Friday 18 February 2011

My life in cookbooks

As most of you know, I am a keen cook as  well as a comper, and have sometimes combined my hobbies to win some wonderful prizes in recipe and food related  competitions, including a cookery holiday to Italy, a gourmet tour of India and a new kitchen.

So where  does my inspiration come from? I love shopping for food,watching cookery programmes on TV, wandering round farmers' markets at home or abroad and collecting recipes. I have hundreds and hundreds of recipe books, as well as piles of  cookery magazines and several folders and photo albums stuffed with recipes cut out of magazines and newspapers or scribbled down on scraps of paper. One of my favourite recipes, Jamaican brown stew chicken, is scribbled down on the back of the till receipt from the restaurant where it was served to me. It wouldn't seem right to make a fair copy of it now!

I can't list all my books - it would take weeks and you'd get bored (you probably already are) and when it comes to the classics and the celebrity chefs, you've probably got them yourself or you aren't interested. So apart from possible one mention of  Delia before she became famous, you're not going to see Jamie or Gordon, Nigella or Gary or even the unmatchable Elizabeth David mentioned here. Instead, I am going to use selected books  from my collection to illustrate an autobiography.

When I left home for University, I literally didn't even know how to warm up a tin of beans. And since I was going into fully catered accommodation, my parents saw no need to teach me. However one of the many crises of the 1970s (was it the oil crisis? the miners' strike?) meant that the college decided to save fuel by closing the kitchens at weekends, and my options  were to  either find a boyfriend who could afford to take me out for every meal, live on crisps all weekend,  or learn to cook.

So off I went to the bookshop but was horrified at the price of all the recipe books. I couldn't buy them on "tick" so I had to find some alternative I could pay for gradually. Help was at hand in the form of Cordon Bleu Monthly, which had just started to be published in 18 monthly parts.

So in the space of  a few weeks I went from being totally unable to cook to producing sophisticated (for the time) Cordon Bleu dishes and eating meals  far better than those served up by the college. Forty years on, those magazines are still in regular use and have pride of place in my bookshelf. 

After University I married  Mark (see my link to Marksvegplot on the right for more about our love of food) who was at that time an officer in the Brigade of Gurkhas. We went to join his regiment in Brunei and I immediately became interested in the local food, influenced  by Malaysia, Indonesia, China and Singapore. There was only one bookshop in the town where we lived, but from there I got two books which have had a huge influence on my cooking over the years. "Art of Indonesian Cooking - the ABCs" is still one I use on an almost weekly basis; it contains many of our all time family favourites.

From Brunei we  moved to Hong Kong, where we  were to live on and off for several years, until Mark left the Army. I have dozens of Chinese recipe books, but my favourites are a collection of small bilingual (right up to this point I've been thinking "Must not type bisexual, must not type bisexual...." because that's what I jokingly call them)  which contain the sort of everyday recipes eaten in Chinese homes and the more  "ordinary" restaurants visited by local people rather than tourists. Some of the recipes are ones  I use over and over again - others, such as one that needs 10 pairs of duck's web, 3 oz fish maw, several xanthoxylum seeds,a  piece of old orange peel and  some lard, are kept just for entertainment value. The translation is quaint in  places too: it was a relief to get to the end of one rather unpleasant sounding recipe and read "discard  all ingredients".

By now it was time to start thinking about starting a  family and then buying our first home  - naturally that meant we had less to spend on food  and I had to start collecting books of a different kind. Ones  about budget cookery! You can see from the condition of them that they have become much loved favourites - in fact these  books now live in a basket in my kitchen so I can grab them for quick reference. And there's a little glimpse of St Delia, with her  book "Frugal Food" which was first published long before she became a TV celebrity,  and  was reprinted in a bigger, glossier format a  year or two ago.

Now moving on to the present day. Naturally I have bought recipe  books from all the places I have lived and  visited, but my knowledge of food around the world has been enhanced by the beautiful books in the Culinaria series. These books are  far too good to cook from!

Food from  the early to mid 20th century is a particular interest of mine and I have an extensive collection of  both old and new recipe books from and about the period, from promotional leaflets to facsimile books. My favourite is called "Economical Cookery", published in 1937. It starts with a suggested menu for every meal of the year, with Sunday's menus being costed out. How eating has changed! For instance today's menu should be

BREAKFAST      Prunes, coddled eggs
LUNCH                Celery soup, Skate with black butter, Sauté potatoes, Honey Cap Puddings
EVENING MEAL Welsh rarebit, Coffee rice mould.

Sunday's roast beef would have been a 4lb piece of topside at a total cost of 3/- (15p).

I'm going  to finish with a couple of real gems from my collection. The first is one that Mark brought home when he went to Papua  New Guinea on Army business. Kaikai Aniani is a fascinating book about food of the area, past and present, showing how  all sorts of  things  such as crocodiles, turtles, snakes and even  people  are (or were) prepared and eaten, and including such tempting treats as Sago Grub Satay and Flying Fox and Prune Casserole.

The second is called "The Erotic Baker" - a collection of recipes with rather naughty names, designed to be dished up in suggestive ways. This book always reminds me of a rather stuffy army dinner party we  went to just after I bought the book.  You know  those moments when the whole room goes quiet and all  that can be heard is one voice? Well that happened to me just as I was telling the woman next to me about the book. My voice  rang out across the silent room,  ".... and of course Penis Pie." The General had to call for another gin and tonic.....


  1. Great blog post i think sometimes the old cookery books are much better than newer versions, ive a few my mum has given me from the 70s with just the basic family meal recipes in that are used many times in my house no faffing about looking for unusual ingredients to cook those recipes!

  2. A most enjoyable read, Jane. More please!

  3. A most enjoyable read, Jane. More please!

  4. A super article. I'm especially impressed as I never did learn to to cook. I made a few attempts when I first married (38 years ago - eek!) but my husband turned his nose up each time then decided to take over that side of house keeping completely when I even spoilt a "boil in the bag" meal!

  5. great fun to read Jane. I noticed a few books there that I still use myself like Shirley Goodes books - they were invaluable to me when I left home and had no money to cook with. Its really interesting to hear about your life. Were you doing competitions then or did it all start much later?


  6. I really enjoyed reading your blog. I love cookery books - I'm sure I read them more than I cook from them! I also collected a magazine series when I was in my late teens called Nice 'n' Easy. From memory it came out every 2 weeks. My dad use to bring it home for me and always looked forward to reading through it and trying out the recipes. I still have them - all 7 folders of them! - but still get so much enjoyment from looking through them. One of my favourite recipes from the series is Cheesy Spaghetti Bake and it has now become a firm favourite with my children. I wonder if they will end up cooking it for their children should they decide to become parents themselves.

  7. Really enjoyed reading about your life through the medium of cookbooks! You've always been so helpful when I've come online with daft cookery questions and now I know why! You've inspired me with the chicken and a can o beer recipe (think it was beer?) so may try it, suspect OH may try to stop me tweeting to you are a bad influence ;O)

  8. That was just so entertaining! Love the story of the Erotic Baker Cookbook. That book by Shirley Goode brought back memories, she used to be the money saving guru in the late 80s and into the 90s.

  9. A fab post. One of the first Two Fat Ladies cookbooks has a penis stew as well, I think it is made from a horse thingy. Never been tempted to try to cook it.


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