Did your mother have a cookbook?


Here is my mother in her tiny kitchen cooking something - I can't tell what. She has various bottles and packets on the bench but I can't see what they are except one is labelled 'Iced gin', which is a bit of a worry. I hasten to add that I never, ever saw her drunk - though she did like gin.


Anyway there is no cookbook in sight and I'm not at all sure that she ever used one and her mother, my grandmother, certainly never did. On the other hand I do remember one my French hostesses, occasionally trying a new dessert from somewhere. I don't know now whether it was from a book or a magazine. And being French, having tasted this new dish the family would sit around and discuss its merits and demerits.


However, we did have one cookbook in our house - the venerable Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management. I don't know whether it was this edition - there have been many - but this one certainly has a 50s look about it. I have no idea how she came by it - maybe a gift from her mother or a sister or somebody who thought she needed help setting up house - which I doubt she did. I do remember it occasionally, very occasionally being used, but I don't know what for. Maybe that toffee I talked about the other day. I know my father consulted it when he found himself having to cook because my mother was sick. It resulted in the most awful bread pudding we have ever eaten.


My point is though, that back in the first half of the twentieth century, and through all the centuries before that, ordinary housewives did not have written recipes. They learnt to cook at home from their mothers and their mothers before them. Which I guess meant that there was a fairly limited repertoire. Obviously there were professional cooks - cooking for the wealthy, in hotels and restaurants and even for the middle classes - until wages became more realistic and therefore out of the reach of most people. What I am talking about here are the working classes and in later times, the ordinary suburban housewife.


Why am I talking about this? Well every now and then I look at origins of dishes and how they vary from place to place, chef to chef, but a few other things caught my attention as well. Number one - apparently cookbooks are amongst the best sellers at the moment. Two - I recently read Nigel Slater's memoir of his childhood - Toast - which brought back so many memories of the food we ate in the 50s. Three - my granddaughter has decided that we should have a weekly FaceTime cooking lesson, and four - I am conscious, that when I flick through the latest Coles Magazine, increasingly I find very few things I just have to have a go at making.


But back to my mother and all the other mothers like her who, in spite of not having any cookbooks was able to provide us with nourishing, and to my mind, mostly delicious meals on a tight budget, and with limited equipment. But, as I said, the repertoire was limited. There was a sort of pattern - a roast on Sunday, shepherd's pie with the leftovers on Monday, then the middle of the week would feature stews, pies and puddings - the dreaded steak and kidney pudding being one of those - didn't like that one too much. Friday was fish and chips. I'm not sure about Saturday. Did we do special things on Saturday? The stews were the same but varied - depending on the vegetables in season and the money available. None of these dishes needed a cookbook. She just knew what went with what and the basic cooking techniques. And she taught them to me. Maybe not consciously but we helped in the kitchen, my sister and I, and so we learnt. We knew what went into the stew. We knew that she soaked the rabbit overnight in water, so that it would go whiter. We knew how to make apple crumble, and blackberry and apple pie, scrambled eggs, roast chicken ...


Did she experiment at all? I don't think so. Did she even think about experimenting? I think perhaps by the 60s, maybe. There were women's magazines like these - I seem to remember these two titles:

And she had daughters who had now been to France, Spain and Germany who were interested in learning more. We didn't buy cookbooks but we did buy the magazines and we pored over them looking for something new and interesting to make. Like spaghetti bolognaise - how exciting that was. And gadgets were proliferating. I know by the time that I married, Kenwood mixers were commonplace, as were electrical whisks and beaters and I remember getting a hand mixer as a wedding present from somebody. I think I bought myself a Kenwood mixer soon afterwards.


These days probably the reverse situation exists - we cook from recipes - from glossy books, magazines and online. We don't cook the tried and true without checking with a recipe that we are doing it right. Depending on how old you are. The problem now is too much choice. The repertoire has expanded. Or has it really? Is it all just variations on a theme - throw a lot of stuff in a wok and you have stir fry, throw a lot of things into a roasting tray and you have a tray bake, throw a lot of things with some kind of liquid into a pot and you have a stew, or a curry, or a pasta sauce. The basic techniques are still the same. Yes there has been an explosion in the available ingredients, both fresh and tinned, bottled or preserved in some way, But the TV chefs have shown us what to do with them.


Really, like my mother you don't need a lot of cookbooks. Even if your mother doesn't consciously teach you to cook, you learn by observing her do so, cooking is coming back into schools - although I suspect that sometimes it's an optional extra rather than mandatory. Then there's all those cooking programs. And if you want to cook a particular dish just search the net and there it is. The only difficulty will be in whose version to choose.


I suppose today's equivalent to Mrs Beeton - well in Australia - is Stephanie Alexander's Cook's Companion. It's equally bulky and equally comprehensive although, I suspect a lot simpler in its choice of dishes than the selection shown here from Mrs. Beeton. My mother certainly never made anything like these grand dishes. Although Mrs. Beeton didn't have many illustrations either. And Stephanie has none.


But I do love cookbooks. Yes I know it's all there on the internet, but it's not the same as a book in your hand. Which is why I still prefer to read an actual book than an ebook. One thing I will say for the internet though, and all those cooking programs too, is that it's a wonderful way to learn little tricks, and how to do things better.


Somehow or other you have to learn to cook - and I mean everyone. It's too expensive to eat takeaway all the time, surely, And also very monotonous. McDonald's and the like may be very cheap but they have a very limited menu. So watch your mum, flick through the free supermarket magazines if you can't afford to buy cookbooks or glossy magazines, trawl the net, watch the TV, take a course. So many different ways available to us all now to spur us on to experiment and produce something wonderful. My mother must have been so bored with her restricted choice of meals. I know I was for a while when my teenage sons decided to be very limited and dictatorial in what they liked. But it passed and now I can go back to something new almost every meal. Exciting stuff.

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