Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Food for the Spirit

359356786_113086809a_oI know I’m not alone in an addiction to reading cookery books for pleasure. It’s just that I’m not much of a cook. I can produce edible food, and we don’t starve in my house; one or two of my cookery books do have one or two pages covered with gravy or fruit stains, just to show that I have a meagre repertoire of dishes that I can cook. But I’ve got a ludicrously long bookshelf stuffed with cookery books for someone who watches Masterchef or Heston Blumenthal from behind the sofa. Most of my favourites for reading are what you might call vintage, from between the 1930s and the 70s.

One of my favourite characters in fiction is Mildred Lathbury in Barbara Pym’s ‘Excellent Women’. She’s a favourite because I identify with her so strongly – she makes Anne Elliot look like Holly Golightly, as do I – and because by the end of chapter 1 she has established herself as someone who reaches for a cookery book as comfort reading:

“I switched on the light and saw that it was ten minutes to one. I hoped the Napiers were not going to keep late hours and have noisy parties. Perhaps I was getting ‘spinsterish’ and set in my ways, but I was irritated at having been woken. I stretched out my hand towards the bookshelf where I kept cookery and devotional books, the most comforting bedside reading. My hand might have chosen Religio Medici, but I was rather glad that it had picked out Chinese Cookery, and I was soon soothed into drowsiness.”

So, what is it about cookery books that I find so satisfying? For me, they have to be cookery books, not books about food (although there are some brilliant, stylish and elegant food writers, and some very scholarly ones too). There is something delightful about a skilfully written menu or recipe, and, in the best cookery books, it is the local colour and background description combined with the recipe that summon up an atmosphere or a memory. Tucked up under the duvet, bedside lamp shedding a dim but warm light on the page, I could believe I can make these dishes. My cook’s knife is perfectly sharp, and does not skitter off the chopping board and into my thumb. I take my egg yolk mixture off the fire the split second before it is perfect, and not the split second after, by which time it has – um – split. My cold hands signify my warm heart AND my fantasy pastry-making talent. How very unlike the home life of your own dear reviewer, especially in the kitchen. And reading a beautifully described menu is sheer guilt-free, calorie-free GREED.

So, here are a few of my favourites; they’re pretty much the obvious ones on the whole. Those of you who already read cookery books for fun will wonder if I come up with any new discoveries – the answer is, probably, no. My main intention is to tempt readers who prop up the cookbook in the kitchen, fixated solely on the recipe while attempting to make Tripes a la mode de Caen, to take the same book over to the sofa, put the feet up, and just read it for pleasure.

The first favourite is Elizabeth David – there, you knew I was going to say that. Her books are for reading rather than cooking with in small households, partly because many of her recipes are unattainable. For all that, I do have one or two sticky pages in the copy of French Provincial Cooking my mother gave me for my 21st. She is well worth reading for basic methods and skills. But this book (my most cherished of hers) is more important as a record of a tradition and a generation in a particular time and place (France in the first half of the 20th century). Her writing is elegant, ironic, immensely well-informed, and very entertaining. I was spoilt for choice of portions to illustrate its charms. I was very tempted by the description of a lunch of many, many courses observed in Normandy (menu-reading as greed by proxy), but love the following anecdote from her chapter about omelettes:

L’omelette de la Mere Poulard
As everyone knows, the Hotel Poulard, formerly the Auberge de Saint-Michel Tete d’Or, at Mont St Michel, became famous for the omelettes made by the proprietress. Many writers have attempted to account for the wonderful flavour of la Mere Poulard’s omelettes, explaining that her secret lay in adding this, or that, or the other ingredient. Here is a letter, dated June 6, 1922, which she wrote to M. Robert Viel, a celebrated Paris restaurateur and collector of a famous library of cookery books:

‘Monsieur Viel,
Voici la recette de l’omelette: je casse de bons oeufs dans une terrine, je les bats bien, je mets un bon morceau de beurre dans la poele, j’y jette les oeufs et je remue constamment. Je suis heureuse, monsieur, si cette recette vous fait plaisir.*
‘Annette Poulard’
[*’Here is the recipe for the omelette: I break some good eggs in a dish, I beat them well, I put a good piece of butter in the frying pan, I throw in the eggs, and move them round constantly. I am happy, monsieur, if this recipe gives you pleasure.’]

