This week’s Book Cover of the Week is the first cookbook that I ever became acquainted with, the Readers Digest Cookery Year. When I was very young, my mum was quite the adventurous cook, as was the wont for people in the 70s: cookery writers like Elizabeth David and Robert Carrier had broken down that stoic 1950s attitude that you had to cook frugally and frugality equated to boring food. Avocados were being used with abandon and recherché dishes like soufflés and lasagne were being served at dinner parties throughout the country.
As my mother attempted to entertain my father’s family (only with partial success: the older half were strictly stuck in the Lancashire Hot Pot mindset, but the younger members were somewhat more open-minded...but that’s another story altogether), she subscribed to Robert Carrier’s weekly cookery magazine Carrier’s Kitchen and to Marguerite Patten’s Cookery Cards (you paid your fivepence and received a little packet of cards that you filed diligently away in a hard plastic box). I remember eagerly anticipating the arrival of both. I would then spend hours pouring over the colourful dishes that Robert Carrier produced. Delicacies like ruby red Poached Pears (they took pride of place on the cover of the first issue) and Lobster Thermidor seemed so exotic to this particular seven year old. I dreamed of the day when I would be leading a wealthy life as either the wife of a prince or a nurse (!) and would be able to eat food like this all the time. Of course, I didn’t marry a bonafide prince nor did I take up a career in medicine and I still haven’t tried Lobster Thermidor yet. However, those magazines opened my childish mind (and insatiable appetite) to Food!
As I got older and my father and his family gradually drifted away, there was only the two of us to cook for so the dinner party menus were thrown out in favour of parsimonious (but no less tasty) food.
Whilst we mostly ate regular food like Spaghetti Bolognese, Beef Stew, Baked Potatoes with Beans and – my all time favourite – egg, chips and mulligatawny soup (don’t knock it until you’ve tried it, I thought it was ‘normal’ to have mulligatawny soup poured on your egg and chips until a group of school-friends looked aghast at me when I suggested it), at birthday parties my mum would really push the boat out. This meant referring to the ‘special occasions’ section of the Cookery Year. She would serve egg sandwiches cut into fancy shapes, sugar mice floating skimming green ‘grass’ jelly, cakes shaped like clocks: the hours and hands recreated with chocolate buttons and tiny, tooth-crunching silver dragees. My mum’s famous, tried and tested and frequently requested Quiche came from, you guessed it, the Cookery Year. When I moved out, my mum gave this book to me, just as it had been given to her when she left home.
The Cookery Year, a large, landscape book, was published by the Readers Digest in 1973, (it predates Nigel Slater’s Cookery Diaries or the River Cottage Cookbook by some three decades) by taking the innovative approach of devoting each month to a chapter, highlighting seasonal food and recipes. There are also useful drawings of pigs, cows and lambs, diagrammatically scored into their relevant cuts of meat, pages of beautifully painted fruits, vegetables and cheeses (these are particularly interesting for they show produce that was considered unusual 30-odd years ago, some of which still, sadly, remain in the small ‘novelty’ foods section of the supermarket, proof that not that much changes in 3 decades) and a interesting historical footnotes and noteworthy events that were celebrated – many of which have now faded into obscurity.
The other chapters that enchanted me as a child (and still do!) were the painted eggs, exquisite, delicately blown hen’s eggs of which I would not have a hope in hell of ever recreating, and the confectionary and biscuits. Despite the complexity and some anachronisms (brains in a black butter sauce anyone?), the recipes for the most part remain sound. This is in no small part due to the high calibre authors working on it: Jane Grigson, Marika Hanbury Tenison and Margaret Costa for example.
To me though, The Cookery Year always reminds me of a more simple time of my life, when money and relationships weren’t an issue, and I could just go to the sweet jar and know that there’d be a homemade fairy cake with butter icing or jam tart with my name on it. I have never cooked from this book, nor do I know if I ever will but I do know that it is imbued with two generations of memories that are evoked, simply by opening it up.