwise in such an individualistic collection.
The one serious liability is that the book looks to have been through about half of a successful kitchen Americanization--something that can only be guessed at, since no one troubles to explain how the American edition was prepared. Most measurements were converted from British counterparts seemingly by slide rule, producing things like “1/5 cup blanched almonds” and “1 5/8 cups all-purpose flour.” Some transatlantic terminology seems to have been adjusted as well--e.g., “eggplant” where the British say “aubergine,” or “heavy cream” for “double cream.” Some has been overlooked (“short-grain pudding rice,” “liquidizer”) and some laboriously reworked to yield such oddities as “dry low-alcohol sparkling apple drink,” which may be someone’s attempt to stop the misguided from chucking in the sweet, gutless stuff we confound British drinkers by calling “cider.”
Given that these are fairly unorthodox, free-spirited formulas to begin with, it will take some brains and prior experience to cook from them. Marwood Yeatman’s levelheaded ideas on how to nab really good, fresh local ingredients will also be only semi-comprehensible to many--why didn’t someone provide a guide or glossary explaining a few important terms rather than reprinting a conversion table for Imperial and metric measurements (neither of which is used in this edition anyhow) and a useless list of U.K. suppliers?
Oh, well. Dahl admirers who know their way around a kitchen are in for a treat. Fans who can’t tell a skillet from their elbow can have a great time just paging through looking for stories beginning “I have been a gambler all my adult life. . . . “
Or, “way back in 1938 when I was working in Dar as Salaam for the Shell company . . . .”