Let’s cook!

Cookery books

Cooking is something I really enjoy and it is often my ‘go-to’ activity when I need to de-stress (never did I bake so many cakes whilst I was working on those uni assignments)! Recipe books have come and gone in my house but a few have survived for the duration.

Among these is a Good Housekeeping loose-leaf folder  received as a present in the early 1980s . In it  I save recipes cut from magazines or newspaper supplements, those found on the internet or in blogs I follow (thank you Margaret Powling for your delicious nut roast!), or scribbled down after dinner with friends.  Included is a pull-out from an early 1980s magazine. The ten featured cakes were all made or adapted for my children’s birthdays.

Birthday cakes

It also includes this recipe written by my then 7 year old daughter. We used to make these regularly. I wonder if she remembers.

Steph's recipe

Another stalwart is Good Housekeeping’s The Best of Vegetable Cookery. It saved this once young housewife from serving my guests a Bird’s Eye boil-in-the-bag chicken casserole with Surprise dried peas, which was just about all I could manage when I left home at nineteen having been brought up by a mother who considered Cadbury’s Smash an epicurean miracle!

My current favourite  is Jack Monroe’s A Girl called Jack. Borne out of the necessity of feeding herself and her son on an extremely tight budget, Jack’s recipes are ultra simple and inexpensive; they are also very tasty.

The earliest known cookery books were quite vague in terms of instruction. Quantities, temperatures and cooking times were not routinely included until the mid 1800s. There was an assumption of existing knowledge as they were aimed at professional cooks since the lower classes could rarely read. One of the earliest known cookery manuscripts was the The Forme of Cury c1390 which was produced by the chefs to King Richard II and recipes included delicacies such as whales, seals and porpoise and ingredients like as galingale (an aromatic sedge similar to ginger), powder douce (a spice mixture which varied by region) and hyssop (a bitter mint), none of which we are likely to see in modern recipes.

Evident in 17th and 18th Century book titles is that they were often more than simple recipe books. Many advised on household management or how to excel as a wife , one notable book title being The Whole Duty of a Woman: Or a Guide to the Female Sex (1696).  The celebrated Mrs Beeton was still extolling the virtues of good household management in 1861 and by now recipes included ingredients list, precise quantities and cooking times and were almost exclusively directed towards the housewife rather than the professional cook.

Pre-WWII Britain had imported a considerable amount of food but amid concerns that supply ships might be bombed, food rationing had been introduced and several Government campaigns to save food and wastage were implemented. A more informal language and tone was adopted in these and several propaganda techniques were employed in the emotive language of the campaign posters, the words used tending towards inciting feelings of guilt, implying that compliance was virtuous whilst non-compliance was unpatriotic and could lead to suffering on the part of soldiers. According to the World Carrot Museum (the only museum in the world devoted entirely to carrots – really!)  “The Government let it be known that carotene was largely responsible for the RAF’s increasing success in shooting down enemy bombers.” Anyone seeking out frugal recipes today might be tempted by The Ministry of Food’s suggested wartime recipes such as Carrot fudge, potato milk pudding and the famous Woolton Pie.

war cookery

The latter part of the 1900s saw the rise of the celebrity chef and ‘pretty food’ where artistic representation was as important as expertise in combining ingredients. And now, in the 21st Century, it seems that anything goes. On one hand we have the Jamie Oliver ‘chuck it all in and whiz it around’ style, and on the other, recipes that require twenty five ingredients you never heard of and a degree in science. Do you actually know anyone who indulges in molecular cookery or owns a sous-vide machine? That said, I’m a great fan of MasterChef.

It’s not at all unusual for modern recipes to indicate nutritional value, calorie count, or suggestions for the local sourcing of ingredients. Whole books are devoted to specialist diets, especially vegetarianism, which was rare even as recently as the nineteen seventies, and foreign travel has introduced many new flavours to the British palate. The variety of foodstuffs to which we now have access is quite astonishing and for someone who loves experimenting, that’s a gastronomic delight!


  1. I had to laugh at your comment regarding your mother’s fondness for Cadbury’s Smash, Eloise! I loved that advert, but certainly not the product!
    What a wealth of knowledge you have regarding old cookery books. I don’t collected cookery books, per se, but I do collect books on housekeeping, and they sometimes include recipes. An interesting book on the history of food is Sir Roy Strong’s Feast, which I can certainly recommend.
    I have kept some of my cookery books from when we married in 1964 – they are a world away from today’s cookery books. Nancy Spain’s Colour Cookery Book (colour being something exotic in itself in the early 1960s when the majority of books were published only in black and white) has a recipe for Swiss Steak (no idea why “Swiss”!) in which she uses a packet of tomato soup. For much younger readers of your blog than myself, many soups came as a powder in a packet to which you added water (in a saucepan, of course) Actually, back in the 1960s, husband and I found this a very tasty meal although I didn’t add the recommended stuff olives – olives hadn’t arrived in our neck of the woods in 1964.
    Two other cookery books I have from those dim and distant days are The Book of Meat Cookery (sponsored by Oxo Ltd) and The Book of Fish Cookery (sponsored by Findus). What I found most useful in the fish cookery book wasn’t to much the recipes but the explanations, such as what exactly poaching and steaming and stewing and braising were and how you actually executed these methods of cooking. But ‘garnish’ was always chopped parsley or chives, seldom anything else. I keep these books not for their usefulness today, but simply for sentimental reasons, they remind me of the young-married-me.
    The very first cookery book I bought (for my ‘bottom drawer’ … I don’t suppose young engaged women have ‘borrom drawers’ these days!) and it’s the Woman’s Own Cook Book, in a slip case (now grubby with age). I’ve just opened it and a hand written recipe fell out one written by myself which I dated 7th August 1969, just a month before our first son was born. It’s a recipe for Tomato chutney from Woman’s Hour! I can’t even remember whether I tried the recipe. In those days there were only a couple of chutney’s easily available: Branston Pickle and Pan Yan Pickle! I wonder who remembers Pan Yan today!


    • What a lovely full response, Margaret. My first recipe book was The Hamlyn All Colour Cookbook. My folder contains a couple of recipes I saved from it but I can’t recall what happened to the original. We used to eat packet soups, and I would bet my life, my mother never made one of her own!
      I made runner bean chutney last year but it wasn’t as nice as the stuff I bought at a farmers’ market.
      I learned about the old cookery books when I wrote an assignment on changing language through the ages and linked it to food.


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