Another Monday, which means another installment of Penguin Books For Cooks, and I am particularly enamoured with today’s titles. I have recently bought a few little numbers from Ebay and the like, even though, as I wrote in last week’s post, I feel using the site is cheating a little. Sometimes, if you come across something online that is a really wonderful little bargain, you just have to nab it while you can. But, not so with today’s post, one of which was given to me. The Mary Norwak I don’t have in my collection, but I am lucky enough to have the Patience Gray & Primrose Boyd in my possession- again, like last week, not an Ebay purchase but a gift from our lovely friends the Carpenters (they do know me rather well, don’t they?). I have always admired Plats du Jour or Foreign Food, by Boyd and Gray for years- it’s been in other people’s collections, I’ve leafed through the little paperback on shelves in secondhand bookshops, and it has a visual immediacy which draws one in. You may wonder why I talk about finding books with such love and longing, and then don’t actually buy them myself when I come upon them. Well, can you just imagine? I have such a huge range of interests, I am a person obsessed with so many different things, that if I were to buy every book that took my fancy I would, in fact, be unable to pay the mortgage or buy Barnaby new school shoes. And, as much as I adore books, I do have priorities, thank you very much. Thank heavens for friends like Chip, Helen and Kitty then, who bought me Plats du Jour from a “dusty old bookshop”. I was in raptures receiving it and still am.
So, on that rapturous note, let’s get started, shall we?
Plats du Jour or Foreign Food, A Penguin Handbook, by Patience Gray and Primrose Boyd, illustrated by David Gentleman
Of course we all adore Elizabeth David, and she is often championed as the sole cook and writer who transformed English middle class eating habits. However, what is oft overlooked is that it was only in the 1960s that David began to become a recognised symbol of this transformation, and in fact Plats du Jour, the handbook written by Patience Gray and Primrose Boyd, was published in 1957- and, here’s the rub: it sold over 50, 000 copies in the first few months after publication. That’s massive- and testament to the huge impact this book had on households at that time- an impact felt, a lot of people believe, before David’s influence. The recipes in Plats du Jour are derived mostly from books and home experiment, are surprisingly detailed, beautifully worded and, particularly with the absence of images, they are hugely evocative. I identified immediately with the writing: unpretentious, and unselfconscious, and brimming with love for ingredients and food. I cannot do with writing which turns in on itself: you know the type, I am sure. Like a person who adopts a tone so far removed from himself it jars and shudders, a writer who convolutes sentences and is a lexical show off- I cannot be doing with this. Say what you mean to say, for God’s sake, and let’s get on with it. In this world of contrived EVERYTHING, let us remember that there’s beauty in honesty and simplicity. I love too, that Plats du Jour was one of Jane Grigson’s favourite books- apparently if ever she saw one in a jumble sale, she bought it as a present for friends (Helen, you’re in good company).
Patience Gray and Primrose Boyd met while working on the 1951 Festival of Britain, and David Gentleman, (more about him a little later) who was just finishing his studies, designed the cover and illustrated the book. Patience Gray went on to write Honey from a Weed (1986), a hugely successful publication, and she also (I love this bit) beat thousands of applicants for the job of women’s page editor at The Observer. As Tom Jaine, who wrote her obituary in 2005 said, “To the end, she rampaged against the polluters and destroyers”. She was a culinary hero in years gone by- and one for our times, too.
Now, I know I am all about the cooking, but as you know I am all about the illustration & design too. You are probably looking at the front cover of Plats du Jour, and feeling that the illustrations have an immediacy and relevance to them, and you’d be right. David Gentleman, born in 1930, now 86 years of age, trained under John Nash and Edward Bawden. He has illustrated almost everything, from greeting cards, to early Penguins, posters for Transport of London, illustrations for Lawrence Durrell, John Betjeman and EM Forster. He has designed stamps, coins, and daring environmental posters. David Gentleman is the quiet voice of our time: and, in a world obsessed with midcentury design, clean lines and nostalgic homages to woodcuts, Gentleman’s work engages us and holds our attention. What very many of you will be familiar with, however, perhaps without knowing it, are Gentleman’s designs at Charing Cross tube station- he was commissioned in the 1970s to make a 100m mural to commemorate the making of the first Charing Cross. Take a look next time you are there: it shows as a strip cartoon how the medieval workforce built the original cross. Of course, on closer analysis, the engravings, swishing by as the tube speeds through and stops at the station, mirror the lives of our 21st century commuters: a contemporary reflection in an ancient depiction.
