Blandine Vié, Giles MacDonogh (tr.)
Balls in Cooking and Culture
|• This book was announced the runner-up in the Society of Authors’ Scott-Moncrieff Prize for Giles MacDonogh’s translation from the French • • Winner of the Prix Litteraire de la Commanderie des Gastronomes Ambassadeurs de Rungis •This sparkling book was first published in France in 2005 and has been magnificently translated into English by the food writer and historian Giles MacDonogh. It is part cookery book, part dictionary and part cultural study of testicles: human and animal. Their culinary use is the bedrock, although it would be impossible to ignore the wider implications of these anatomical jewels. Blandine Vié has a delicious way with words, and a delight in exploring the furthest corners of our vocabulary, both scurrilous and euphemistic.The book opens with a discussion of balls, of pairs, of virility and the general significance thereof; it then delves more deeply into the culinary use of testicles, in history and across cultures; there follows a recipe section that ranges the continents in search of good dishes, from lamb’s fry with mushrooms, to balls with citrus fruit, to the criadillas beloved of bullfighters, and Potatoes Léontine, stuffed with cocks’ stones. (There are, however, no recipes for cannibals.) To close, there is an extensive dictionary or glossary, drawing on many languages, which illustrates the linguistic richness that attaches to this part of the body. It is in this section particularly that the ingenuity and intelligence of the translator is on display as he converts the French original into something entirely accessible to the English reader. Blandine Vié is the author of many cookery books in France. Giles MacDonogh has written extensively on the history of food (especially his biographies of Grimod de la Reynière and Brillat-Savarin) as well as on the history of Germany.|
As a publication concerned with the more humorous (or repulsive) aspects of animal physiology Testicles has generated reactions in the blogosphere, Amazon reviews and Twitter that discuss both the gastronomic and anecdotal aspects of the book with intrigue and humour that fits the book’s unique subject matter. Erien Haus (Amazon Review – Four Stars) gives a decent notice, though we would take issue with his typographical and design criticism (what, for instance is ‘awful’ about the typefaces Gill Sans and Garamond?) He describes it as
a most original compendium of culinary and cultural wisdom on an unmentionable area of offal cuisine. Goodness knows where the author found all the content but its a really good in-depth read, perhaps more suitable as a coffee-table curiosity or bedside companion than a real cookery book. (One has to wonder whether there’s a sequel in the planning… “Ovaries”!) What lets it down, bearing in mind the exotic subject, is the terribly dull cover design, the yellowed page paper and the awful type-face.
A review on lovefood.com (edited by journalist and Food Britannia author Andrew Webb) has the reviewer girding his loins, and tucking in:
Andrew Webb 27 October 2011
Thanks to the efforts of a new generation of chefs, all schooled in the ways of the wonderful Fergus Henderson, we’ve begun to look anew at the lesser well-known parts of animals in recent years.
When the current recession was known simply as the credit crunch you couldn’t move for ‘forgotten cuts’ articles and features. So now that you can find ox tail, pigs’ cheeks and offal on most meat counters, ‘nose to tail eating’ is what it’s all about. Despite this however, you’d be hard-pressed to find any testicles in most butcher’s shops, apart from the owner’s.
The difficulties of French translation
There have been other testicle cookbooks before, but none look quite so broadly at the subject as this one. The book is a translation from a French book published in 2005 written by Blandine Vié. Tom Jaine, owner and publisher at Prospect Books, specialises in reprinting historical, rare and unusual books such as this one. “Little publishing houses like mine can’t do lots of translations as you have to put a lot of money upfront. I thought ‘I’ll just do it myself,’ but three pages in I thought, ‘f**k this!” So Tom called on the services of Giles MacDonogh, whose observations and footnotes add much to the enjoyment of the book.
Another Amazon review from Eddyalpha describes the book as ‘A very good read, the translation from French to English, does have the odd typo, but nothing to worry about. I loved it!’ (five stars). This book has also had some intelligent analysis on various blogs, the Foodologist being one of them (an interesting and well-informed Australian blogger), who cites the anecdotal facts which pepper the book,
The book is broken up into three sections. The first indulges the mythology surrounding of the use of this “ballsy” ingredient throughout history including anecdotes and tales of its cultural significance. For example, did you know that the Sporran is a little Scots purse designed to conceal what you are not supposed to see?’ He goes on to say, ‘This book is most entertaining and sheds an interesting light on a much-maligned food ingredient. At a time when so many people associate the term “gastronomic” with the finest of premium and luxury ingredients, this book serves to remind us all of the importance of all foods in furthering our gastronomic understanding and on the relevance of gastronomic writing. The book is written in a friendly “tongue-in-cheek” style that is sure to bring a smile to all but the most sour faced individuals.
