A Mother’s Vintage Cookery: Brownies and Burnt Trout

Rare Book Division, The New York Public Library. “Grand Ballroom of the Hotel Plaza” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed March 30, 2017. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/b2e3353a-c3d5-1f05-e040-e00a18060630

Jenny Kingsley’s memoir looks back upon a time when art by women might have been considered the art of cookery. How times have changed!

My American mother never made Brownies, nor much else, besides. In truth, the only recipe I remember her attempting was for trout with slivered almonds and white wine, and she burnt the fish. We did have many wonderful cookery books, but my mother didn’t use the books herself. Instead, she pencilled notes (“use instead”, “a little less”, “x 2”, “leave out”) in the margins of the recipes as a guide for our cook and housekeeper, Beatrice, a very, very large woman from Louisiana, who wore a white uniform with an apron and was always on a diet but never lost any weight. She had a heart of the purest gold, did Beatrice, and whatever she cooked was delicious, so one can only presume she didn’t heed my mother’s instructions.

I suspect that as a sign of independence – perhaps rebellion – I took up cooking as a teenager. My best friend, Priscilla, and I would cook for our mothers’ dinner parties to earn pocket money. The mothers were very patient and probably would far rather have relied on professional cooks, but they were touched – intrigued perhaps – in a rather offhand way by what seemed to them our beguiling and possibly enterprising initiative. Indeed, in the earlier part of my journalism career I worked as a cookery sub editor.

When I settled in England, with her permission, I brought some of my mother’s cookery books with me. And over the years I’ve added to my vintage collection with pickings from second hand bookshops and garden fête stalls. And they’re as useful now as they were when first published. They could be the reading list for a course exploring the changing nature of cookery literature and culinary habits.

In the pile is my undated (possibly 1950s), yellow-paged, raggedy, red-clothed Mrs. Beeton’s Everyday Cookery. It epitomises the perspective that proper cooking at the time was meant to be a necessary function of every day life, rather than a source of pleasure, the leisure activity it is now. The book suited the demands of “smaller households… always with due regard to economy”. It is printed in clear type with six coloured plates and a scattering of black and white illustrations. There are chapters we would never write today: “How to Wait at Table” (instructions for servants), “The Art of Using Up”, and “Farinaceous Preparations”. One reason for cooking is “to render mastication easy”. The text presumes that we’re addressing women.

Many of the recipes could be found in today’s cookbooks indexed with more flamboyant names; although I doubt if few of us might now prick our walnuts for pickling with a darning needle. Also, it’s unlikely that the cookery books of celebrity chefs would feature recipes for Sheeps’ Brains Sauce or Pig’s Ears (maybe Heston Blumenthal’s Snail Porridge could be a fair equivalent). We don’t refer to pastry dough as paste; we don’t measure in gills or pecks.

Ambrose Heath, author of The Queen Cookery Book (Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1960), also relished offal. He quotes Escoffier: “calf’s brains form the most wholesome and reparative diet for all those who are debilitated by excessive headwork”. Mr. Heath was the cookery correspondent for Queen magazine (now Harper’s Bazaar) from 1938 until 1964 and was the author of over fifty cookery books. He endeavoured “to educate the slightly lower stratum of the middle classes in the new dishes that I had so happily discovered”, those being French “bourgeois and provincial cookery” as opposed to haute cuisine “so beyond the reach of the home kitchen”.

Mr Heath reminds us how after the Second World War there came a period of austerity; it was not until 1951 that there “would be no more skimping and scraping; no more dried egg powder, no more saccharine; even the possibility of egg and cream”. He doesn’t list ingredients separately but rather specifies them in the instructions in his chatty, slightly pompous style. For Wild Duck with Red Cabbage: “before we leave this pleasant bird, here is one simple recipe that I should like to give. We need not worry too much about the age of the bird, but prolong our cooking time accordingly”.

There are no pictures or illustrations in Mr. Heath’s book but Food in Vogue –Six Decades of Cooking and Entertaining (Harrap & Co., Ltd., 1976) would appeal to the hungry art historian. The drawings and photographs from the 1920s until the 1970s include work by Cecil Beaton, Norman Parkinson, Irving Penn, Toulouse-Lautrec, Edward Ardizzone, Salvador Dali and Picasso. There are reprinted articles and recipes (many with titles in French), by society hostesses and cookery writers such as Elizabeth David, Robert Carrier and Arabella Boxer. Aldous Huxley writes about “The Cheerful Dining-room” (as opposed to that “gloomy thing” first introduced in the 1850s) and “Wedding Breakfasts”. We learn how to cook what VIPS – Graham Greene, Vivien Leigh, Sir Laurence Olivier, Pablo Picasso, Alec Guinness, Jean Cocteau and Andre Malraux – savoured in Paris restaurants in 1955.

