Contemporary Culinary Cockups

“First catch your hare, then cook it” was attributed to Mrs Beeton and a recipe for Jugged Hare in her Book of Household Management; but also – somewhat more correctly – to a Hare Soup recipe in Harriet Glasse’s “Art of Cookery” [1747]. What Glasse actually wrote was “Take your hare when it is cased [skinned], and make a pudding … ”

Recipes for jugged [slow-cooked, stewed or casseroled] hare, hare soup, roast hare,  or any other sort of hare – or rabbit, come to that – are not exactly in high demand in the 21st Century, but the old cookery books to give an idea of the sort of challenges facing the cooks of 200 years ago.

Real, actual, honest-to-goodness home cooking from scratch is so rare among the middle classes in the 21st Century it is now more of a hobby than an daily necessity, and even the most enthusiastic domestic scientists would never dream of catching, hanging, skinning, and gutting their own meat when butchers will do all the urgh! stuff for you.

Fresh produce has been easily available for over a century now, yet fewer and fewer people take to the kitchen: neither my mother nor my grandmother cooked and while mummy got away with it thanks to a full time cook, and the availability of frozen and precooked food – not to mention a husband who enjoyed himself in the kitchen – my grandmother had no such salvation.

When she and her husband moved to Scotland and were no longer able to afford a cook, she took cookery lessons. Somehow they didn’t ‘take’ and a cook was sent over from South Africa. Even cooks though need their time off and my poor grandmother was mortified by the late evening visit of the Parish priest.

When offered refreshment he confided he would die for a fried egg on toast. She went dutifully to the kitchen to prepare food for the good father. Alas, the concept of greasing the pan was alien to her, and after several failed attempts, not to mention a lot of burned bread, the priest had to make his egg on toast himself.

My mother was not a lot better. The single time she tried to make a savoury pie for our supper, she used the recipe for sweet pastry. My father taught her how to make curry and soon it became known that if you were invited to our house for dinner you would have lamb curry as an entree and a sherry trifle for pudding.

Both were excellent, and the sambals included Bombay Duck and Papadums [back when no-one knew what papadums were, let alone Bombay duck], not to mention bowls of snowy shredded coconut, crunchy peanut nubs, sliced banana, slivers of green, red and yellow pepper, sweet tomato, and hot fruit chutney.

And if it was winter, it would be followed by Gluhwein, a delicacy unknown to Grahamstown in the early 70s but easily made using  a’tea bag’ sent to us by my aunt in Switzerland. This was my father’s department but he added his own cinnamon sticks, star anise and cloves, then boasted of a ‘secret recipe’. By the second or third mug, who cared?

I was probably a member of the last generation to really enjoy English children’s books. I loved books I inherited from my mother, published before or during the second world war. My grandmother and her Scottish housekeeper also supplied me with books they had read before or during the first world war.

I laughed, cried and was thrilled by William, Biggles, and The Famous Five; Jennings, Billy Bunter and Bulldog Drummond; Jeeves, Poirot and Miss Marple – and all the other magical characters created in the first half of the 20th Century.

But I was also enthralled by the food they ate: these English characters lived in a different world, as far as the kitchen was concerned. Spaghetti, Lasagne, Pizza – what on earth were those? Cheesecake, Noodles, Doughnuts? Baguettes, Bagels, Croissants?

It was a world of muffins and tea cakes, blancmange and sago pudding, spotted dick and junket, roly-poly pudding and bangers, toad in the hole and bubble and squeak: pure carb, I see now, but in my tweens these were the foods I imagined provided entry to the magical worlds of my fictional favourites.

And so I taught myself to cook.  My mother’s cook was a sadist, determined to kill us by rending inedible any ingredients given to her; my grandmother’s housekeeper was an excellent cook and ruled her kitchen maid with a rod of iron. I dared not ask that she serve tapioca rather than toffee pudding, or corned beef rather than crown lamb.

I scoured old cookery books in those pre-internet days for dishes that were no longer in fashion. A Royal Hostess given to my mum as a wedding gift in the mid 50s helped with the jam roly-poly, only it was a Jam Roll, and I didn’t have the right tin.

Anything requiring suet was out: I discovered the hard way that butter was no substitute. My early attempts at pastry needed a chainsaw, and the toffee my heroes made with such nonchalant ease never worked for me.

By eventually muffins, tea cakes, seed cakes, pound cakes and marble cakes became part of the household stock. Are you noticing a pattern here? When I got older, I added Chinese food to the repertoire and, eventually, a few Italian and French staples.

But now no-one reads those old children’s books, and all popular foods can be bought precooked or, at the least, microwavable. My daughters, despite growing up in a house where their mum roasted and baked, sauteed and stir-fried, casseroled and boiled, were never inspired to learn to cook themselves.

Food stirs the imagination; aural memory is more powerful than the visual, and although our tastes change – I would not care for a dinner of breast milk at my age, thank you very much  – the sentiments associated with those memories will always be powerful and immediate.

My sister made a sweet cheesecake with chive flavoured cream cheese [yes, sorry, we lied all those years ago. We DID  notice and it was utterly revolting],my grandmother baked her cornish pasties on a grid so the filling all leaked through, and my daughter forgot to add the egg to  cupcake recipe.

Cooking, and the sense of what works and doesn’t work in the the kitchen, is going the way of fine embroidery and ringlet rags. Biggles and the Famous Five eat their potted shrimp sarmies and pop the corks off their bottles of lemonade and ginger beer, while cook starts the apple crumble after wrapping the steak and kidney pudding and setting it to steam on the kitchen hob.

While people now eat organic produce and fresh vegetables and salads and locally sourced this and homemade that, avoiding red meat and carbs and fats and sugar and many of the other things that make food yummy: worst of all though, this is a generation dead to the power of food and the imagination.

21st Century dietary rules: Big ups to carb free, fat free, dairy free, gluten free, taste free edibles, but thumbs down to cucumber sandwiches, layer cake and martinis [stirred or shaken]. Yik to all that healthy stuff. I’m off searching for my hare.





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