Sunday, July 23, 2006


Cooking My Way Out of a Paper Bag

Last week's New Scientist carried my article on forgotten chef Nicolas Soyer and his 1911 book Paper Bag Cookery, which launched fad that dispensed with pots and pans in favor of cooking everything in paper bags. It was well ahead of its time, as Soyer's arguments for paper bag cookery (easy cleanup, convenience, ideal for bachelors and small apartments) are exactly the same factors that drive the use of paperboard packaging for microwaveable meals today.

As it happened, my piece coincided with a spate of reviews for Ruth Cowen's Relish, a new biography of Nicolas's grandfather, the hugely influential and equally forgotten Alexis Soyer. The Guardian aptly describes Alexis as "the Victorian Bob Geldolf":

He invented the cafetière. He fed tens of thousands with his patent soup kitchens during the Irish potato famine. He was the author of the first genuinely best-selling cookbook. He was the darling of aristocrats, politicians and the press. His face adorned Crosse & Blackwell sauce bottles. At his own expense - and with fatal consequences for his health - he travelled to the Crimea to reform the army's mess arrangements with his own design of portable cooking stove.

When not working alongside Florence Nightingale, the elder Soyer came up with some cracking good cookbooks -- witness these reprints in the Independent last week of his recipes for Lamb Cutlets Reform and Macaroni and Almond Croquettes With Raspberries.

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