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Cookbooks –  from Beeton to Skehan

Lady Gregory thought the possession of a toothbrush the definition of civilisation. I have come to believe that owning a cookbook must be one of the marks of our civilisation. In a radio interview some years ago a well-known public figure said that her mother never owned a cookbook. I felt mildly baffled. ‘High culinary expectations make me boil’ said Katy Hayes of the Sunday Times in an article from May 2010.  ‘Everybody’s  wife has 40 cookbooks, and that’s after they did the clear-out last year’ she continued. I doubt that owning cookbooks has anything to do with high culinary expectations. One can be an addict without cooking at all. Some cookbooks can be a darned good read in themselves.

I don’t have a huge collection of cookbooks but those I do have are treasured. Each generation has its own. I recently had my grandmother’s copy of Mrs Beeton’s Everyday Cookery rebound to celebrate its centenary. It was a wedding present from the parish priest in 1909. He was clearly in no doubt as to where a bride’s priorities lay. More recently Mrs Beeton came in handy when friends in West Cork sent us a Christmas turkey which we had to clean out ourselves. My mother’s copy of Maura Laverty’s Kind Cooking has illustrations by no less a personage than Louis Le Brocquy. There is no date of publication but I suspect it may have been the 1940s. Maura Laverty’s Full and Plenty, a standby in the Irish kitchen of the 50s and 60s, is also there. The main delight of Laverty’s work is the somewhat eccentric commentary which accompany the recipes.

‘ According to Charles Laughton, Henry the Eighth thought nothing of devouring a  shoulder of lamb at one sitting. He couldn’t hold a candle to Head Mooney at home in our place. Head belonged to people who were notorious throughout the County Kildare for their passion for pig’s head.’

Louis Le Brocquy illustration from Kind Cooking

Various volumes by Delia Smith and Darina Allen take up the next bit of shelf space, along with Paula Daly, Jennie Bristow, Elizabeth David and Jamie of course. My daughters have given me Nigella’s How to Eat and Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the latter following on the Meryl Streep film. A year long sojourn as a student in Virginia by the younger resulted in a gift of The Lee Bros Southern Cookbook by Matt Lee and Ted Lee. This is the kind of cookbook one could just enjoy reading simply as an introduction to the culture of the south but I can’t ever see myself attempting grits or sorghum popcorn balls.

I always make a point of cooking something new from BBC Good Food Magazine every month. Sometimes pages are excised and laminated which makes for a spatterproof collection. If a recipe meets with approval, it is entered in a cookery notebook. I am now on Vol. 3 of the notebook series. Vol. 1 began in 1973 and records the earliest culinary efforts of former flatmates and friends. I have old coverless cookery notebooks from earlier generations. Will mine survive too? What fun it might be for future generations to wonder about the origin of dishes such as ‘Sean Burke’s Tomato Salad’, ‘Jennifer’s Dublin Coddle’, ‘Lamb Stew from the Pronto Grill, Ranelagh’ and ‘Mammy’s Apple Sauce Cake’. No doubt some of the entries will, in time, sound as antiquated as Mrs Delany’s eighteenth century recipe for caudle.

Mind you I have parted with some cookery cooks. I now bitterly regret relegating my Theodora Fitzgibbons to the library of the school where I used to teach. I hope to find A Taste of Ireland and A Taste of Paris again in a second hand sale. These were delightful books with wonderful photography by George Morrison, Theodora’s husband. Perhaps Amazon might oblige here. I have memorised Theodora’s Beef in Guinness and French Onion Soup, however. They have become staples of the family diet. Robert Carrier’s series of books also ended up in the school library as did the Supercook encyclopedia painstakingly collected in weekly issues in the seventies. For some reason I do not miss these.

The kitchen is no place for a laptop. I’ve already written one off due to a spill. I prefer the book or magazine on its stand. The only problem is resisting the urge to acquire more cookbooks. So far I have managed to tell myself I do not really need Rachel Allen’s attractive volumes. Perhaps the books of the ultra charming Donal Skehan will form the mainstay of the cookbook collection of the younger folk. He is undoubtedly a very civilised young man.