She then goes on to tell us that at the Hotel Poulard in 1914 2fr 50 would have bought you the set menu of The Omelette, ham, fried sole, pre-sale lamb cutlets with potatoes, a roast chicken with salad, and dessert.

My copy of The Alice B Toklas Cook Book (told you – nothing original or quirky here) is now very floppy, and it happened to fall open at the page where Alice B describes her perfect Austrian cook, Kaspar, who made divine cakes. Here is the lead-in to the recipe for Sacher torte:

‘Gradually Kaspar began to confide in me. Life was not as happy for him as it had been. In the beginning there was only his fiancée Lili, his angel, but now there was a second, a devil, who wanted him to marry her and who was threatening to kill him if he did not. And he told us that he and Hitler had been born in the same village and that everyone in the village was like all the others and that they were all a little strange. This was in 1936 and we already knew Hitler was very strange indeed. Kaspar was not so much strange as weak, loving wine, women and song. But he continued to be a perfect cook. He had been for several years a cook at Frau Sacher’s restaurant, and frequently baked us the well-known Sacher torte.’

I love her distinctive voice, the way she always refers to the love of her life as ‘Gertrude Stein’, and her description of two Jewish women living in France throughout World War II, so close to danger, but with such love and faith in their fellow humans that they believed that no-one would want to harm them. It’s an amazing story – of luck, frankly, and escape through eccentricity.

Florence White: Good Things in England is great fun. Miss White is very brisk and businesslike, verging on the grumpy, as she sets out her collection of recipes, all neatly authenticated with source names and dates where known. Here she is in faintly satirical mode:

The Ministry of Agriculture sends the following communication: –
“Genuine Cider is probably the healthiest of all fermented drinks and has been brewed in Europe since the dawn of history.

[… deletion by Hilary of lots more high-flown prose] in asking for National Mark Cider, the discerning public will be obtaining a truly national beverage of great attractiveness and will be assisting in a great national development which promises to have far-reaching effects in promoting the advancement of British agriculture and the general well-being of the whole nation.”

[Back to Florence W] No recipe is given because the process is too complicated for home use, and those who wish to make cider can get directions elsewhere.’

So there.

I’ve still got a little heap next to me. It contains Edouard de Pomiane: Cooking in Ten Minutes (‘The moment you come into the kitchen light the gas. Ten-minute cookery is impossible without gas. Put a large saucepan of water on to the fire, slip on the lid and let it boil. What is the use of this water, you will ask? I don’t know. But it is bound to be useful for cooking or washing up or making coffee.’); Fortune Stanley: English Country House Cooking, a book from the 1970s that contains the recipe for British Rail Welsh rabbit* (*By permission); and 35 years away from bedsit-land, I can still read Katherine Whitehorn’s classic Cooking in a Bedsitter with delight and nostalgia.

Dorothy Hartley’s magisterial Food in England well illustrates the point that food books are not necessarily as pleasurable to read as cookery books. This is an essential reference book, a vast mine of information that I often refer to for facts and background. But her writing style is staccato and not restful. Other food writers such as Nigel Slater and Nigella Lawson I dislike because they seek to conscript me into their own hedonistic sensual world, assuming we feel guilt in eating food that might be bad for you, and need therapy and reassurance to get past it – this is a personal view, for me it just does not work, but tends to have the opposite effect of making me feel sternly puritanical. Just tell it like it is, for me. Elizabeth David’s uncoloured descriptions of Mediterranean foods and flavours – lemons, olives, tomatoes, in the post-war rationed world of England were enough to feed the imagination and bring pleasure.

