What sowed the first seeds of the passion that still drives you today? It’s not always easy to put a finger on something as far back as that. Sometimes, it’s only a chance remark or encounter that triggers a deep-seated memory, and makes you think – that was the moment – that’s what did it…
Whichever of my interests I pick – and for the purposes of this blog, let’s stick with food – the answer to that question is pretty much always some book or other. As only child who was brought up by a working mother, there was often more companionship to be found on the bookshelves than in the rest of the house. Raiding them soon became my favourite pastime. Once I had investigated what a thesaurus was, looked at all the pictures in my late father’s histories of ecclesiastical and military medieval architecture, and been left baffled by Spike Milligan’s back catalogue, I moved on to the shelf in the kitchen that contained my mother’s cookbooks.
I don’t want to be too gender-normative here – but, while other rooms held books belonging to both my mother and my father, the cookbooks were exclusively my mother’s. She was by no means a housewife or a hostess, or even especially domestic – she didn’t have the luxury of time to devote herself to much beyond the essential tasks of housekeeping, in between juggling a full-time job and a young daughter. But she was of the generation of women who had still studied ‘home economics’ at school as very much a feminine pursuit – who had taken exams on how to budget for a household based on a single, given wage – who had learned the correct way to set a table for a dinner party – who knew how to fold napkins into tulips. It was a world on its way out when she entered adulthood, and an entirely alien one to me. But one particular book – a book that I was drawn back to again and again – gave me an enchanting and formative glimpse of it.
That book was The Cookery Year, a Reader’s Digest publication by Zena Skinner and Margaret Coombes – though I had to look their names up just to write this, and when I found them, they didn’t ring a bell. Published in 1973, the book has a clear authorial voice, but, unlike so many modern recipe books, it wasn’t led by the personalities of either Zena or Margaret. It’s a calm, authoritative, disciplined voice, comprehensive in its knowledge of ingredients, seasons, techniques and (these were by far my favourite parts) social occasions and etiquette.
There were main three sections. The first, ‘Buying for Quality’, taught you exactly how to purchase your ingredients seasonally, usually recommending that you do terribly romantic things like ‘ask your fishmonger to…’, or ‘request that your grocer…’, all a world away from our standard Thursday-night dash around Tesco. The final section, ‘Methods and Techniques’, did pretty much what it said on the tin. My absolute favourite part, though, was at the centre – ‘Twelve Months of Recipes’. Twelve Months of Recipes introduced each month with the fruit, vegetables, meat and fish at their prime at that point in the year, suggesting recipes to make the most of them. Then, for every month there was a typical event, with a suggested menu and tips for the hostess that went far beyond what to serve.
January, for example, taught you how to throw a new-year dinner party. In April, Easter feasting was explained. June brought a summer wedding reception, November a high tea, and December, of course, meant Cooking for Christmas. There were certain ways of doing these things, and while your resources might vary, The Cookery Year would tell you, firmly but fairly, how to ensure that they were done just so, regardless.
It wasn’t just the recipes that intrigued me – though they were well-written, and full of references to traditions and practices that appealed to the rather romantic child that I was. It was the sense of order and decorum. For every month, there was a recipe; for every point in the year, or even the day, there was a social gathering, an event with food at its heart – something both to depend upon and look forward to. I had never been to a wedding in my life, certainly not one where the reception involved the women of the family laying out a home-made buffet in the sitting room. The idea of looking forward to a season of summer weddings, Larkin-like with rounds of friends and family, was quite beyond me. We didn’t entertain. We certainly never threw parties for New Year. We didn’t eat high tea, either – nobody was back from work by 5 o’clock, and the only people I’d ever encountered who ate high tea were characters in the Enid Blyton novels I also adored.
The Cookery Year was – and still is, as it sits on the shelf with its spine reinforced with masking tape and its pages threatening to flutter out – the last gasp of a food culture that now seems quite alien. I wasn’t around in 1973, so I don’t know whether it was verging on being a relic even then. As a child I didn’t quite know whether to approach it as fact or as fiction. I’m not sure that I distinguished between the two. Just as I dreamed that I might one day go to a school where the curriculum would principally involve midnight feasts and lashings of ginger beer, I half-expected, half-hoped that I would grow up into an adult world where eating and drinking was so perfectly codified, so reliable, so comforting, and yet so beautiful and so festive – a way to bring people together, and to provide.
Would I really like to live in a world where my role, as a woman, would be limited to the perfectly-ordered world of The Cookery Year? Of course not. I don’t have time to visit grocers and make scones on a daily basis – instead I get to have a job and a life outside the home. But the idea that there is a certain way of doing things – a perfectionism that can drive me and others mad on a regular basis – has proven almost impossible to shake off. So, too, the idea that to shop, cook and feed people well is something that requires thought and careful attention – not just to the food, but to the surface it’s served on, the glasses and plates and cutlery used, the order it appears in, the finishing touches.
My poor despairing mother always wonders where I got my ‘just so’ notions from. I strongly suspect The Cookery Year might be to blame.