Mimsy Review: Country Commune Cooking
Lucy Horton’s “Country Commune Cooking” isn’t really much of a recipe book, but it is a fascinating glimpse into the community living movement of the sixties and early seventies.
Horton arrived in San Francisco in June of 1971, and finished the book in time to publish it in 1972. She travelled from San Francisco (after hitching there from New York) up to Oregon, British Columbia, back to California, New Mexico, crossed the midwest and circled Lake Superior, and ended up in New England via Canada. “In five months I touched at forty-three communes and communities, staying anywhere from an hour to a week..”
It begins with “A Rap About Kitchen Tools”. It’s the same rap you’re going to find in any establishment cookbook: get a garlic press, a good knife, some cast-iron skillets. Only the high recommendation of getting a wok clues us in on the kinds of cooking going on here. It’s a mish-mash of Asian and American cooking, with a bit of Mexican thrown in. There are few marriages yet, like we see later in Southern California’s Aztec/Asian/Mexican style today, and some of the recipes look like they’re traditional recipes with nothing changed but a lack of meat and a replacement of processed food (and bleached flour) with organics and unbleached.
“How to peel vegetables: Don’t if you can help it. The nutrients lie concentrated close to the skin, and furthermore, the peel usually adds flavor.” Also, see here for instructions on how to get a wood stove hot.
The real draw of this cookbook is not the recipes themselves, but the stories of how she acquired them, and the stories on the people who gave them to her. The first recipe is a vegetable soup (the first chapter is “Soups”) given her by an artist in New Mexico who had only recently escaped to the quiet of the mountains to recover his peace after being robbed at gunpoint. Beer Cheese Soup was given her by a poet, while she was traveling with a twelve-year-old who “wandered unobtrusively among several communes”.
The “Vegetarian Main Dishes” chapter still suffers from the desire to have “meat-flavor substitutes” which plagued vegetarian cooking even up to the eighties. One “eggplant spaghetti” which I’ve yet to try “is especially splendid. The eggplant cooks to a wonderful consistency with a meatlike richness.” On the facing page is a wonderful sweet-and-sour spaghetti sauce made with, in addition to garlic, onions, and tomatoes, honey, raisins, cider vinegar, and dill. Accompanying it is a story about a small boy who had recently visited the outside world: “They had spaghetti,” he said, “and it was icky. And you know why it was icky? Because it had meat balls in it!” Another recipe, a soup, is a Lebanese recipe for black bean-lentil-caraway soup. It’s quite good, but screams for lamb or beef, as if the recipe were taken and modified only by removing the meat.
Again, though, it isn’t the recipes so much as the stories: “Trudging two miles up a dusty road in the hot sun, I arrived parched and weary to find a group of young men playing a fast game of basketball. Nearby, a heavyset girl was painting a quotation from Steppenwolf on the rear of a bus being readied to take a group to Earth People’s Park in Norton, Vermont, for the autumnal equinox festival: ‘The Magic Theater. Price of admission is your mind.’”
The illustrator, Judith St. Soleil of High Ridge Farm in Oregon, contributed a fascinating recipe which I haven’t had the nerve to try, “Fruited Stuffed Green Peppers”. The peppers are stuffed with apple, raisins, tamari, sesame, and rice. Her illustrations are understated and complement the text very well.
Vegetarianism, however, was fairly well limited to the West Coast. Cross into New Mexico and ground beef becomes a mainstay, and east coast communes even raise their own cattle and butcher their own hogs. Even there, however, you’ll find vegetarians coexisting among the meat-eating communes. “The attitude that appealed to me most of all was voiced by a thin, lightly garbed man at Wheeler’s Ranch in California. ‘I take the Zen position,’ he said. ‘If someone prepares food for you, eat it.’”
This is a well-rounded cookbook. It includes soups, main dishes (divided into vegetarian and meat), eggs, grains and beans, vegatables, salads, sauces, breakfast foods, breads, sweets, beverages, and preserves. The emphasis is on natural cooking and community cooking. Down in New Mexico you’ll find whole wheat tortillas loaded with ground beef and cheese. If you’re looking for a dessert, you might try the Yogurt Pie from Oregon. Wash down your meal with marijuana beer or honey wine.
If you buy this book just for the recipes, you may be disappointed (or you may not, depending on how your tastes run). But if you’re intrigued by the communal movement of the sixties, or the resurgence of natural cooking at the same time, or love travelling notes, you’ll find this a fascinating book. I recommend taking a look at it if you can find it.
Country Commune Cooking
My cost: $3.33
Recommendation: Quirky. You know you want it.