So, to finish, back to Mildred Lathbury. Something subtly terrible has happened to her in her quiet life (heaven help me when I start to review novels here – I am immune to spoilers, and may find it difficult to get out of here alive) and she turns to her usual solace:

‘It must not be poetry that I read that night, but a devotional or even a cookery book. Perhaps the last was best for my mood, and I chose an old one of recipes and miscellaneous household hints. I read about the care of aspidistras and how to wash lace and black woollen stockings, and I learned that a package or envelope sealed with white of egg cannot be steamed open. Though what use that knowledge would ever be to me I could not imagine.’


Cookery book illustration courtesy of Daniel Flower – danflo on Flickr – and reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence.

9 comments on “Food for the Spirit

  1. Jackie
    May 9, 2009

    What a delightful piece. Most of those cook books are unfamiliar on this side of the Pond, over here we’ve got Betty Crocker & Fannie Farmer, both fictional reps of a corporate entity. So I enjoyed the quotes & dishes. So much history involved as well, which was surprising, though I’ve no idea why it should be.
    Your response to cook books is the opposite of mine. All the measurements in them cause my math anxiety to flare up & I can’t see anything but numbers, which makes me want to shriek. But I can see how the recipes could make for fantasy meals, so I might have to attempt a different approach & see if it helps.
    I liked how you used a Pym character to bring the review full circle. Nicely done!

  2. Moira
    May 10, 2009

    Oh my. I get endless stick from my mother because I get thoroughly immersed in her huge collection of cookery books but have seldom been known to cook anything that actually requires a recipe … so this chimed very loudly with me!

  3. Anne Roy
    May 10, 2009

    I adore cook / cookery books.

    A bedtime reading fav for me is Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking … both volumes have recipes that work and each chapter is filled with her voice and bits of her life … she must have been quite the cosy domestic person to know.

    So Mildred was right … even thought she did return home with fillet of fish which she then ate with no sauce.

    Oh, another bedside treasure is Margaret Costa’s Four Seasons Cookery Book.

  4. Joseph
    May 11, 2009

    I love cook, and every thing is food and and wine. I have discovery a place for my spirit, a place where everything is slow. This place is Castel di Salve, in Salento, Italy, and visit and wine tasting is free. You can reserve your visit by their web site

  5. kais
    May 13, 2009

    I love that site

  6. Lisa
    May 14, 2009

    Hilary, you make these books sound, er… delectable. Such humour and wisdom here. Excellent piece!

  7. Hilary
    May 15, 2009

    Thank you, Anne Roy, for reminding me of Mildred’s penitential fish without sauce! In looking at the book again, I hadn’t realised before just how punctuated Excellent Women is with food and meals, and just how much there is a sort of pathetic fallacy going on there – depressing meals mark depressing events; unexpected culinary triumphs mark secret outpourings of love – and so on. Delicious.

    I’m afraid I’ve fallen down on the job, and not provided publication details of the titles I’ve mentioned in this post. I’ll quote in-print editions wherever possible – my collection comes from second-hand shops, or 30-40 year-old purchases and gifts. So:

    Barbara Pym: Excellent Women. Virago, 2008. ISBN 978-1844085262

    Elizabeth David: French Provincial Cooking. Grub Street, 2007. ISBN 978-1904943716

    Alice B Toklas: The Alice B Toklas Cook Book. Serif, 2004. ISBN 978-1897959190

    Florence White: Good Things In England. Persephone Books, 1999. ISBN 978-1903155004

    Edouard de Pomiane: Cooking in Ten Minutes. Serif, 2008. ISBN 978-1897959619

    Fortune Stanley: English Country House Cooking. Pall Mall, 1972. ISBN 978-0269028373 (Out of print)

    Katherine Whitehorn: Cooking in a Bedsitter. Virago, 2008. ISBN 978-1844085682

    Happy hunting!

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