Monday, 25 May 2009

The lure of old cookbooks


I finally got to post about the two old cookbooks I picked up for a song in Topsham the other day. Do I need them? Absolutely not - the shelves are already bulging with cookbooks but for less than the price of two glossy magazines, how could I resist?

The first - for which I paid a princely £3.50 - is Len Deighton's quirky and original 'Où est le Garlic' first published by Penguin in 1965 (this is the '67 edition). Deighton was a successful thriller writer who turned his hand to cookery writing. The appeal is equally though in the charming comic strip illustrations (below), done not by Deighton but a team of designers


The diagrammatic treatment of the families of French sauces and how they relate to each other are particularly good. I love the sound of the improbably named Sauce Mohammed - a variation on tartare sauce flavoured with chopped eggs, anchovies, capers, celery, cucumber and chopped onion.

There's a useful chart on Measuring Heat and Bulk which tells you what temperature milk boils at (196°, less than salt water at 224°) and that butter burns at much lower temerature (278°) than beef suet (356°) Heston Blumenthal would approve.

There are diagrams showing how to julienne vegetables, make quenelles and create a Chaud Froid, a type of aspic used to glaze boiled chicken (One forgets how in thrall England still was to French cooking in the '60s. Did Observer readers, for whom Deighton wrote, really make such things?)

The writing is also wonderfully lucid. "The most difficult thing to explain in a cookery book is the amount of moisture that should be added to flour mixtures" Deighton writes. "Batter mixtures are like cream; they can be poured. A cake mixture is wet and will almost pour; it will drop from a spoon. Yeast mixtures are moist and plastic like modelling clay" Perfectly put. Who needs photographs, or even videos?

There are forgotten, frugal recipes for making brawn or stuffing a cabbage, all of which would take hours. Even bombes which Deighton says "date from the time when men in long beards with 'ski' at the end of their names hid these gadgets, still, smoking, beneath ankle-length cloaks." As you can see, a great book to dip into.


By comparison Green Cuisine: the Organic Vegetable Cookbook, self-published 10 years ago in my home town of Bristol is a much more modest affair though again I was seduced by the illustrations (above) Unlike Deighton's book I don't think it will become a regular kitchen companion though their are some nice ideas for cooking different vegetables such as Spicy Green Beans, Parsnip and Potato Dauphinoise and Pea and Cucumber Soup and for kohlrabi, a vegetable I admit I've never got to grips with) And at £1 who could resist?

By the way I bought both of these books in a charity shop, a much better-priced source of cookbooks than most second hand bookshops although you can occasionally get good bargains from Abe Books and Amazon. (Incidentally I just looked up 'Ou est le Garlic?' on Abe and the cheapest price for that edition was £40. So it was a bargain!)

Do you share my weakness for old cookbooks? If so which are your favourites and have you picked up any good bargains lately?

20 comments:

billibaldi said...

When I looked at my small collection of cook books the most outstanding feature was that how much a time capsule they can be.

I also did a quick count and I was intrigued to discover over 15 including booklets.

Catherine said...

I'm an avid collector too. When I was in Norfolk, there was a little second hand bookshop near me in Watton which had a small specialisation in food books - I've bought so many from the early 19th century onwards. I find them really useful for regional recipes, simple recipes and general inspiration. And some of them are hilarious too, unintentionally, of course.

Rob Mallows said...

Your readers might like to know that Len's other famous cookbook - the Action Cook Book - has just been reissued in hardback by Harper Collins at a very reasonable price - it was the first book which carried his 'cook strips', which first appeared in the Observer in the early sixties. And it was actually Deighton who did most of the illustrations (he was a professional designer at the time), though he got assistance with the lettering from another artist. His other cookbooks: 'Basic French Cooking' and 'ABC of French Food' are also worth a look.

Kavey said...

I know I read an article, I think it was online, can't recall whether it was on a blog or newspaper site, about history of cookery books and Len Deighton's books were mentioned, alongside idea of being amongst first which may have appealed specifically to men. The article did go on to say that the Len Deighton book the author had found/ assessed was actually pretty good, the author was definitely impressed!

Fiona Beckett said...

Thanks for the correction, Rob. The book mentioned a number of names in the credits but not Deighton's. And very good news about the Action Cook Book - I'll look out for that. (He is really good Kavey. He gives all sorts of interesting nuggets of information you wouldn't typically find in a modern cookbook)

I LOVE browsing through old cookbooks billibaldi and Catherine - especially those highly coloured 'entertaining' books from the '50s and 60's with elaborately piped garnishes. Huge fun

Helen Yuet Ling Pang said...

I buy very few cookbooks, but I did pick up an old copy of Taste of China by Ken Hom, written in 1989, at a second hand book stall for £3.50. Although I think he's quite Americanised, I like this book because it's based on a long culinary journey he made around China at a very interesting time in modern history. I'm reading it at the moment and learning more about Chinese ingredients.

Fiona Beckett said...

I've got that one too, Helen. I know what you mean about Ken but his recipes are pretty foolproof. Very nice guy too.

robert said...

I have a WW2 copy of a recipe book hidden somewhere "safe" picked up in a Sally Army shop. It's full of recipes based upon thrifty use of ingredients and avoiding wastage.

