Last month I did my first spring cleaning ever. Due to a diminished capacity for nostalgia, I plan not to have another for about 20 more years.
But one thing that had been lurking under a pile of stuff did jog a lot of memories: “The Impoverished Student’s Book of Cookery, Drinkery, & Housekeepery,” by Jay F. Rosenberg (Reed College Alumni Assn., 1965). It was the only cookbook a lot of my friends owned at UC Berkeley. Originally issued as a mimeographed pamphlet in 1963 when Rosenberg was still an undergraduate at Reed, then as a printed booklet two years later with additional sections on how to construct a brick-and-board bookcase and make homebrewed beer, it gave 30 basic, indestructible recipes that not even the greenest freshman could ruin.
The reason we all plunked down $1.25 for the book, apart from the promise of good cheap eats, was its undiluted college kid tone, grandiose, painfully self-conscious and fond of nerdy whimsy. This makes it fairly insufferable reading today. Rosenberg referred to his spouse as his “guid wyfe” and designed his table of contents as a “decision tree,” an early version of the computer flow chart.
The food reflects the pre-Julia Child age, which was also the pre-student loan age, a time of ritual Friday night spaghetti feeds with jug wine and homebrew. The moment they could afford it, the people who bought this book would surely have moved up to the great talismans of ‘60s gourmet-hood--a pepper mill, a wooden salad bowl and the rudimentary drip coffee maker called the Chemex.
Rosenberg gave recipes for homely basics: onion rings using buttermilk pancake mix for the batter, tuna noodle casserole, beef casserole with cheese and hominy (which he called “howmany casserole,” I regret to say). But he also included Turkish imam bayildi , a genuine Hungarian goulash and a broiled chicken with tarragon or rosemary that could pass for French or Italian, though the mid-'60s was a time when “ethnic” ingredients could be hard to find--the book calls for “frozen or canned” tortillas.
Despite the aura of college town squalor (indeed, of what would later be called grunge), the book had a certain degree of sophistication. A few of Rosenberg’s seasoning hints have stood the test of time, at least in my opinion: “Anywhere that tomato appears, basil will be welcome.” “It is difficult (though not impossible) to misuse garlic.”
And one of the dishes, from the section of the three relatively expensive dishes titled “When the Faculty Comes to Dinner,” I cooked quite often over the next decade. Rosenberg’s Chalupas still exemplify the exuberance of undergraduates who little guessed how unsophisticated they really were.