That good food goes with goodness of life has long seemed to me a more likely hypothesis than that deprivation and self-imposed austerity encourage virtue. My view is fortified by a small book that has recently appeared and is making its way slowly through ever-widening circles. It is called, quite simply, Country Host Cookbookm and is published by the Quick Fox Press. Rona Deme (pronounced Demmy) is the author, and she also presides over a considerable family, and over a unique foodstore called Country Host in upper Manhattan.
The cookbook, well-presented and not too large, sets forth a series of recipes which I have read through as I might read an essay or the contemplations of a philosopher. "I believe that cooking is a continual learning process," Mrs. Deme writes in her introduction. "I am still learning even after 30 years of business and a childhood that established the hows and whys of good things to eat. Food was always plentiful, simple, and good. This is my heritage, and I have tried to put down the recipes as I remember them, with simple methods and good ingredients."
The recipes are redolent of Mrs. Deme's upbringing in Cheshire, England. Wonderful sounding sweets abound, like Dundee Cake, Apple Curd Tartlets, Victoria Sponge Cake. These would make their apperance after a main course of such choices as Salmon Steaks or Mussel Stew, Steak and Kidney Pie, or Pork and Sauerkraut. Everywhere Mrs. Deme's personal touch is evident. I liked the recipe called Chicken Carousel. "Mama," she tells us, "mixed up the word casserole with carousel." And so the dish is still called by the latter name.
One afternoon recently I dropped by at the kitchen, situated in a brownstone within a block of the Country Host foodstore, where I found Mrs. Deme and her son Peter hard at work. They were making 1,000 scones and 1,000 crumpets to supply a large (and fortunate, I thought) breakfast gathering. Each crumpet and scone, I observed, was being made precisely as if it had been part of the household fare. The ingredients were the same, and they were each cut by hand, as if one of a batch of a half-dozen or dropped with similar care into aliminium rings on top of a griddle. Gradually, as we talked, the piles of scones and crumpets grew higher, while during an interlude a large bowl of chocolate mousse was whipped up.
I asked Mrs. Deme why in her book she appeared to conceal so modestly the location of the Country Host foodstore and to refrain from a description of its delights. "I suppose it is the english in me," she said. "We English are not very good at putting the background into the foreground," I recalled to myself how I had asked her, on a previous occasion, whether she had not been thrilled by a glowing account of the Country Host in The New Yorker.m "Well, I am not so sure," she said then. "They say my rice pudding is "Bland."m And then she went on to explain how she made rice pudding as her grandmother had taught her, proceeding to list for me the precise ingredients that went into it. So much for the The New Yorkerm and all its publicity!
"My song," says Mrs. Deme, "should be 'Come day, go day, God send the weekend." On the weekends, with her family of two sons and grandchildren, she takes the truck out to a farm in Cheshire, a New England town with the same name as that in which she was born and brought up in the old country. Here the family works in the garden, picks vegetables and berries and, at mealtime, partakes of the fruits of their labors. "With the colorful ham and fresh green salads, the rosy tomatotoes, the raisin-studded scones, the black bread, a bowl of apples and some wildflowers serving as centerpieces, my old oak dining table seems to glow with contentment."
Contentment, too, seemed to lie upon the New York kitchen as I left: the gleaming pots, teh bright steel shelves, the countertops ladened with foods ready to be baked. And over all lay the spell cast by a quiet-speaking lady in white who, though a sorceress, was proud simply to be called a cook.