The Plats du Jour cover delights and comforts: a gathering sits around a table, children, and adults together, and napkins are readied for the enjoyment which is to follow. A cat is cuddled in the arms of a contented woman, and bottles of wine are opened in preparation for conviviality. Of course, we do not quite get to see what this happy gathering will be eating- for of course, it will be the words and depictions inside the book that we will all truly feast on once we open the little Penguin. And, continuing my perhaps overly analytical interpretation, once Plats du Jour has been finished, and the reader has reached the end of the feast, the platters and plates are almost empty, the wine has been enjoyed, and the cat still curls quietly on a chair, indicative of the literary and culinary journey complete.
Plats du Jour has been reprinted, and is available now from Persephone Books: for a mere £12. All images in this post have been photographed by me, from my original copy of the book.
The 5 o clock Cook Book, A Collection of Family Recipes for Tea-Time, Mary Norwak
My mum had a few of the Mary Norwak titles: was it Crockpot Cooking? Or The Farmhouse Kitchen? I cannot remember, and that’s the thing with Norwak: very many of us grew up with her books on our shelves; our mothers making her reliable and trusted recipes: but we may not be able to remember exactly when and where we discovered her. And I love her for this. Norwak influenced British kitchens in a huge way- but in an understated one. A self taught cook, Norwak described herself as “not a cook who writes but a writer who cooks”. Now, if any of you are familiar with the divine Nigel Slater (who, perhaps more than any other cook, has influenced my way of thinking about life, grief, writing and cooking), Nigel describes himself as a “Cook who writes”. I’d love to know if he had Norwak’s description in mind when he thought of that.
Suet, butter, treacle and cream; apples, brawn, bannocks and baps: this is what Norwak was about. No new fangled foreign Mediterranean ingredients, thank you very much: our great British produce had everything to offer us. Norwak, it may not surprise you to discover, wrote for The Lady and The Farmers Weekly. Of course, Norwak was also stalwart of the WI: it goes without saying, doesn’t it? She combined a fascination with social history, eating, kitchenalia and British lifestyle, and with her expansive knowledge of cooking and household management, she produced hugely popular domestic titles. If any of you are interested in traditional British cookery- from preserves, to eating in the seasons, to game, to appropriate kitchenalia: give Norwak a whirl. Start with The Farmhouse Kitchen (1975) , move swiftly on to From Garden To Table (1977), and follow that up with The Book of Preserves (1986). It may give you an unfettered, unfussy flavour of her wonderful output.
Back to the title in question. I love this particular cover for a variety of reasons. As a South African, there were rather a few dialectical choices we had to get to grips with when we moved to England, and of course one of them was “tea”. To us, tea was simply a cup of tea and perhaps a slice of cake (if you were lucky)- not an early evening meal. That, to me, has always been supper. Of course, now that we have Barnaby, we often have friends for tea, or he visits friends for a playdate and tea- and, like pronouncing things in an English accent just to make myself understood, I have become accustomed to this word. I still don’t use it myself though, weirdly. I still say lunch for a midday meal, and supper for a later one. And I reckon I always will- but I love this book, for its idea of supper-tea, the steam rising from the teacup which unfurls into a number 5, the hand drawn letters, and their rather elaborate swishes (I love them more, knowing that Norwak was rather a conventional, non-elaborate type). My most favourite thing, however, are the green and cream dusty looking squares, the chequerboard background of the title. Why? Because it reminds me of vinyl kitchen floor tiles, “Marley tiles” as they were known when I was growing up in South Africa, and in the 1970s, along with cork tiles, were considered the height of sophistication. I still think these tiles are a much underrated floor covering: in our search for cool country-chic and magazine-spread kitchens, we have created floors of cold slate and reclaimed flagstones, which are utterly freezing underfoot and unforgiving on a dropped teacup, Arcoroc-bounce or not. A little bit of linoleum wouldn’t go amiss these days, I can tell you that now.
On that warm note, everyone, farewell, and I look forward to next week’s third installment.