There was anticipation of the book’s arrival in a nice piece by the estimable Chris Hirst of the Independent, see it here. Joanna Blythman. the Scottish foodwriter who keeps us on our toes in matters of proper supply chains, honesty in labelling and other political matters, gave us a boost with her comment:
Over the years I have accumulated a somewhat curious collection of eye-catching food titles published by this small independent publishing house in Devon. They include esoteric delights such as Rhubarbaria by Mary Prior, Jellies and Their Moulds by Peter Brears and Helen Saberi and Alan Davidson’s charming volume, Trifle.Run by Tom Jaine, a former Good Food Guide editor and one of the most food-literate people in the land, Prospect Books bucks the trend towards ever bigger publishing outfits producing ever more mass-market, populist books. It has built up a catalogue of titles that are uncompromisingly niche and distinctly arcane. I hardly read them, and yet I can’t bear to part with them. Perhaps the most original and striking of Prospect Books’ titles to date is Testicles – Balls in Cooking and Culture, (left) translated by Giles MacDonogh from Blandine Vié’s French text. Part dictionary, part cookery book, part cultural study of testicles, both human and animal, I don’t exactly see myself making the bull’s gonads with Espelette peppers and chillis, but the entertainment value to be had from just leaving it lying around the house is not to be underestimated.
Matthew Fort, erstwhile of the Guardian, was kind enough to give us a mention too, he writes:
Testicles – Balls in Cooking and Culture. There’s a title to grab the attention. 219 pages on balls by Blandine Vié, translated by Giles MacDonogh. A subject of specialised interest if ever there was one, testicles. Not everyone’s cup of tea, I dare say. Even by my standards, it’s a bit arcane. But that’s Prospect Books for you.Arcane, curious, idiosyncratic, autocratic, odd, weird even, Prospect Books is everything you want from an independent publisher. Well, almost everything. It publishes the books that no one else will. Take a look at their current list. Here’s a volume on mediaeval Arab Cookery by Arberry, Perry and Rodinson. Here’s Archestratus’ A Life of Luxury. There’s Open-Mouthed, a collection of poems about food. Here’s Fish and Fish Dishes of Laos, Alan Davidson’s classic. There’s Sir Kenelm Digby and John Evelyn and The Housewife’s Family Companion by William Ellis; Kenny-Herbert and Patience Grey and Geraldine Holt. There are history books and books of historical interest. There are books on the theory of cooking. And there are books on single, practical topics – Cooking with Courgettes by Marie Fougère; In the Realm of the Fig and The Quince by Ria Loohuizen; Rhubarbaria by Mary Prior. They are all produced with a care and attention to detail – typography, design, illustration, weight of paper – rare in publishing these days. The governor at Prospect Books is the one and only Tom Jaine, formerly chef, editor of the Good Food Guide in it’s Golden Age, magazine proprietor (Petit Propos Culinaires; and if you think that a book about testicles is arcane, let me tell you that it has a broad church appeal compared to some of the articles in PPC) and keeper of the questing flame of the late Alan Davidson. In my experience, Tom is as generous as he is opinionated. In a world of grey placemen, he shines like a bird of paradise, albeit one of distinctly individual plumage.
Another online review that cites the historical importance of balls in cooking is Kirkus Reviews review:
Certainly in the world of one-note food books–salt, cod, milk, eggs, etc.–there is room for this tribute to the testicle, for balls hardly figure at all in cookbooks, which has more to do with fancy than fact: Testicles were among the choicest morsels in the French courts of the 17th and 18th centuries; they were esteemed as hors d’oeuvres in the classic and bourgeois cooking of the 19th century; they were the offal of choice in the American cowboy community; perhaps most importantly, they were the offal of choice among butchers, who know the best and kept it to themselves. The purpose of the book, writes Vie, is to honor and rehabilitate the testicle, and she writes of it (or them) with wit. She proceeds through a short course of testicles in mythology, in the Bible and the Koran and as metaphors, then shifts into an annotated lexicon of the anatomical, culinary and fantastic terms to describe the edible little things. The degree of detail is mesmerizing, and Vie provides a rangy section on preparation: recipes in the Tunisian style and the Moroccan fashion, how to freeze testicles, how to cook them with citrus and much more. MacDonogh delivers a lively translation as well as added valuable marginalia. A delightful mix of good humor and scholarship.
We were gratified that the book was noticed by none other than the New York Times, which helped sales in America. They included it in their Tmagazine:
An award winner in France, the cookbook Testicles (Prospect Books, $40) sounds like a gag gift, but it’s a remarkably straight-faced effort – by a woman, Blandine Vié – that combines recipes (lamb fries tagine and bull’s testicles pâté), droll cultural notes and an etymology of scrotal slang.
