Cookery, Class

I read a nice essay by Katherine Whitehorn in the Observer Food Monthly once, on eating alone.

I’m not sure if I eat terribly differently when I do it alone. I know that, of necessity, what with me being a news widow and all, I eat a lot of my meals on my Jack Jones. I don’t think that there’s a huge difference between what I do by myself and what I do in company. Last week, for example, I had a fairly elaborate stir-fry with deep-fried tofu and miso soup drunk from a bowl on the side.  Tonight I am having roast butternut squash with some black-eyed bean mushroom sauce thing. Not deliberately over-elaborate with candelabrum, polished silver and stiff linen like M. Blanc, then, but not an ascetic’s dinner either. I might experiment with stuff a bit more if it’s just me, but I definitely don’t shovel hunks of cheese or slabs of chocolate down my throat. Or rather: I do, but that’s as well as and not instead of.

I own a copy of Whitehorn’s Cooking in a Bedsitter. Here it is:

It’s a 1963 Penguin, inscribed with the message “Oct-’77 To Martin from Mum with love.” (Nothing to do with me.) I used to own two copies, but gave the more recent one, with a cover like this, away.

Again, not sure where I acquired this volume, or the other one for that matter: probably Colchester (post-graduate with plenty of time on hands + not much money + surfeit of charity shops = fantastic second-hand book collection). I do remember very clearly, however, the first time I ever encountered this book. It would have been sometime around 1989, when I was at Oxford, and sharing a house with the scion of a minor branch of a major family. He had been given it as a gift and I read it avidly because, more than Entrance Exams and subfusc and boys from Eton and ivy-filled quadrangles and girls actually – actually! – called Cordelia, it gave me a clear insight into the ways of the middle classes, and made me realise they are quite different from us.

First of all, the acknowledgements credit Elizabeth David, which is a dead giveaway, because Britain is divided by the post-war cookery book: David, or Marguerite Patten. Will you be cooking courgette and herb risotto or mushroom-stuffed eggs when the revolution comes?

But this is a lovely book and I keep going back to read it and I think that Whitehorn is a wonderful writer and one hell of a woman. Give me this book any day over Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, which took me ten years to finally get round to finishing. (There’ll be more of that another time.)

I love the cover. I like the way that this is “a Penguin Handbook”, a no-nonsense manual for getting stuff done. I like the way she encourages people to work with their limitations. I admire the way she encourages people to try new stuff – something that British people do very well, as anyone who’s ever tried to find miso or garam masala or jerk seasoning in a Northern European supermarket will realise. I love the way the book describes early Sixties bedsitland as vividly as anything in Muriel Spark or The L-Shaped Room. I adore looking at the strangeness of the dishes she describes, exotic in their old-fashionedness: tripe Catalan (tenpence worth, with tomato paste); curried macaroni; mutton rissoles; green pea sandwiches; coffee jelly. It is a time of “super-bread” and evaporated milk (not, you note, “evap”.)

This was a world that was alien to me, and which always will be to some extent. It was a world of dinner parties (still a novelty for me in ’89). A very U world indeed where “paper napkins” are only “socially O.K.” when handing round hotdogs. And this – this is the bit that has stuck in my mind after all these years – was a world where parents sent spies round to check on you. Whoah. Your parents deploying someone else to poke their nose into family affairs and see if you are behaving? Worse. Having your parents’ friends round to dinner? I still think that’s weird.

Although I love the way that Whitehorn writes, peppering the text with anecdote, illustration, literature, other cookery books, there’s something about the whole thing that scares me slightly, like having your tea round your teacher’s house.

Have I cooked anything from this book? No. And I’ve always wondered whether lots of people really did knock up Haddock Monte Carlo on a two-ring. And if they did, what did it really taste like?

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One Response to “Cookery, Class”

  1. David Hunter Says:

    I was given a copy of this book as a student and found it useful as a gastronomic survival guide, both as a student and later when in employed poverty in Burnley and later in Birmingham. I will not claim to have experimented with the more elaborate dishes which required more unusual ingredients but it is a valuable basic guide for novice single cooks and it is possible to eat well cooking on a gas ring as I can testify. It makes life a lot easier if you have a pressure cooker, which I. was given later in my college days.

    I was emulating my Mother believe it or not, since early in her married life when we were still small, she moved with my Father to a house which was being renovated around us and we were reduced to cooking on a Primus stove only; most of our main meals came out of the pressure cooker, especially since post-war rationing had not yet ended and the butcher decided what he was prepared to offer, favouring his better known and more favoured customers. Just as well my Mother was trained in cookery and experienced otherwise we would have been on short commons rations!

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