Retro Appeal, Contemporary Lessons

Bookish Tuesday and some more cookery books I’ve been leafing through recently – Len Deighton’s Action Cook Book and Où est le Garlic.

They’ll always have a nostalgic aspect for me, as my dad gave them to me when I left home for university – and the mysteries of chopping onions and garlic were laid open to me. They’re also nostalgic for a time you could adorn one cookbook with a picture of an armed gentleman and a floozy in a nightdress, and another with snails and Gauloises – but the appeal of these goes beyond retro-kitsch.

Some of the recipes are great, and I really like the comic strip style to them:

I also always appreciate really good, down to earth advice like this:

Wear an apron if you like, but in any case have a belt into which you can tuck a clean cloth. It will save you time and temper looking for it.
(Où est le Garlic)

But the thing that’s grabbed my attention is the attitude to food. There’s something more than a quaint period interest here, although you do get great snippets like this, which would be unimaginable in a cookery book from 2010:

Controversial as a flavouring element, although I can hardly imagine life without it (…) Don’t put pieces of garlic into a dish unless you either crush them thoroughly or fry the garlic in oil and then remove it. People who don’t like garlic will go out of their minds if they get pieces in their mouths.
(Action Cook Book)

You don’t get Nigel Slater worrying about FREAKING OUT his guests by serving visible garlic… But these 1969 sentiments have been echoed very recently by people like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall:

Each onslaught of mechanized farming and agriculture brings us a step nearer to being battery hens ourselves. Where is the restaurant that serves a fine free-range chicken full of its own flavour, with just a background of freshly picked herbs?
(Action Cook Book)

And we still get polemics about bread which haven’t moved on so much from this:

The bread will be real and not the squashy, wrapped rubbish that is sold here in such abundance and which even restaurants unblushingly serve.
(Où est le Garlic)

Something which seems very much of now, with a contemporary environmental twist to it, is eating seasonally. This is something which, from our random collection of books, seems to be a constant theme in British writing about food for the last forty years at least. The Action Cook Book has a great chart on food in season, and this comment, which we haven’t moved on from as much as you might expect in four decades:

Every month the seasons disappear, for more and more foods are available permanently. I have therefore listed the seasons for the cook with a certain amount of trepidation. City-dwellers – never over-conscious of the natural cycle of the seasons – will soon lose their last point of reference: the food shop.
(Action Cook Book)

The second aspect which I think can say something to us is an unashamedly educational approach, especially in the French book, which sets out in pretty exhaustive detail the theory behind styles and methods of cooking – and then, for a book which intends to teach something, it doesn’t hold our hands through recipes, but covers the most ground by showing the variations achievable within basic styles and techniques.

It’s about getting people to know how to cook – not just how to follow recipes. This is what I like best about these books. Anyone can cook by following a recipe – but understanding why you do certain things will make us more confident and happy in our cooking. And this is something I feel we may be in danger of losing – it’s hard enough to find the time to pass on cooking knowledge to our children, but it becomes even harder if our lack of confidence is masked by a reliance on step-by-step recipes and celebrity cook brands.

Be relaxed, don’t get hung up on perfection, become comfortable with the basics – in your own kitchen you shouldn’t feel obliged to concoct, I don’t know, a pigeon & turkish delight timbale to impress an imaginary Gregg Wallace hanging over your shoulder…

Each chef has assistants called commis, some may have three. You are going to do all these tasks; it’s a tricky job but relax, you aren’t directing a battle. Even if the meal is a write-off your guests will put up with it if you stay in a good mood; but that may be easier said than done.
(Où est le Garlic)

One thought on “Retro Appeal, Contemporary Lessons

  1. An interesting post looking at cook books from a different perspective. Quite thought provoking too! Being able to follow a recipe successfully doesn’t necessarily make someone a good cook!
    Teresa x

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