Take a Goose or a Duck by Cynthia Bertelsen (Book Review)
What is the essence of the book?
Take a Goose or a Duck: Eclectic Essays on English Cookery Through the Ages is a series of concise articles on different aspects of (mostly) English culinary history. It takes you on a jaunt through centuries of food from the Romans to modern food writers like Patience Gray and Jane Grigson. Some chapters cover less obvious subjects (like witches as cooks) or perhaps prompt a rethink of certain issues (The Fallacy of Cultural Appropriation). ‘Eclectic’ is absolutely the right word to describe this book, and all the better for it.
About the author
Bertelsen has had a varied career to say the least. She has worked as a nutritionist while living in Honduras; managed the U.S. Embassy Commissary in Burkina Faso and has indexed over 350 books and journals. But her real passion is food history and has written for a publications like Gastronomica and Food Culture & Society. Her first book Mushroom: A Global History, appeared in 2013 and several more have followed. Take a Goose or a Duck is her sixth book.
Who will like it?
If you know someone (or indeed are someone) with a burgeoning interest in food history, Take a Goose or a Duck is a perfect place to start. Although the essays are short each one delivers the salient points of interest without getting too bogged down in the detail. They are lively introductions to a broad culinary time frame. If you don’t know much about English food history it will whet your appetite to discover more. And if you are already a bit of a food history geek, like myself, there is still plenty to pique your interest.
Who won’t like it?
If you’re not so keen on the tendency to flit between eras and prefer a more in-depth approach you may be quite dismissive of this book, although, in my opinion, you would be missing its point entirely.
What do I like about the book?
One of the most appealing things of Take a Goose or a Duck (and one of the reasons why I think you should still give it a go even if you think you are well versed in this arena already) is Bertelsen’s conversational style. Reading history can be onerous and occasionally tedious. There I’ve said it. But it in Bertelsen’s hands it is entertaining and informative and delivered in bite size pieces. Does it give you all the answers? Not at all. But it does provide a point from where to start and raises a few questions to encourage you to find out more. Anything that does that gets my vote.
There is personal touch to some of the chapters which makes this book even more endearing. For example, in the article on Elizabeth David we learn that her book French Provincial Cooking provided Bertelsen with a metaphorical escape from the perils of living under Baby Doc Duvalier’s regime in Haiti. ‘Ms. David’s book kept me positive, and at the stove, during a time when a trip down the mountains from Laboule to Port-au-Prince clenched my guts with apprehension. The soulless sound of gunfire day and night never stopped or so it seemed.’
Would I cook from it?
There are historical recipes in this book but they are there for illustrative purposes rather than as a traditional cookery book. If you want to find out more about recreating historical recipes you may want to consult Bertelsen’s earlier book ‘A Hastiness of Cooks”: A Practical Handbook for Use in Deciphering the Mysteries of Historic Recipes and Cookbooks(2019).
Where can you buy it?
Take a Goose or a Duck is available from Amazon (currently £16.25 for the paperback version)