Wednesday 18 April 2018

Cooking Up History... - Celia Rees

Cookery Books
Like many writers, I have lots of books: fiction, non fiction, biographies, books bought for research which could cover almost anything, travel books, history books, books about writing,  myths and legends. The list is endless. I have many book cases and book shelves but they are all stuffed full, so the books spill into piles: current reading, current writing projects, books I vaguely mean to read about things I vaguely mean to do. I need to get rid of some but like other writers, I find that difficult. I might need them. I know if I get rid of something, I will almost certainly have an idea which means I need to look at that very book.  Not only that, there's a deeper problem. I've had some of these books for a long time, since childhood, school, university. My own history is on those shelves.

No-where is this more apparent than on the cookery book shelves. I have a storage problem here, too. The bookcase in the kitchen which holds my collection is  jammed with spillover stacked around. Time for a cull, but once I begin to look at what's there, I feel reluctant to lose any of them. As Neil Young says: all my changes are there. Cookery books take you back to a particular time and place. Not only your own personal circumstances, but the society around you. I grew up in the fifties and sixties in a lower middle class household at a time when for most people (people like us) olive oil was sold in the chemist as a cure for ear ache, coffee came out of a bottle and spaghetti came out of a tin.
My mother was a very good cook, as her mother had been before her, but the food we ate was a plain, British cuisine. British food has been much maligned, perhaps because it is so familiar to us, or maybe because restaurant and hotel food used to do it so badly, but when it is done well, it is very good indeed. My mother could see no reason to go outside her extensive repertoire of traditional dishes. If she used a recipe book at all, it was Marguerite Patten.

As a child, I was happy enough to go along with this, I knew nothing else, but as an older teenager, I began to be aware that there were different kinds of food out there, the kind of things that people ate in books and in films. My first introduction to foreign food, as it was suspiciously termed, was Chinese. My brother took me to a Chinese restaurant in Birmingham for a Businessman's Lunch. After some initial caution, it looked so different, I tried a forkful of Chow Mein and I loved it! Deep Fried Banana - even better.  Not long after this, a boyfriend took me to an Italian restaurant in Soho. I burnt my mouth on the Cannelloni that I had chosen because I wasn't sure how to eat 'proper' spaghetti but I was determined to learn.

My first foray into 'foreign' cooking was when my brother introduced me to Vesta and a whole battery of exotic meals: Chow Mein, Risotto, Paella and Curry. I thought they were achingly sophisticated and they didn't tax my minimal (at this time) culinary skills.

My mother did not approve. She didn't object to the foreignness but she did object to almost everything else. The highly processed nature of it, all the goodness freeze dried out of it.  If my brother and I wanted to eat food like this, we would learn how to cook it together from fresh ingredients. She bought an international cookery book called something like Foods From Around the World, which to my lasting regret I no longer have, and we never looked back.

When I went away to university, this little book went with me - a gift from my mother. Wise woman, she knew the ways to a man's heart. I've had the book ever since, stained and dog-eared the pages browned and foxed. I still cook from it sometimes - there is an excellent recipe for Sweet and Sour Pork - and Goulash.

After university, I moved to Manchester and remember buying Susan Campbell and Caroline Conran's  Poor Cook in the bookshop in St Anne's Square. I forget the name of the shop but it is a Waterstones now. Manchester introduced me to different cuisines:  Italian, Greek, Mexican, Peking Chinese as well as different styles of Indian cooking. I had my first taste of Lasagna, Hummus, Moussaka, Peking Duck, Chilli Con Carne, Rogan Josh. I got the hang of eating spaghetti and mastered chopsticks. Susan Campbell and Caroline Conran not only taught me how to prepare different kinds of recipes but also told me about food, cookery and cookery writers. The ingredients were readily available: ethnic shops for vegetables and spices, hippy health food places for the beans, chick peas and lentils needed for vegetarian recipes (like those in The Cranks Recipe Book - what goes around comes around). Not every effort was a success, I remember my first attempt at Hummus had the look and consistency of quick setting cement, but I was hooked on trying different things and hooked on cookery books. I bought books on Greek Cookery, Indian Cookery, French, Italian. I discovered the great cookery writers, Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson and read their books avidly. I found that a good cookery book is not just about recipes, it is about the places the recipes come from, the people who live there, what they eat and how they live. Cookery books like this make you want to travel, experience those places for yourself.