The newly founded Radical Dining Society gave a welcome to Testicles with the following:
It was Francois Béroalde de Verville at the dawn of the seventeenth century, who came up with the lines ‘We have no greater regard for the poor than we do for our balls, we leave them outside, they are never allowed in.’And so it is with cookery book: balls hardly figure, despite the fact that they were considered one of the choicest morsels at the court of Louis XV. So it is with great interest that we came across an informative and witty book called Testicles: Balls in Cooking and Culture written by Blandine Vié and translated from the French by Giles MacDonogh. Testicles are the true source of virility – real or imaginary. It stands to reason that men afford them some veneration. In antiquity (notably during the reign of Alexander the Great), victors and heroes were rewarded with plates of offal, which were considered eminently virile to reward their prowess. Marie Rouanet tells us in her Petit Traité romanesque de la cuisine that in the old days in south-west France when a boar was castrated to fatten it the testicles were given to little boys on a slice of bread as a sort of initiation rite. In Spain and many parts of Mexico they are referred to as “criadillas,” and they are colloquially referred to as huevos de toro (literally, “bull’s eggs”; huevos is a Spanish slang term for testicles) in Central and South America. It is considered a particular delicacy to eat the testicles of the fighting bull (toro bravo) direct from the bull ring. Did you know that hare’s testicles were used for love potions in the Languedoc? Here is a recipe from the Almanach des pays d’Oc: Draw some blood, preferably on a Friday in springtime and put it in the oven to dry in a little pot together with the two testicles of a hare and the liver of a dove. Pound it all up to make a fine powder. Make the person who you want to love you, swallow it. This sparkling book is full of recipes for you to try out at home – if you can manage to find a butcher to supply you with this rare treat or get a friend from Spain to bring you some.
Meanwhile, our favourite book blog, because she is enthusiastic, is by Hayley Anderton She welcomed the book with:
On Mondays I generally finish at lunchtime which is nice, but this is after getting up at 6am to be at work in the first place which I don’t enjoy so much. It’s always a toss up between being a glass half empty, glass half full kind of a day. Today turned into a glass half full when I found this in the letterbox when I got home. It was utterly unexpected and even after a brief look it’s still something of an unknown quantity but it’s a long time since a book title has made me laugh like this (my mother was amused too, but the Scottish one was appalled). I don’t know quite when I’ll read this but I love Prospect books, a parcel from them has never failed to make my day and although I suspect this is a change of pace from the last book I got from them (the superlative ‘Cakes’ by Geraldine Holt) here is a picture of ‘Testicles: Balls in Cooking and Culture’ which I hope will raise both a smile and enough interest to encourage all and sundry to go and look at Prospect’s website.
Further comment on the book was made through Twitter. Author and graphic designer Jake Tilson (@JakeTilson) tweeted ‘Testicles, the cookbook, Prospect Books, brilliant’. Riverford Field Kitchen chef Jane Baxter (@baxcooka) tweeted ‘Along with Tom Jaine on his sell out book on testicles’. Clare Freeman; an assistant producer on Radio 4 (@asmallfurrybear) tweeted ‘The book “Testicles: Balls in cooking and Culture” by Blandine Vie is causing much sniggering today, mainly from the women in the office…’. But perhaps the finest tweet comes from Kevin Maguire the associate editor of the Daily Mirror: ‘Testicles: Balls in cooking and culture is a real book. Daily Mail’s Tim Shipman has just presented it to Ed Balls. Really’. We can only hope that this is true. For twittering, see: @prospectbooks. Further coverage of the book came from the Financial Times in Tim Hayward’s selected food books of 2011:
Truly devoted food geeks regularly thank God that Prospect Books still survives to service their needs. A wonderful compilation of recipes, aperçus, historical fact and literary fancy on a single fascinating theme.
The Telegraph’s Rose Prince also chose the book in her summary of the year’s cookbooks,
the year’s most devotional book of offal can only be Testicles: Balls in Cooking and Culture, a translation by Giles MacDonogh of the 2005 work by French writer Blandine Vié (£20, Prospect Books). Vie, in case you’re wondering, is a woman. She has formerly written recipes for seduction, and the “cookery of love”. We do not know why she has turned to balls for a subject, but she has made an amusingly gripping study, that should appeal to both men and women’s humour. Vie is (fairly) persuasive of the place that “frivolities” have on the table: “We have not greater regard for the poor than we do for our balls, we leave them outside, they are never allowed in,” she quotes from a 16th-century writer. It emerges you can have your balls many ways: sautéed, en blanquette, skewered. Enough.
Sophia Waugh was kind enough to give the book a shout in her cookery round-up in the Literary Review. She remarked:
Another new book about an ingredient is Testicles, Balls in Cooking and Culture by Blandine Vié and translated from the French by food and wine writer Giles MacDonogh. Again, it does not limit itself to cooking tips, although they are included. Testicles is wonderful in its scope, looking at balls in mythology, in language and in superstition. A man wishing to improve his virility would eat an animal’s testicles and small boys in the south-west of France would be given a castrated boar’s testicles on bread as a rite of passage. The fact that the animal was still alive while its balls were being eaten added a whole extra layer to the effect of the feast. Probably too much for anyone but the most confirmed Nose to Tail Henderson fan are the recipes for testicles. As ‘any fule no’ (apparently) ginger and nutmeg are the spices which go best with cock’s stones, but the great Carême recommends making a ragout of them with peas and asparagus tips. French boar hunters fry the testicles with salt and pepper for a mid-morning snack, and the Moroccans have all sorts of delicious-sounding ways with lambs’ balls. The only area where this book falls down is sometimes, despite MacDonogh’s excellent translation and notes, in the linguistic parts, as of course a discussion of words – especially puns – is bound occasionally to falter in translation.
The book has also been shortlisted for the Gourmand Magazine’s award for best translation and is also a tip for the Bookseller’s prize for the most outlandish/silliest book title of the year.