In his old age, my Grandpa collected elastic bands on his walking stick. The wooden handle, worn smooth by his knobbly hands, became a mass of reds, greens and browns by the time it reached the base. So, when my mum handed me an old cookbook that was really more a bundle of tattered pages bound together with an elastic band, I could guess to whom it had belonged. Practical Cookery by Marjorie Michael had originally belonged to my Grandpa’s mother and she had handed it down to him, along with the instructions and extra recipes that he has scribbled in the margins.
My parents couldn’t understand my fascination with Practical Cookery, as I pored over the recipes and carefully reordered the pages. But, for me, this is a piece of social history. It is perhaps the closest I’ll ever get to my culinary heritage - though, as I would find out, not a heritage I necessarily wanted to claim (more on that later…). My auntie squealed with excitement, and a little sadness, when she spotted it on my bookshelf. For her, it evokes memories of my grandparents’ divorce. When my Grandpa was left to fend for himself, he turned to his mother’s book as an authority on how to get a meal to the table.
Practical Cookery is structured around courses, from soups, to meats, vegetable dishes and eggs, through to pastry and puddings. It begins with a section entitled ‘Food Values’, which gives advice on ‘body building’, ‘energy giving’, ‘blood hardening’ and ‘bone hardening’ foods. A forerunner to Jamie’s Super Food books, if you will. Each chapter opens with hints for the cook, but otherwise instructions are direct and sparse. A level of basic knowledge is assumed that many millennials, accustomed to the handholding of modern cookbooks, have lost. The temperature of a ‘moderate’ or ‘hot’ oven, how much of a flavouring to add, what you are testing for when you skewer a cake and many other things go unexplained. In a hyper-visual culture, it’s also strange to cook from a book with no pictures. Are my potatoes browned enough? Is my sauce the right consistency? I yearn for photographic confirmation that my meals are ‘correct’.
I decide to spend a week cooking from the book. “Really?” asks my other half as he dubiously eyes a recipe for boiled tongue. I reassure him that tongue will not be on the menu - I’m interested to see how someone who follows a pescatarian diet, which is how we predominantly eat, would fare in the 1930s. As I write my rather limited weekly shopping list, I realise how fortunate I am. In my supermarket, for instance, I can buy miso to use in a marinade for aubergines, before roasting them until they are meltingly soft and suffused with a deep umami flavour. When this cookbook was written, not only would miso be unheard of, but even aubergine would have been nigh on impossible to find. And so many things that I use regularly to create fragrant vegetarian curries - fresh chilli, cumin, coriander, turmeric, tamarind paste - are not there to add colour.
There are, I admit, some nods to food from further afield, but the consequences are often unappetising flavour combinations. The curry sauce consists of infusing stock with desiccated coconut (so far so good), then adding apples, onions, sultanas, lemon juice and jam (less good). A pineapple and banana salad sees the fruit mixed with cream cheese, walnuts, lemon, lettuce and grated carrot, then dressed in mayonnaise. Even recipes from Europe are controversial. Italians would weep to read the instructions for ‘risotto’, in which rice is “boiled quickly”, before stirring in cheddar and tomato sauce at the last moment.
Beyond a squeeze of lemon or a grating of nutmeg, I decide to stick to ingredients found closer to our shores. But while I never expected to find excellent recipes from other cultures, I am surprised that the best of British produce is not celebrated. So many of the Spring ingredients that I enjoy at the moment are nowhere to be found. There is no rhubarb, no chard, spring greens or broad beans. Herbs that can be grown in our gardens - thyme, dill, sorrel, mint - are not harnessed to add bright, clean notes to dishes. Just occasionally I stumble across simple, sympathetic cooking of seasonal ingredients, such as asparagus cooked in lots of butter and served on toast. Most of the time, though, it is a case of a little parsley and a lot of potato.
Just as there is little celebration of seasonal British produce, there is also little pleasure taken in the process of cooking itself. My favourite food writers, from Rachel Roddy to Meera Sodha, have taught me that time and care coax the best out of ingredients. Yet in an era when every task took much longer, from washing clothes to the weekly shop, it seems time is a luxury. Prep time, in particular, must be minimal - ingredients are thrown in a pot, or in the oven, and left to cook. Onions are not sweated gently until they are sweet and mellow, but sliced and quickly fried or boiled vigorously with other ingredients. All vegetables are treated equally: twenty minutes for boiled potatoes, twenty minutes for (very soft) green beans and peas. Onions are not sweated gently until they are sweet and mellow, but sliced and quickly fried or boiled vigorously with other ingredients. The result is, with some exceptions, rather a mush.
