The Daily Meal Hall of Fame: Waverley Root
The Daily Meal is announcing the inductees into its Hall of Fame for 2017. The Hall of Fame honors key figures, both living and dead, from the world of food. We are introducing the honorees one per weekday. Our fifth inductee is Waverley Root. For all Daily Meal Hall of Fame inductees, please click here.
An old-school New England-born-and-bred author and newspaperman, Waverley Root (1903–1982) lived in Paris for more than 30 years, working as a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune and later The Washington Post and, by all evidence, devouring as much French and Italian cuisine as he could manage, as well as any other interesting food and drink that came his way.
Though read (or even remembered) all too seldom by today's fooderati, Root wrote half a dozen or so noteworthy books about food, including The Cooking of Italy in the legendary Time-Life "Foods of the World" series and the ambitious if rather eccentric compendium Food: An Authoritative and Visual History and Dictionary of the Foods of the World. The works that inspired a generation of eaters, travelers, cooks, and writers, though, and by extension helped shape the modern American concept of real French and Italian cooking, were his surprisingly comprehensive and really pretty much unprecedented tomes The Food of France (1958) and The Food of Italy (1971).
These were thorough examinations of the regional cuisines from every corner of the subject countries, ramblingly well-structured (if such a thing may be imagined) and addictively readable — especially back in the Dark Ages of American culinary awareness, when for most diners "French" meant garlicky snails and onion soup and "Italian" generally involved tomato sauce and too much oregano.
For purposes of organization, Root divided France into the domains of butter (the north), lard (the southwest), and oil (meaning olive oil, of course, and encompassing Provence and Languedoc) — not a particularly tidy division, but not entirely inaccurate either. Since almost all of Italy is the domain of olive oil, this kind of demarcation wouldn't have worked very well there, so Root chose an ethnic-historical approach, addressing the regions most influenced, respectively, by the Etruscans, the Greeks, and the Saracens. This is even less tidy, since Etruscan influence didn't extend, even at its height, into Piedmont, Liguria, or Veneto (though he covers these regions anyway) — but did overlap somewhat with that of the Greeks south of Rome, while the Greeks and Saracens (or Moors) both enjoyed periods of cultural preeminence in much of southern Italy and Sicily.The books were full of historical and cultural context decades before this became commonplace in our cookbooks and at least some of our culinary magazines.
But never mind. The books were full of historical and cultural context decades before this became commonplace in our cookbooks and at least some of our culinary magazines. They also have a certain languid wit. "Stone Age man did not drink brandies," writes Root, "for the art of distillation was yet to be invented, but Sardinian grappa is, nevertheless, a drink for men of stone." In parsing what the phrase à la bordelaise means (it has several definitions), he says that in Paris, cèpes (porcini) prepared that way are "cooked in a closed dish with butter and a little lemon juice, then browned slightly in oil in a frying pan; at the last moment chopped shallots, parsley, and bread crumbs are added." You can almost sense a comedian's pre-punchline pause before he adds: "This, however, is not the way they do it in Bordeaux."
Remarkably, even for that era, these hefty volumes are books about food that contain no recipes. “This is not a cookbook;" the author notes in introducing the recipe indices in both books, "but a good natural cook may be able to reproduce some of the dishes here named, even though exact proportions and cooking techniques are not ordinarily given. The creations described in sufficient detail to make this possible are marked below with an asterisk…”
Similarly, his general indices carry the note "This is not a guidebook; but with the help of this index it can serve as one." He then attaches useful identifying abbreviations to terms or names that may be unfamiliar — ch. for cheese, mus. for museum, w. for wine, and so on. The most important references, he adds, are signified by boldface type.
Root was not, in other words, a food writer for the lazy or the dull-witted. He wrote for those who were as passionate as he was about some of the world’s great cuisines and the places they came from.