The Cookbook Thing

In late 1990, we returned from our year ‘around the world’, settled in together in an upstairs flat in Acton, and started to get ready to get married. Doing things, completely arse-ways, by traditional Irish standards, but not unusual for the young London Irish set of which I guess we were then a part.

This was a first run at domestic life together. Granted, we had been in each other’s ear on the ‘around the world’ year and had even inhabited a little apartment with Andy and Natasha in St. Kilda in Melbourne for several months. (Hi Andy and Natasha, where on Earth are you now?) But this was a first taste of real domesticity. We went to shops and bought placemats, a teapot, some cutlery, and a clock radio to wake us up in the morning.

We were all set.

Except we weren’t. Not really. We could cook at thing or two, a Spag Bol or a grilled pork chop. And Andy and Natasha (remember them?) had given us a good grounding the basics of the preparation of a Sunday roast; something which continues to serve me well to this very day. That was all well and good but this was Total Domesticity looming on the horizon now and we needed to be ready, we needed to be armed.

So we took ourselves down to a bookshop in Ealing Broadway and looked over the cookery books that were arrayed there. There was only one choice for me. The one pictured above. Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course. Although I knew little or nothing about Delia at that time, the book beckoned to me. You may wonder why. You may think you know why. You may surmise that it was that picture of Delia on the cover, looking so capable and wholesome, holding her egg in an undeniably sensual way…

Behave yourself! It wasn’t that at all. In fact I have no idea what you are talking about. Delia. Sensual. Really, behave. (Ahem).

No, it wasn’t anything like that. It was the shape and thickness of the book, the ‘heft’ of it in one’s hand… and it was Mum. Mum was a key part of the reason I wanted to bring Delia's book home with us.

It’s simple really. Mum had a cook book; it was the exact same size and shape and ‘heft’ as the Delia one we bought. In 1990, that book wasn’t a memory or an icon, as such. It was there, across the water, in a home by the riverside in Sligo. It has become an icon since, a lost icon but, back then it was just a book and I wanted one just like it in my home. I know it might take me many years to get it but buying Delia was a start. 

A good start.

You see the Sligo book was not just a book. Over the decades of Mum using it, it had become a venerable folio. Loose sheets with hand-written recipes were tucked lovingly between every second page. Cuttings from magazines and newspapers fell out if you opened it without due care. Mum’s book wasn’t just a book, it was a record of a lifetime of meal preparation. Nothing fancy or overblown, just excellent home-made fare, all kept between the pages of an ordinary book. Where is it now? Heaven only knows, almost literally.

It's thirty-three years since we brought Delia home with us and, without any deliberate attempt to do so, the book has grown and expanded to be the image of Mum’s book. The book is showing all the signs of a busy three decades in several kitchens, but mostly in this one. The 'sensual egg' cover is long gone and the spine is cracked and broken. Pick it up in the wrong way and front and back covers go in separate directions. It's best to lay it on the table and let it lie flat then flick your way through. There are less hand-written notes in there than there were in Mum's version. Except for one or two actual ones from Mum herself. Rather, there are colour photocopies from Sunday supplements, print outs from websites, that sort of thing. There is no order to it. It is just a random collective of recipes and guides.

As well as the many loose additions, I still often check in on my Delia and her good advice. Even when I’m making old favourites like Carbonara or Fish Pie. She is also a key part of my Christmas Morning routine, as I studiously check once again how she likes me to roast the turkey, right before I do it a completely different way. The ham is still all hers though, the cider a key part of it. The turkey giblet stock follows her faithfully too. Christmas dinner would be incomplete without her ongoing input.

But it’s those loose addendums that see the most action. Constantly being added to, by Patricia more than by me. Nothing is ever removed or thrown away.

Like Mum’s version, this has become more than just a book. It almost feels like an archive of our life together. Not something to be treasured or hoarded long after we are gone. It is more something to remind ourselves that, like Mum and Dad before us, we have travelled a long way together and, unlike them (alas) we still, hopefully, have a good way to go.

Now, that Shallot recipe… where on Earth did I tuck it in?

(The actual book)

1 comment:

Jim Murdoch said...

You know you'd think I'd have at least something to add to the conversation here. I mean, I must've encountered a cookbook or two in my life. The only one I can visualise is my mother's but it was not distinguished by heft or even illustrations. It was, however, one of the few things she felt she ought to pass on before her death. I mean she probably hadn't opened it in thirty years but it was the family cookbook. Probably dated back to the fifties which most of the house did and I actually remember the furniture and fittings from my earliest days with some nostalgia. Few items lasted past the seventies, the mirror with the lady, the ugly flower vase, the SylvaC rabbits, my dad's writing bureau and Mum's cookbook. I know she gave it to Carrie but I think Carrie might've passed it on to my daughter. It's pretty useless, full of stodgy recipes, but, a bit like a family bible, it kinda feels wrong tossing it. (For the record I have my dad's bible which is as close to a "family" bible as we have. I also hung onto the writing bureau and the rabbits.)