This style of cooking is about function rather than flavour; a utilitarian process of getting the basic nutrition required. I am saddened by the thought that my forebears did not experience the joy of cooking, that journey from base ingredients to delicious meal. I wonder if they found joy in eating together, either? Did they have time to chat the evening away over the debris of empty plates and wine glasses on the dining table? The baking chapter is the one place where care and time is often found, perhaps in kneading dough, resting and rolling pastry or making preserves. Steamed sponges soaked in syrup; stale bread transformed into custard-steeped puddings; intricate tarts and flans; delicate biscuits and petit fours; cakes that don’t need mountains of buttercream to taste delicious. Here, there is pleasure in the making and in the eating, too.
Below is a list of what we ate during the week. I quickly discovered that what are listed as vegetarian meals are often, in fact, side dishes and learned to scale up the portion sizes accordingly. Even so, after several dinners that were essentially just boiled vegetables, we turned to peanut butter on toast as a second course.
- Savoury baked fish: White fish fillets are covered in grated onion, sliced tomato, parsley and breadcrumbs, before being baked. This was quite tasty, although the cooking times left the onion a little raw and the fish slightly overdone.
- ‘Spanish’ rice: The inverted commas are needed here, as there wasn’t much that the Spaniards would recognise in this dish. Rice is boiled with grated onion, grated carrot and diced tomato, stirred with Cheddar cheese and curry powder, then poured into a wetted moulds to set before turning out. I had learned my lesson from the still-raw onion of the previous night, so I deviated from the recipe slightly by gently frying the onion before beginning. It wasn’t a sophisticated meal, but it was soft and gooey, with a background warmth from curry powder. Comforting, nursery food.
- Green salad (side dish): A much more classic salad than the pineapple and banana number mentioned above, this contained cucumber, tomato, radish and lettuce. The French dressing was delicious (if a little incongruous when paired with the Spanish rice) and is a recipe I'll definitely return to.
- Vegetable hotpot: Sliced vegetables - potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, celery, turnips, onions and lentils - are layered with dabs of butter, then stock is added to the pot and it is baked for an hour and a half. The result soft and bland, though inoffensive. Proof that most things are improved by a poached egg and a good grind of pepper.
- Curried lentils with rice: I was relieved to find a dish where onions not boiled, but gently fried in fat - here, with curry powder added for the last minute. Lentils, desiccated coconut, sultanas and stock are then added and simmered until soft. Although it did not have the depth of flavour I have come to expect from a dal, it was sweet and warming.
- Spaghetti tomatoes: This was one of several recipes for stuffed tomatoes in this book. You start by halving and hollowing large tomatoes. Chopped cooked spaghetti is mixed with a white sauce and the tomato pulp, spooned into the tomatoes and covered with croutons and grated cheese. Bake in the oven or under the grill until golden brown. It was like a fresher, tastier version of tinned spaghetti hoops.
- Apple flan: A recipe that shows simple is best. You need nothing more than very crisp, slightly sweetened pastry crowned with a ring of sliced apples. There is no frangipane or icing, but it is spread with a mix of butter and sugar that turns the apples a golden, caramel brown upon baking.
- Household cake: The cakes in this book aren't the decadent, multi-layered, over-iced affairs of the modern day. The idea of a cake for a special occasion is a fruit cake packed with dried cherries, currants, sultanas, raisins, peel, almonds and spices. This a more simple, everyday cake that uses less fruit, fat and eggs. I was concerned it would be dense, with only 1 egg and a method of mixing that is more similar to making a crumble than beating air into a cake. Yet, though thin, this cake is glorious and rather light. Crisp on the outside with a very soft, buttery crumb in the middle. It’s light enough to eat every day, but tasty enough to feel like a treat. It’s the type of thing my granny would have eaten with a wedge of cheese and my dad would spread liberally with butter, but I think it’s best eaten unadulterated. It works equally well in a lunchbox or with a cup of tea in the afternoon. Recipe below.
- 6oz flour (or 4oz flour and 2oz ground rice)
- 1 1/2 teaspoons of baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- A little grated nutmeg
- 3oz of sugar
- 3oz butter
- 2oz currants
- 2oz sultanas
- 1oz peel
- 1 egg
- Milk and water
- Grease tin and line the bottom only with greased paper.
- Prepare fruit (I presume this means weigh out!)
- Mix flour, salt and baking powder.
- Rub in fat until the mixture is like fine crumbs.
- Add beaten egg and sufficient milk to make a slack dough.
- Mix in fruit.
- Put into tin and bake in a moderate oven (I baked at 180°C) for 45 minutes - 1 hour. Test with a hot skewer or a hat pin (I love this!).