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.
My mother was born in a two-up, two-down, end-of-terrace house in the pretty market town of Ampthill in Bedfordshire. The money for the rent, the gas meter and the milkman were all kept in separate tins on the mantelpiece. They put a penny in the gas in the evening and when that ran out, they all went to bed.
Britain had just emerged from the nightmare of the First World War and small communities like Ampthill were counting their lost sons, husbands, fathers and brothers and building their war memorials. Her mother, from financial necessity, cooked the same series of meals every week. A cheap cut of roast beef, sliced very thinly, on Sunday, cold cuts and home made pickle on Monday (washing day), cottage pie on Tuesday, the hated Bedfordshire Clanger (with thick, grey suet pastry) on Wednesday, soup on Thursday, bread, cheese and pickle on Friday, and bread and jam on Saturday. Breakfast was always a boiled egg with a slice of bread and a scrape of butter. Cakes and biscuits were for special occasions only.
Frugality was therefore second nature to my mum, which was just as well because she married in 1939, moved to London shortly before the Blitz started, and struggled to raise two young children just as food rationing was beginning to bite.
The housewives who managed best on food coupons were those who had the ability, intelligence and imagination to conjure up decent meals from unpromising ingredients. Learning to cook was an essential skill, not an optional extra.
By the time the last food (which was meat) came off rationing in 1954, Mum had developed the cookery habits which would stay with her for the rest of her life. Even when she could finally afford to splash out on ‘better’ ingredients and spend more on meals, she didn’t – and she assiduously cut out and kept every recipe she found in magazines and newspapers which sounded simple, cheap and nutritious – almost until the day she died. She pasted the cuttings in a succession of old diaries, journals, cuttings books or novels bought cheaply from library stock sales. To those she added the ‘family’ recipes, written down from memory – used by her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother and handed down from mother to daughter over the years.
What she hardly ever did was buy a cookery book – seeing no point in spending money on something she would never use since she wasn’t remotely interested in trying anything that required more than eight ingredients, especially if she had to go out and buy any of them.
The one exception to that rule was the man who became the very first ‘celebrity’ chef – Philip Harben. He originally had a wartime radio cookery programme in which he advised the hard-pressed housewives how best to stretch their precious food rations, but after the war ended, he moved to television and effectively became the very first ‘television chef’.
He specialized in simple, straightforward cookery, concentrating on good technique and a few classic ingredients – so when Philip Harben’s Cookery Encyclopedia was published in 1955, my mum saved up money from the housekeeping and bought it.
Over the years my father, who would tell anyone who stood still long enough to listen that he was a man of very sophisticated and cosmopolitan tastes, bought her a succession of the latest cookery books, hoping she might try out a few of the recipes on him. She said ‘Thank you’ nicely, put the books in the bookcase and went off to commune with Philip Harben and her cuttings.
My mum died three years ago at the age of 93. When I was clearing out the house, I found all the cookery books my father had ever given her … still on the bookcase, absolutely pristine and untouched. I gave them to the British Heart Foundation. In the kitchen, however, was the small shelf which contained her cuttings books and the Philip Harben. I carefully packed them away and they now live on a shelf in my own kitchen.
Opening them to look for a favourite recipe is like thumbing through my life history. Mum is present on every page. Recipes she used frequently are annotated, in her handwriting, with comments about tweaking cooking times, oven temperatures and shelf positions, altering spices and herbs to suit family tastes or adding things the original recipe plainly forgot to mention like ‘FLATTEN them before you cook them’. Her recipe for rock cakes – written out carefully on a blank page – still produces the best rock cakes I’ve ever tasted. Her fool-proof biscuits are still fool-proof, and on my birthday, I still treat myself to the very same Key Lime pie that she used to make for me. At Christmas too, she had special recipes that she used over and over again. I still make her favourite mincemeat, her light Christmas cake and her infamous ‘turkey mangonnaise’ (which I suspect she invented) to use up leftovers.
The Philip Harben has been used almost to destruction. The spine is falling off, the pages are loose and the paper is stained from being turned by greasy, floury fingers for the last 60 years – but if you need to know how to roast a joint, make a sugar syrup or pan fry a fillet of plaice – he’s your man.
Mum always used an old glass sugar dredger with a dented silver top. It was her great-grandmother’s, passed down – like the recipes – from mother to daughter. Today, it’s mine, and I still use it. It’s always been in my life, it works, and I see no reason to update it even if it is over 150 years old. But more than that, of course, both it and her recipe books are a very real and tangible link not only to her but also to all the other women who went before her – women whose lives were so immeasurably harder than mine and who passed into history leaving barely a trace, except those that live on in my heart.
So now, when I stand in my kitchen making those fool-proof biscuits and dusting them with sugar from that silver-topped dredger – or add a recipe I’ve found on the internet to the cuttings book – I feel that Ruth, Annie-Laura and Annie are standing there beside me and looking on approvingly, even if they have no idea what chickpea paprikash is: and in a strange way I find that very comforting.