• Collected
  • Article

Cooking The Books

Taking a literary approach to cuisine

  • 26 March, 2018
  • Donny O’Rourke

Sometimes as a little test of my late-middle-aged memory I silently recite the names of the players, all locally born and brought up, who allowed Celtic to become the first British team to win the European Cup. Simpson, Craig, Gemmell… I haven’t forgotten one yet.

But here’s another fondly recalled litany from nineteen sixty-seven: Mince; Stewed Sausages; Steak Pie; Poached Haddock; Mutton Casserole; Bacon and Cabbage; Fish in Batter; Roast Chicken; Braised Beef; Herring in Oatmeal; Chops, lamb or pork. A first eleven worth cheering on. None of these randomly rotated family meals failed to include potatoes.

We could also rely on homemade soup to start: lentil or split pea, each simmered with ham hough, or perhaps scotch broth with a mutton stock, or cock-a-leekie — giblets, rice and prunes, de rigeur.

For ‘dessert’, a term I didn’t use then and refuse to now, there might be rice with raisins, semolina and stewed plums, tapioca with homemade jam. Sherry trifle, rhubarb and custard (or cream), raspberry roly-poly, clootie dumpling, apple tart, gooseberry crumble, bread and butter pudding, or even Instant Whip or Angel Delight for which my brother and sister used to plead. The shame. Except that these chemical confections seemed terribly tasty.

No ‘soccer’ substitutes were permitted that glorious spring evening in Lisbon, as the team prepared for kick-off. Warming up on the kitchen bench would be gammon steak with (tinned) pineapple, Scotch (lamb) pies and pork chops, thus creating a dependable squad of fourteen dishes to be served once a fortnight without notice with regard to number fifteen, the loathsome luncheon meat. When the tiny key turned in the tin we all knew money was in especially short supply. Mum’s peerless, fat-fried chips were our compensation.

In a diasporic household like ours, ‘totties’ enjoyed an iconic status. My paternal great-grandfather had fled the Famine. With twice-yearly relish I’d help Dad plant then lift the copious crop in our back garden, shaking the shaws in greedy anticipation of buttery boiled, larded roast, creamily mashed, or chunkily chipped spuds.

I was eight that memorable mid-sixties May; but already knew from books that there could be more to menus than these predictable staples, well-liked though my mother’s delicious dinners were.

As a Cub Scout I proudly made pancakes on the lid of a tin can covering a candle, had learned how to boil and broil over an expertly kindled campfire and to roast, yes, potatoes, but also fish and fowl and meat in its embers, and was adept at constructing an oven from a biscuit tin.

No incursions were permitted into my mother’s kitchen, however. Dad (literally) could not boil an egg. The Galloping Gourmet, Vincent Price and Fanny Craddock sliced and diced in black and white on the telly as mum looked ambivalently on, while I, hungering for food with finesses, longed to be tied to her apron strings…

Three years on from Celtic’s win – in June, nineteen seventy – just in time for the Mexico World Cup, we flitted at last from our cramped postwar prefab to a bigger house with a better kitchen. I looked in the library for recipes popular in the countries whose football teams seemed most piquant to me.

Mum played a defensive blinder. Our scout leaders, far travelled and cosmopolitan, proved more receptive, and since our troop was twinned with a group in Vienna, had already taught us to make Kaiserschmarrn, Marillenknödel and Palatschinken. Now, with our football theme we turned out Spanish omelettes, French onion soup, Brazilian coffee and moussaka. Most influential was the food associated with the compatriots of the ‘unbeatable’ Inter Milan side the Glasgow no-hopers had vanquished.

In September, I began my secondary education in a school with more than enough Italians to form a juvenile national squad. It started as it so often does with spaghetti bolognese.

Flash forward.

It was in Bologna, when I was already twenty and attending an international youth festival, that I discovered from the nuns who cooked for the delegates that the rich ragu coating the divinely al dente fettucine bore no relation to the luridly reddened mince I had long been plopping onto a mound of gloopy spaghetti at home.

Mind you, spag bol never entirely disappeared. In all its bowdlerised crassness, spaghetti bolognese was to be found in many of the excellent, otherwise authentic, little restaurants I raved about on a recent trip to Sicily. Those same neighbourhood trattorias were adding cream to the carbonara, heretically popular with locals and tourists alike whose uninformed preferences are being pandered to.

