I collect old cookery books and friends who know I don’t really enjoy cooking are now laughing uproariously, I’m sure. Truth is, I love to eat and I love to read about food. My favourite type of cookery book is anecdotal. Nigel Slater, Jack Monroe, Tamasin Day-Lewis and Nigella Lawson are favourites that instantly spring to mind. I fantasise about becoming their friend and chief taste-tester. It could happen… In fact, the scrumptious Nigella and I do share one thing in common (oh, how I wish it were more) in that she apparently likes to collect old cookery books as well.
What I so enjoy about the old books is their quaint language and unfashionable recipes and ingredients. I’m thinking, chiefly, of lard. The portion sizes appear to be a lot smaller than we’ve all become used to these days, as well. Which is just as well, really, what with all that lard.
From the crammed bookcase in our kitchen, two blasts from my childhood past catch my eye: The Brownie Cookbook and Cooking For Caravanners. The Brownie Cookbook has helpful line drawings, just in case you’re unsure what a flapjack, fishcake or finger sandwich looks like. Books such as these were written long before men’s lib. Only Mummy gets pictured and mentioned in the text. Poor Daddy misses out on all the fun!
Cooking For Caravanners takes me right back to the days when we belonged to the Caravan Club and went away for weekends, often with friends who also had a caravan. This was in the days long before eating out was considered the norm, as it is now, and was instead only ever reserved for a special treat, when guests stayed, or when on holiday. To be fair, there was far less choice in those days and the word gastropub had yet to be dreamt up by some sharp-suited little marketing oik. In the instance of the caravans, though, pity the poor mothers (for it was always them). No chance of having a well-earned break from all the cooking. Expected to produce full-blown meals, just as they did at home, but with minimal equipment and storage space. For parents who worked (as mine both did), I can’t see how any of this could possibly have been relaxing and restful, although I know my dad loved driving (probably more on his own, though, it has to be said and minus the three quarrelsome female members of his family).
In the pictures, Mummy looks terribly glamorous, dressed more for a Seventies cheese’n’ wine or key-swapping party than for a weekend away in the wilds. White trousers (white!), glam top, gold jewellery, sling-back sandals and coiffed hair. Smiling, always smiling, as she beavers away at the tiny stove in the poky space some sales brochures dared to call the “kitchenette” area. The caravans alternated between dripping hot in the summer and icicles-on-the-inside cold in the winter (yes, we went away then as well. Yes, we were mad. I well recall being towed out of a muddy, snowy, rutted field by a local farmers’ tractor on more than one occasion).
We took our caravan abroad, too. My father, a hardened traditionalist when it came to food, once viewed a plate of home-made ratatouille very suspiciously, until we reassured him it was only mixed veg. Which, of course, it was – and still is. Just not the sort of mixed veg he was used to. He did eat it, though. He loved to go abroad but refused to embrace anything very different and viewed with high suspicion anything even remotely “foreign”. The first thing he would do when he got back home was make a cup of tea. “They don’t know how to make a proper cup of tea” were his oft-repeated words while away. He would buy the English daily newspaper, as well, even though it was a day late over in ”abroad” land. Nothing gave him more satisfaction and, I suppose, a deep feeling of security, than to spot a familiar car registration plate: “Bournemouth/Reading/Hampshire/Berkshire number” he would say with glee; subtext: ‘That’ll show old Johnny Foreigner what he’s up against.’ Ignoring our mortified cries of: “Daaad!! We’re on HOLIDAY!!” WE didn’t want to mix with boring old British people. We could do that at home. WE were eyeing up the far more exciting and dangerous-looking foreign boys…
Back to the book, which was very ambitious for its time: Here’s a recipe for Moules Mariniere, for crying out loud! Though its exotic image is somewhat spoiled with the recipe for mussel and mushroom flan on the same page. You can take the cook out of England… We can so clearly see a fascinating piece of emerging social history here. The struggle with wanting to appear all sophisticated and continental and trying to take the family with you on your culinary journey, yet at the same time being dragged back into ”safer” territory by the same ungrateful, unadventurous family. Pity the 70s housewife! At the crossroads of change, yet still stuck down the cul de sac of convention, in many cases.
I note the recipe for tomato fish turbans and am immediately conjuring up a picture of The Time When Father Went Too Far With One Of His Remarks About How Much Longer Did They Have To Wait For Dinner? and ended up wearing one of them. Did the divorce statistics take a sharp hike when caravanning holidays became the norm? I think we should know.
Here are some realistic titles for you: The I Never Cooked Before book, The I Hate To Cook book and The I Still Hate To Cook book (so the first one didn’t work, then?), plus Make It Easy Cookery all have a common theme – can you guess what it is? It’s right up my street and probably many others’, too. In fact, “It’s Right Up My Street” might be a good title for – er – something.
