The Practical Encyclopedia of East European Cooking
by Catherine Atkinson and Trish Davies
Published by Lorenz Books
256 pages, 1999
Buy it online
East of What?
Reviewed by Linda L. Richards
On first take, The Practical Encyclopedia of East European Cooking is a breathtaking book. Almost coffee table-sized, with beautiful illustrations of tempting recipes, at first glance East European Cooking appears to be the nearly perfect addition to the cookbook libraries of those of us who don't believe in cholesterol.
The book has almost everything going for it: a great premise, wonderful food styling and recipes with clear and concise instructions. On closer inspection, however, you can't help but see that East European Cooking's basic premise is flawed. Or, at the very least, the authors' sense of geography is imperfect. For the purpose of the book, Eastern Europe has been hacked into three fairly puzzling chunks: Russia, the Ukraine and Poland are chunk one. Germany (Eastern Europe?), Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic are chunk two and Romania, Bulgaria and the East Adriatic comprise the final chunk.
Given the fact that the authors had considerable means at their disposal to create a truly comprehensive book (East European Cooking is large, fat, glossy and gives every appearance of being high budget) it seems odd and almost criminally naive to blithely lump practically unrelated cuisines together while -- with the stroke of a pen -- failing to lump in cuisines that do have commonalities. The food of Germany, for example, has little in common with that of Austria, Hungary and the Czech Republic (though these latter three are fine together). And what of poor Holland and Switzerland? Certainly if Germany is now in Eastern Europe, these countries also belong there. Unless, of course, we're treating "East" in a strictly political way. In which case, you certainly wouldn't include Bavarian specialties like Black Forest Cake (which is, of course, included).
What's included in the book is grand: over 185 recipes from the selected countries; no matter how oddly those countries are lumped. More than 800 color photographs and drawings add to the taste appeal and sometimes illustrate technique.
However, what's not included is more perplexing than what is. For instance, how can a cookbook that includes "encyclopedia" in the title and Austria in the subject matter fail to include even a single recipe for Schnitzel? As cliche as it may sound, the fact of the matter is that this Austrian delicacy is an important part of the country's cuisine. Likewise, with all of this Eastern European food running around, how can one fail to include even a single recipe for cabbage rolls? Especially considering that the cabbage roll of each region is quite different and that in many of these regions, cabbage rolls were an important staple.
As imperfect as the book is, the things that are right are right indeed. The food styling, for instance, is enough to make the foody fall off a chair. A two page spread for a Layered Pancake Gateau nearly had me heading for the kitchen and the Fried Peppers with Cheese actually did.
The Practical Encyclopedia of East European Cooking is a lovely book filled with tempting and easy-to-make recipes. It would be a a very good addition to any chef's cookbook shelf, especially if they've got a hankering for a taste of Europe. And while it's actually a very good and useful book, it could have been so much more. | September 1999
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.