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A cookbook to treasure even though its recipes are terrifying

Sunday, February 09, 2003

Here I am, all these years a food writer, and yet it never, not once, occurred to me, over the year and a half it took to read the 20 volumes of Patrick O'Brian's sea stories, to consider a cookbook based on the repeated mention of food to be found in these works.

The idea did occur to Anne Chotzinoff Grossman, who died in November and whose obituary I read in The New York Times. I was startled to discover that her book "Lobscouse & Spotted Dog: Which It's a Gastronomic Companion to the Aubrey/Maturin novels," existed, let alone was still in print.

Grabbing my hat, my coat, my mittens and my muffler, I ran off to Barnes & Noble, Downtown, and there the book was. And there it isn't -- my having bought the last copy. Skimming through it, I stopped to close the book and kiss the cover as a thank-you for its having returned me to the company of Captain Jack Aubrey and his ship's surgeon Stephen Maturin.

Here are heroes. Misery made the captain lustier; danger energized him. Equally brave, Stephen the scientist, scholar and spy -- sometimes in an opium haze -- was curious about everything, whether it be his own pain or that of his patients in whose recovery he was invested. These men lived lives full to the brim with excitement which we vicariously shared. There were nights when we couldn't leave them in their precarious positions and had to read on past midnight to see them out of harm.

They shared with us their appetite for living. They loved women and music and good wine. Jack especially would whoop with pleasure over a Plum duff. They ate bashed neeps, skillygalee, toasted cheese, pig's pettitoes and things I wouldn't dare to mention for fear of making the reader gag.

Anne Chotzinoff Grossman was made of sterner stuff. She and her collaborator, daughter Lisa Grossman Thomas, moved through the text undaunted. The pair found 5,000 food and medicinal references, which as The New York Times reports, "they boiled down to 130 recipes," not one of which I'm tempted to try. I treasure the cookbook for other reasons. I love that the authors are so accomplished.

Grossman was a sailor, a linguist, a translator and a music scholar whose mother was the sister of violinist Jascha Heifetz. Jack played the violin. Stephen, as he says, makes "attempts upon the cello."

The duets they played gave depth to their relationship. "Master and Commander" begins with a now-famous scene as the two men, strangers, both down on their luck, sit next to each other at a concert, listening to Locatelli's C major quartet. An exasperated Stephen accuses Jack of pounding his fist to the wrong beat. A duel seems imminent. They agree to meet the next day.

But then circumstances change. Jack gets his commission and in his joy over the assignment the men sit down to the pot of chocolate Stephen suggests. There, splendid conversation leads Jack to propose dinner. By the end of it, Stephen has accepted the post of ship's surgeon. The Sophie sets sail with the reader onboard.

We partake of their full rich life. We follow them everywhere, and often it's to the table. But with rare exception,, the food mentioned in the books terrified me. What our heroes ate was proof of the terrible life imposed on men at sea during the time of Napoleon, feeding as they did off weevil-infested ship's biscuits, rats in onion sauce and spotted dog, which I took to be some kind of diseased meat but turns out to be a rice pudding with raisins. (Lobscouse, by the way, is a soup made from dried peas and salty beef.) When Gene, who read the books aloud, got to mealtime, I sometimes hummed so as not to think about what my heroes were putting in their mouths.

And yet "Lobscouse & Spotted Dog," the book about this very same food, is a delight. It's because the authors are influenced in their writing by O'Brian's style and their comments fit perfectly under the relevant text, which he has allowed them to reprint. Thinking I wouldn't live sufficient years to forget enough to make the books engaging again, I never reckoned on being returned, so soon, in the company of Jack, Stephen, Killick, Bonden, Pullings, Sophie, Diana, Brigid, Padeen and the other memorable characters we shut out of our lives when we moved the final volume, "Blue at the Mizzen," to the bookcase.

Because it was one of the pleasanter recipes to read about, I've chosen to share some thoughts on the drink called syllabub.

Grossman and Thomas write: "Syllabubs fall into three categories: Everlasting, Whipt, and From the Cow. The first is essentially a flavored whipped cream; the second, much the same thing, but floated in a glass of sweetened wine. The last, and most exciting, is the result of the "clabbering" effect of squirting milk directly from a cow into a bowl of sweetened wine."

The authors were fortunate enough to have access to a cow. In a very large bowl, they combined 2 cups port, 2 cups medium-dry sherry and 8 teaspoons sugar. They then milked the cow directly into the bowl until they had approximately 2 quarts of milk. It wasn't easy. In their recipe, they warn, "Be prepared to start all over again if the cow knocks over the bowl -- or steps in it -- both of which happened to us."

In addition to all of its many charms, "Lobscouse and Spotted Dog" provides a valuable seven-page bibliography of books used in the authors' extensive research. Anyone doing a history of food will certainly find this list useful.

"Lobscouse & Spotted Dog" by Anne Chotzinoff Grossman and Lisa Grossman Thomas (Norton, $16.95).

Marilyn McDevitt Rubin can be reached at mrubin@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1749.

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