It's still pretty relevant today but I think it has a recipe using whalemeat which is not available in the shops! The recipes are healthier focusing upon lots of vegetables and a little bit of meat and cheese for protein. All of these has been ignored in these days of fast food/ready meals.

Fiona Beckett said...

Interesting, Robert. I remember when I was researching one of my previous books that we all eat way too much protein. A 150g portion of boneless chicken for example, which most people would regard as tiny, provides 42g of protein. A woman's daily protein requirement is only 45g (a man, 55g) So yes, less meat and more veg . . .

Anne said...

How lovely your new finds are! The garlic book sounds like a delightful read.

I have a weakness for browsing charity shops for cookery books, my best find was a 1973 Good Housekeeping book for 50p! My mum has this book already, from when it was first published but after my continual borrowing it was great to find my own copy!

fran39 said...

Yet another second hand cookbook lover here. I regularly haunt the Oxfam bookstore over the road from work, and last week got the Moosewood cookbook, which I'm thrilled with.
Another old book I love is the Good Housekeeping manual that my mother got when she married - in the late 1950s. As well as the wonderful little ads for new devices like fridges, this book has the best recipe for apple charlotte ever.

Greenlady said...

Another avid collector here, reprints and originals both - I would say of cookery and food rather than pure recipe books. Dear old Len Deighton, I am so happy his Action Cook Book has been reprinted.

Where does one begin with the old favourites ? It's so difficult. Desert Island Cookbooks maybe ? Dorothy Hartley's Food in England would have to be in there, as well as Farmhouse Fare ( I have both a 1940's version and a 70's version, yes I am that much of a cookery book geek ) Asta Bang's 1950's book of sandwiches ( I have never seen another copy of that for sale ) Jocasta Innes " Pauper's Cookbook " would have to be in there for sure, as well as innumerable intriguing early Victorian onwards tomes and Reay Tannhill's magnificent Food in History.

And Nanny Ogg's cookbook, because I love pTerry to bits and who can resist a book that tells you how to make Strawberry Pink Wobblers ? ;)

Fiona Beckett said...

I wonder if I've got that Good Housekeeping book, Anne - is it the one with all the pictures (not that most cookery books don't have pictures but there are pages of thumbnail shots at the beginning) Big heavy book. Good one!

Your GH book sounds earlier, Fran. That must have piped garnishes and technicolour jellies in! And the Moosewood cookbooks are great too

Really great list, greenlady. I love the idea of Asta Bang's sandwiches and Nanny Ogg's Cookbook. How on earth do you make a Strawberry Pink Wobbler?

Iain said...

Love the blog Fiona! I'm hoping to move to a flat with a bigger kitchen - much more space to cook, entertain and store all my cookbooks and kitchen/dining stuff!
I have a number of cookbooks despite having had regular culls... One of my favourites is a charity fund-raising cookbook produced by my Granny's church in Harrogate in the early sixties. It's fun to see what people thought was exotic food back then in Yorkshire! A single pineapple ring transformed a dish into "Hawaian chicken" and a curry recipe uses a 1/4 teaspoon of curry powder, "1/2 teaspoon if you enjoy spicy food"!

Green Bean said...

I totally share your weakness and am currently making my way through several I just picked up. I usually indulge at our library though. And, then, if it's really good, I endeavor to find it used.

goodshoeday said...

Oh you have sent me on a trip down memory lane to a childhood of endlessly browsing the Dairy Book of Home Management and also the Cookery one, Marguerite Patten's Cookery in Colour and especially making things from The Play and Cookbook (Patten again). The last one is so 70s in the illustrations and I doubt the recipes would meet todays food safety and healthy eating ideas (raw egg whites, cakes, biscuits, sausages...I think i can see two bits of lettuce and one tomato in the whole thing!). Old cookery books are just so wonderful.

Fiona Beckett said...

Fundraising books are excellent, Iain (welcome btw!). People tend to put in their favourite recipes which means the majority of them tend to be pretty good (pineapple rings and curry powder aside)

You're a better woman than I am Green Bean. I'd always rather own a cookery book than borrow it from the library!

Oh, and the Dairy Book of Home Management, goodshoeday - that's a blast from the past!

Did anyone have the Hamlyn all-colour Cookbook? That was really fab

Gosh, this is a good thread . . .

Anne said...

Fiona - its called 'Cooking for Today', lots of pictures and claims over 900 recipes! I swear by their pastry and keep reminding myself to make their Sausage Beehives, I think our guests would love them! :)

Fiona Beckett said...

I think that's an earlier one than the one I've got. Love the sound of Sausage Beehives - very '70's!

Terri said...

I was doing a search for an old cookbook when your blog came up. I am going to have to save you in my favourites!

I have owned "Ou est le garlic" for a number of years now but I have the original one which is the same shape as the cartoon recipe strips. I still pick it up just to look thru it.

Used cookbooks that are unique are what I look for in second hand stores; much cheaper there than in used book stores. I have Fanny Farmer's cookbook from when she was still alive that I picked up at Sally Ann's. The ads in the book for her cooking school are neat to read.

I also like old school textbooks on home economics. Quite interesting what they taught in the schools 60 or 70 years ago. Now I have the urge to go browse thru my old books again! First I am going read thru your blog. Thanks!

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