Culinary History of Cookery: Baking and Alexa

Alexa Johnston, at the behest of the NZ Book Council, was at Café L’affare this Thursday just past, to talk about the Culinary History of NZ Baking. My own critical depths concerning baking hit a wall after I’ve moaned about the correct pronunciation of croissant, so I wasn’t particularly excited about attending the event, flying the vicbooks’ flag as the bookseller. But, as is the norm for such things, the reality defied my expectation.

Alexa Johnston was something of a revelation to me, not at all what I was expecting. Baking at age seven and transcribing recipes by eleven, Johnston fell in love with the process, proceeds and community of baking. As she grew up it remained a beloved hobby, one she pursued even through her Masters in Art History and then her career as a Curator. At one point she would finish at the gallery she curated, then run across town to bake the dessert menu at a friend’s restaurant.

Despite her experience in archiving, and the writing of a biography of Edmund Hillary (at his request), she had never considered anything remotely like compiling a cookbook until the head of Penguin Books, NZ, asked her to consider it. She had baked him a birthday cake of such epicurean dimension that it defies my meager abilities to describe. Penguin had already published her biography of Edmund Hillary (hence the birthday cake connection) and convinced her to apply her wide abilities to a cookbook. The result was Ladies, a Plate: Traditional Home Baking, a book she not only compiled, edited and wrote, but also designed and photographed (Johnston is something of an artistic polymath).

None of which I knew until I had the good fortune to be stuck in a room with 60 odd people who are huge fans of baking. Johnston’s enthusiasm for baking, the love and craft of it, along with the praise it garners, was infectious. Talking of the history of baking in NZ was a cultural exploration that was surprising in its breadth and adventure – it was almost a secret history of an unacknowledged side of NZ life, one that’s often confusing due to gender minefields surrounding the pitfalls and joys of domesticity.

Hearing Johnston talk about the stories and times behind these recipes (none of which were after 1970) was intriguing and often deeply amusing – possibly made all the more so due to my ignorance of culinary jargon (apparently no seafood features in Cinnamon Oysters). A few matters discussed were the cultural relativity from which cookbooks like What Shall I Give Him Today? originated, the relative sense in ‘not eating mutton and hot coffee in the bath’, and the paradoxical wisdom of a 19th century Frenchwomen who gave away more baking than she could afford, diluted into the saying, ‘A good heart is sometimes a bad asset’. There was some improvised research for her next cookbook (to be called What’s for Pudding?) that involved the audience delightedly calling out their favourite desserts (Rhubarb Sago! Drunken Bananas! Suet Pudding!), all of which could have been yoga positions for all I recognized of them.

The evening emphasized Johnston’s love of baking, its process and history, and her awareness of the wisdom and fun that has emerged from the kitchens of the past to be imparted to the present. She easily conveyed her enjoyment and passion, entertaining the crowd that had come to hear her. Including my own uncouth, unbaked self.

See Alexa Johnston’s website here. Her new book, provisionally titled What’s for Pudding?, is planned for late 2011.

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