Here’s another: The Reluctant Cook (that’s me, most days) comes with the most wonderful inscription: “To Gurtle (Gurtle!!!!) with hope reborn.” Dated July 7th, 1954. Accompanied, for reasons best known to the giver and recipient, by a pen drawing of a small sailboat on the waves, complete with seagull. Obviously deeply significant. There’s a “Reluctant Gardener” and a “Reluctant Housewife” in the same series. I think someone is trying to tell us something.
This book has comical line drawings. Several do, but so few of these old books have pictures, whether photos or illustrations, of what you are supposed to be aiming for. It would be good to know that you are heading in vaguely the right direction and it would serve as a useful guide to show family/friends/guests when they are unsure as to exactly what it is that’s lying on their plates…
Now, just to make all you singletons feel so much better about your sad and sorry state (I’m kidding!), here are some titles written just for you: Cooking Alone and Cooking For One. Cooking Alone helpfully divides chapters under such headings as: The Old Lady (don’t ask her age – you’ll only cry), The Bachelor, The Happy Potterer, The Grass Widower, The Career Woman and The Lonely Mother. So that’s you lot sorted. Cooking For One – well – it’s the rather pathetic amounts that get to me. Isn’t it bad enough that you’re eating alone, night after night? At least be given the glimmer of light and cheer that is an overflowing plate and a stuffed belly after. Personally, I would be tempted to double up on everything and freeze some for another meal but then again, these books were written in the days before fridges – imagine! You had to totter out for your pathetic scraps on a daily basis, to rub salt into the wound.
I once worked with a colleague who lived alone and she couldn’t bear people to know this, so she always bought enough food for two and usually ended up chucking it away.
Another colleague, who didn’t share her rather outdated hang-up, once asked a fruit market stallholder for just one apple and he said no. She was rather forthright in her reply, which involved two words, the first starting with “F” – the second being “you”.
I have a pamphlet published by the Food Information Centre in Croydon (ah yes, that hub of all things culinary): Cooking For Over Sixties. Helpful tips include: Milk can be used in many ways, NOT ONLY in a cup of tea! Goodness, who would ever have known?! The general tone here is that you must be hard up and need smaller portions of food than the rest of the population. During the winter months, you may find shopping too difficult, it says at one point. You need a well-stocked cupboard, oh ancient being of over 60 (I said that bit, not them). Step away from the kettle, have a hearty brown stew or egg nog (recipes included) and you will soon have the strength to leave the house. Apparently and unbelievably, there was such a demand for this leaflet when it first appeared, copies were limited to one per household.
Another fondly remembered ingredient: “Top of the milk” – triggers a more recent memory. In New York for a self-catering city break with friends, we stocked up on provisions from the 24-hour deli on the corner of our block. I would pour my “half and half” milk with gay abandon on to my breakfast cereal, all the while cheerily commenting how the American version of our ”semi-skimmed milk” tasted so much better than our own. Almost creamy, in fact… Until the day I studied the ingredients on the box a little more carefully and realised I had been pouring half-milk, half-cream on to my daily cereal for a week.
Here’s a quaint one: Paper Bag Cookery. Does what it says on the – er – bag. Under one intriguing chapter heading, The Bag And The Bachelor, we are informed that the menu he served a guest included sweetbreads, roast fowl and fruit salad. All produced from a bag (and I’m not talking Tesco). Very impressive!
Kitchen Essays by Lady Jekyll, by the mother of the perhaps more famous Gertrude, she of gardening fame, is a choice example of just why I love these old cookery books so much. This particular one tells of a more genteel, bygone age, of a Downton Abbey-type existence, with chapter headings such as: In The Cook’s Absence (quick, the smelling salts!), For Men Only (I thought that was a naughty magazine?), Food For Travellers (in the days long before handy service stations and Little Chef franchises), Home Thoughts Of Florence And Some Tuscan Recipes (as you do), A Little Dinner Before The Play and A Little Supper After The Play (greedy lot), Luncheons For Motor Excursions (very Toad Of Toad Hall) and A Winter Shooting Party (line up your servants in an orderly row, especially that pesky cook, who will keep absenting herself). Food For Artists And Speakers (are they so very different from the rest of us mere mortals?), Bachelors Entertaining (they do keep cropping up, these bachelors), For The Too Fat And The Too Thin (in your dreams) and Food For The Punctual And The Unpunctual. Sorry, I’m running late now; I haven’t got time to tell you what they all are…
By way of complete contrast, I now present to you: “Cook Happy.” As opposed to “Cook Miserable,” I’m guessing. Though most of the chapter headings are a little predictable for a title so brimming with hopeful expectancy, there are some more intriguing things mentioned within, such as “Salpicon” which I can safely say I have never heard of before. That’s the joy of all this. You learn something new. I bet Nigella doesn’t do a Salpicon in any of her books.