Nothing evokes the past more than a particular dish, a particular recipe and, for me, nothing conjures a time more than the book in which that recipe is to be found. From Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson through Graham Kerr, Keith Floyd and the Two Fat Ladies,  River Cafe, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, to Ottolenghi and Hemsley and Hemsley, these cookery books don't just catalogue a personal culinary history, they take us from the middle of the twentieth century into the new millennia. They chart changes in what we eat, and how we live. The market follows taste and demand. What was once a rarity is now readily available in any supermarket. One day, Ottolenghi and zahtah will mark a point in our history as clearly as Marguerite Patten and Camp coffee. That's why I can't get rid of my old cookery books. No matter how old they are, or what kind of state they are in, they speak of time and place and what the world was like then.

Celia Rees


Penny Dolan said...

I have cookery book shelves that are very similar other than that my old reliable reference is a broken-backed Good Housekeeping tome.

I recall, in my teens, worrying my economical, plain-cooking mother by making a "boeuf en daube" for the first time, purely because it was a central dish in Woolf's "Mrs Dalloway", and it led me into Elizabeth David's cookery writing and onward.

There may not be any nostalgically stained recipes in an era of tablets and screens, which is rather a pity.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Penny, my older sister got rid of her cookery books when she discovered cookery blogs! Her argument is that if she wants a particular recipe, she can Google it. The trouble is, while that is fine for specific recipes, there's nothing like browsing and discovering new things.

Celia, I see your mother's point about doing it with fresh ingredients! I have never, in all the years since I left home, bought pre-prepared food, except the occasional pie.

I still have my school cookery textbook, but rarely if ever use it. I am still buying the occasional book when I just cant resist - Jewish cookery, sentimental recipes from old milk bars(not sure what you call those in England, but you do have them), Greek cookbooks, Middle Eastern books by Claudia Roden, even a Game Of Thrones cookbook with mostly mediaeval recipes!

I think that English cooking can be very good when done properly, indeed - as someone said, you can't get away with bad cooking of plain food, because you don't have sauces to hide it. It occurred to me just how interesting English cuisine could be when I first read The Hobbit(all those items in Bilbo's pantry) and Lord of the Rings(The Prancing Pony inn).

Celia Rees said...

Sounds as though you took the same route as me, Penny. All those wonderful dishes in books and Elizabeth David told you what to do. Boeuf en Daube is a tough one to start with - I can just see your mother looking doubtful. How did it turn out? I’m the same, Sue. Still adding to the collection. I’ve just bought Claudia Roden’s new edition. I di don’t. Know about the Game of Thrones cookbook. I’ll look out for that. Although the red wedding feast might be a little hard to digest.

Susan Price said...

Lovely piece, Celia. (And I don't mean a sandwich.)

AnnP said...

Yes, this brought back some lovely memories - thank you. Camp coffee, Vesta chow mein, Graham Kerr. And my mother's first attempt at spaghetti bolognese with the usual mince, a tin of Heinz spaghetti and mashed potato!

Michelle Ann said...

I also had a similar culinary upbringing! In our case I think Bird's Eye pizza was the first foreign dish my mother tried. I still remember how amazed I was when I eventually visited Italy and tried the real thing. We did have curry as children though, as my mother had worked for an Indian Army colonel. However, I doubt if Indians would have recognised it, as it consisted of mince and onions with a teaspoonful of curry powder, and was served with potatoes and green vegetables. It seemed very tasty though, compared to English food. My first cookbook was called Cooking in a Bedsit, or something similar, as that was what I had when I first moved to London. I shall have to see if I've still got it.

Becca McCallum said...

I just took a look at my cookery book shelf: I have a few much written-on Nigella books, Diana Henry, my grandma's 'The Glasgow Cookery Book', 'Cherry Cake and Ginger Beer' (about food from traditional children's literature) and Mary Berry's baking book. I love my recipe books and hate using a computer or tablet to make something. I like to write all over them too - dates I made certain recipes, who was there, if we enjoyed it. It's like a mini history of my food life!

Celia Rees said...

Great Leda, Becca. I hadn’t thought of that but I find the pages interleaved with postcards and recipes written out by friends in a Pre- digital age. My mother used to make curry, too, usually out of left overs and featuring sultanas and apple. British version of curry courtesy of the Raj.

Lynne Benton said...

Sorry I've come late to this post, Celia, but I loved it! My copies of Marguerite Patten and No Time to Cook look much like yours and have been well-used, as is my Cooking in a Bedsit, Michelle. I now have so many cookery books that I've long since run out of shelves to put them on tidily, but I can't bear to get rid of any. And there's nothing like browsing through them looking for a particular recipe and finding something else instead...

Sue Purkiss said...

So many familiar books here!