Guanciale. Egg yolks. Pecorino. Black pepper. Bucatini. Basta. Buon Appetito.

At eleven my deluded debut with this much adulterated classic soaked up dollop after indulgent dollop of the double cream I was sent home with as a perk of my early morning job delivering milk. Eggs were another bonus. Did I add too few, too many, any? Can’t recall; but we were a long way from American-occupied Naples…

My mother, having been bullied into letting me conduct my spag bol experiment, pronounced the resulting bowls-full, not bad — high praise, given her persistent thwarting of my desire to broaden the gustatory repertoire. Dad affected to disdain the ‘slimy’ noodles and ‘garlicky’ sauce. Soon, if more than a couple of weeks went by without a reprise, he would inquire about ‘thon funny mince’, my cue to perform a request. Or maybe mum’s, because she began to reproduce these novelties, preparing these in her own delectable way. Ground beef morphed into chili con carne. At some point I was sufficiently emboldened to add a glug or two of wine. Everybody approved of that.

Having kept out of the kitchen because I couldn’t stand the heat of maternal objection, I was now happy to retreat to the books I had to study for my Highers or could read for the heck of it. Nearly every book is a cookbook. Fictional characters, whether military or not, march on their stomachs. Every protagonist eats. And many cook. Reading up was leading to feeding up, as my mother and I exchanged recipes from whichever titles we had on the go.

Crime writers appeared preternaturally eager to murder a decent dinner.

Nicolas Freeling, author of the Van Der Valk novels set in Amsterdam had professional experience of hotel kitchens and sent me off on a quest for smoked eels and black bread. By continental elvers Mum’s appetite was not piqued. She shrugged and smiled, remembering the tubs of jellied eels she had relished as a trainee nurse in Whitechapel. She smiled again, decades afterwards, when I told her that wine guru Hugh Johnson’s recommendation to accompany this celebrated snack was ‘a nice cup of tea’.

Working-class dinners were called tea for good reason.

Ripley, the amoral epicure and antihero of Patricia Highsmith’s psychological thrillers, has a housekeeper to whip up his every voluptuary whim. But it was the soufflés I yearned for. Alpine cheese was duly ‘sourced’ but it wasn’t just the eggs that were beaten, nor my morale that failed to rise.

Other culinary lifts from literature turned out better. During a leisurely lunch at the Brasserie Dauphine with Inspector Maigret, I solved the mystery of France’s favourite food. Carrots, oui; white wine, non. The blanquette de veau blanches in hot water before blithely bubbling in its own thickening juice.

On the stroke of eight, the commissaire would arrive home on the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir, where, after his thirstily downed aperitif, Madame Maigret would bring to the table mackerel in white wine and mustard sauce. We were used to the blue-black oiliness of these lithe, easily caught, bottom-feeders and Neil Gunn’s Highlanders intersperse them with herring – the ‘silver darlings’ – exactly as my mother did according to season.

‘There should be a Maigret cookbook’, I announced to my parents and siblings as we wiped our plates with ‘French’ bread. ‘Bien sûr’, the burgh librarian confirmed, stamping the tome with a glee she did not trouble to conceal.

The boards in Victorian novels groaned intriguingly.

Dickens got me lusting for geese, meat pies and plum pudding, at several of which I had a creditable adolescent go. Goose was a year’s end favourite in the Jewish East End Mum had moved to from County Antrim, and her own Christmas pudding needed only a tweak to be boiled up for Tiny Tim. Those massive meaty jelly-oozing pies, though, I never made — nor had sight of, except in television adaptations of the novels.

There is probably an artisanal bakery specialising in that very thing. And a Dickens cookbook no doubt.

This evening chez moi it will be a window table for one. Squid ink risotto? Partridge with cavalo nero and polenta chips? Bouillabaisse adapted for Atlantic fish?

The mince is murmuring, the potatoes soften, a blob of butter is dissolving sweetly in the peas while the barley-beaded broth bubbles on the hob and the rhubarb, maroon and green, jaunty with ginger, asks my long-dead mother a question from forty years ago: custard or cream?

A poet and film maker with more than a score of books and CDs to his name, Donny O’Rourke has written extensively for newspapers, magazines and academic journals. These days he is more likely to be found slaving over a hot microwave than a biscuit tin oven.

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