He learned from grandmother, an old-fashioned Quaker cook. `I don't believe in the things professional cooks do'
WILLIAM WOYS WEAVER is a culinary historian - that newly emerging species - one who studies food preparation and consumption in all their ramifications. He brings a sense of delight to much of his writing. In one cookbook he quotes a children's rhyme:
To bake good cakes,
Take seven things:
Butter and lard,
Sugar and salt,
Milk and flour,
To make the cakes
Mr. Weaver lives in Chester County, Pa., outside Philadelphia, near where he was born 36 years ago. Part of his house was a tavern in the early 19th century. A continuing project that draws on his professional training as an architect is its restoration.
If he is not exactly restoring the garden, he hopes to make it as it might have been - with extensive plantings of herbs, fruits, and vegetables. On a large protected porch he grows guava, fig, citrus, banana, and eucalyptus trees.
On a recent visit to his home, Mr. Weaver offered a plate of quince cakes - a German confection something like a jellied fruit paste cut into fanciful figures and rolled in sugar.
His recipe, a ``quince collage with a long genealogy,'' as he calls it, is descended from a 16th-century German cookbook writer, Marcus Rumpolt.
Weaver explains that the Pennsylvania Germans called the quince cake a Qwiddeschpeck, ``the word Speck being an archaic word for `spread.'
``Most Germans today,'' he continues, ``think of lard when they see Speck in print.''
With the publication in 1983 of ``Sauerkraut Yankees: Pennsylvania German Food & Foodways'' (University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia), Weaver has become an authority on the food of the region.
The book presents a wealth of information explaining cultural practices.
In discussing quince marmalade, for example, he mentions that the trees of this favorite fruit were well established in Pennsylvania German communities as early as 1740.
In the book he clarifies, with telling detail, why customs developed as they did.
A descendent of Germans, Weaver speaks their language - literally.
Through his Mennonite grandfather, he learned the dialect, which is derived from an outmoded form of German. Just as with the word Speck, he is keenly aware of differences in usage.
Contemporary European Germans, Weaver says, show considerable interest in the Pennsylvania Germans as part of a larger movement to rediscover their past. He describes their concern with the antique - tools, dialects, folklore - as ``a step back from 20th-century throwaway culture.''
The outgrowth of Weaver's curiosity is, naturally, books and articles. He is a prolific writer. But in conversation one soon realizes that it is not just his enthusiasm and energy that are so remarkable. Rather it is the discernment and penetration he brings to his pursuits.
Although Weaver's research is scholarly, his books are easily accessible to the general reader. Many attractive engravings from his own vast library illuminate the pages - with footnotes and bibliography placed discreetly at the back.
The recipes ask to be tried.
Weaver says he's largely self-taught, but also admits he learned his way around the kitchen from his grandmother, ``an old-fashioned Quaker cook.''
His collection of antique cooking utensils, which he actually uses, began with some inherited pieces. His desire to know how things work, helped by book illustrations, encouraged him to try to cook in the old ways.
This practical experience has informed his understanding of cooking methods and increased his respect for traditional equipment and workmanship.
Weaver's previous book, ``A Quaker Woman's Cookbook: The Domestic Cooking of Elizabeth Ellicott Lee'' (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982), helped to direct him toward his next major project, a history of Philadelphia food since William Penn.
Besides Quaker and German influences, the international cuisine overseen by French chefs comes into play. He has been examining diaries, manuscripts, and inventories - and comparing published and unpublished recipes to trace influences.
As if this were not enough, the English culinary historian Alan Davidson has asked Weaver to write the American entries for his mammoth Oxford Encyclopedia of Food.
A history of the food of the Delaware Indians also beckons. Weaver wants to follow the traditions that have persisted despite the Indians' dislocation in Canada and Oklahoma and their adoption of electrical appliances.
When asked about chefs, as opposed to household cooks, Weaver replied, ``I don't believe in the things professional cooks do. Serving more than 40, you have to cheat. You can't be an artist and a commercial cook, too,'' he continues.
``You're a food hustler or an artist.''
As an afterthought, he adds, ``I'm a writer.''
We can be grateful.
Here's Weaver's recipe for quince cakes: Quince Cake, or Quitten Lattwerg 5 pounds quince, washed and dried 3 pounds sugar, 1 pound to each pound of strained quince 3 grated lemon rinds (1 grated rind to each pound of sugar) Sand sugar, roughly 5 pounds (most can be reused)
Pare, quarter, and core quince. Boil parings and cores in a quart of water until thick and slippery. It is now rich in pectin. Strain liquid and reserve.
Put quince and a small amount of the liquid, about 2 cups, in a preserving pan. Simmer until soft and most liquid has evaporated.
Press through a sieve, or pur'ee in a blender or food processor. The mash must be absolutely smooth, or there will be lumps in the confection.
Cover with cheesecloth. Let stand overnight. Mixture will turn red.
For best results, make only 1 pound at a time. Measure out 1 pound of mash. Heat the mash in a preserving pan with the grated rind of 1 lemon. Heat 1 pound of sugar in the oven.
When the two are hot, mix them in the preserving pan.
Stir constantly over medium heat for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the mixture becomes thick and ropy. Immediately pour the hot mixture on porcelain plates or into glass pans. Spread evenly to about 1/2-inch thick.
In about 30 minutes, the mixture will have set, and it can be lifted from the plates.
Lay it on a cold marble pastry ``board'' well strewn with sand sugar. Cut the confection with a knife into desired shapes, or use fancy tin cutters. Traditionally, the lozenge shape was popular. Roll each piece in sand sugar. Cover baking sheets with sand sugar and lay the candy on this.
Allow cakes to dry 3 to 4 days, turning at least once a day. Store in sand sugar in airtight containers.