Another grand authority is The Bloomingdales Book of Entertaining (Random House Inc., 1976). It trumpets the “modern mood of ease and informality, comfort and practicality”. “Natural elegance” sums up the fresh ideal in entertaining. (And one is relieved to know that “the tedious boy-girl syndrome is fast fading away…after all you’re not recreating Noah’s Ark”.)

Readers are introduced to hosts and hostesses who exemplify the new “entertaining identity”, such as James Beard, the showy food writer, television cook and author of the classic American Cookery (Little Brown and Company, 1972). Other bon vivants are actress and cookery writer Madhur Jaffrey and Gael Green, once New York magazine’s “insatiable food critic”. Gael says that if she “had to lay down one guiding law… it’s better to have mediocre food and fascinating, outgoing guests than a gastronomic tour de force and a bunch of monosyllabic stiffs”. Indeed, the recipes in the book are perfectly acceptable wherever, rather than adventurous: for example, Marinated Shrimp, Camembert Mousse, Canard Aux Raisins, Ratatouille, Pear Sorbet. But the ideas for ice cream sundaes with fruit, liqueurs and biscuits are “simply divine”, as one of the hostesses might proclaim. There are pictures of the starry folk, but none of the food.

Another inventive book is The Albert Stockli Cookbook: Splendid Fare (Alfred A Knopf Inc., 1970 – my copy is personally signed). Swiss born Mr Stockli was the owner-chef of a renowned fairy-tale-like country inn in Connecticut, called Stonehenge, which my family occasionally visited. Stockli’s repertoire includes Alpine Cheese Soup (with Gruyère), and crêpes and batters with beer. He cooks blossoms in beer batter, too, for canapés.

In 1991 my son, Patrick, though then but a baby, gave me (with a snippet of advice from his father) Arabella Boxer’s Book of English Food – a Rediscovery of British Food from Before the War (Hodder & Stoughton, 1991) – again, no pictures but sketches depicting life upstairs. The revered cook wrote that the British are a “strange mixture of complacency and insecurity, for they genuinely don’t seem to value their own culinary inheritance” and have gone “overboard for Mediterranean food”. Whatever was French was best. Ms. Boxer’s very English dishes, which are easy to follow, with readily accessible ingredients, could have been the province of all social classes though they’re presented and discussed in the context of ‘upstairs’ menus. Now they’re part of our back to basics cookery culture (for example: Cold Roast Loin of Pork, Steamed Spring Vegetable Pie, Toffee Pudding).

When I compare my 1976 edition of The All New Fannie Farmer Boston Cooking School Cookbook (Bantam Books) with Marion Cunningham’s 1994 revision, The Fannie Farmer Cookbook (Bantam Books), I find some recipes have been revised to include less fatty ingredients and “ethnic” flavours, as the author writes, and there are more vegetarian dishes. The calorie table now includes columns showing cholesterol, fat, protein and carbohydrate content. These standard sized paperback books, which are not pretty to look at, are excellent for grounding in the fundamentals, and more informative and comprehensive than my Susan Spaull and Lucinda Bruce-Gardyne’s Leith’s Techniques Bible (Bloomsbury Press, 2003). But the former just don’t have the great glossy looks of the latter.

A fitting finale is Jean Hewitt’s New York Times Natural Foods Cookbook (Quadrangle Books, 1970). Ms Hewitt was the cookery correspondent for the newspaper at the time and an early advocate of natural foods. The book jacket features, appropriately, a colourful Rousseau-like landscape. We are treated to a collection of more than 700 recipes from contributors across America for dishes made with “fresh, unrefined and non-highly processed ingredients”. The author dares to suggest the “full use of those much-neglected storehouses of nutrients, the organ meats” and vegetarian dishes as occasional alternatives to meat dishes. Although when the book was written there was a movement championing the natural way of eating for good health, this was viewed as quirky, a whole lot of tasteless alpha sprouts and sunflower seeds, certainly not a basis for planning the dinner party menu.

Nowadays voices in cookery literature and the media echo what Ms. Hewitt wrote nearly fifty years ago. “Around the turn of the century, before the advent of large-scale mechanized farming and modern food production methods, people took the special pleasures of fresh, natural and unrefined foods for granted”…Many people “lived on land in rural areas or cultivated backyard gardens in towns. Today people are discovering the textures, tastes and nutritional benefits of natural fresh, foods that Grandmother knew”.

Times have changed. Words and expressions such as organic, home-grown, free range, wild, low fat, gluten free, dairy free, vegan, seasonal produce, freshly picked, are part of Nigella, Hugh, Heston and Jamie’s everyday banter. Allotments are sought after status symbols. Recipe titles could be the new haiku. There’s a photograph of Heston Blumenthal in the National Portrait Gallery; food photography is an accomplished art. Cookbooks decorate the coffee table, and people might even use the recipes.

I thank my mother for sharing her cookery books with those who served the simmering stew. And, who knows, maybe the illustrations in these tomes inspired my friend Priscilla Heine to become the established artist that she is now.