Ok, I’m having one of those weeks where I’m running all over the place and although I promised myself I wouldn’t do another post about a book for a while, unfortunately current circumstances have demanded a less than academic post!
In previous posts I have talked about my collection of cookbooks, and even though this book isn’t a current new purchase for my collection, there’s another side of recipe books that seems appropriate to talk about; the historical cookbook. My friend and I were pottering in town recently and she picked up a reprint of recipe book from the 1930s, Good Food by Ambrose Heath. The book itself comes from the articles that Ambrose Heath published in The Manchester Guardian (her grandfather edited the paper, an odd coincidence!). It is organised with a seasonal approach to the recipes, but because the recipes themselves were written over a twenty-year period, the content is a bit casual and it does not fully reflect any food trends of the time period. The title of the book could be another blog post entirely – as it all hinges on your definition of what good food actually is!
However, as I’m trying to keep this rather succinct, I’ll concentrate on a few aspects: firstly, the format of the recipes themselves, one or two of the recipes, and the picture at the start of this article.
The idea that you could have empire imported fruit is a bit farcical (but only in the sense that it’s a bit of a historical joke) but the empire was the precursor to globalised chains of food production. Though I do want to tell the book that we don’t have an empire anymore!
Currently, we have recipe books where the recipes take up a whole page, usually in a step by step pattern – very much like a computer algorithm – you could probably have an analogy about that – how all aspects of our world are becoming more and more like computers? In modern cookbooks, each recipe often has a title and picture that accompany it, and it becomes more like the coffee table books that I mentioned previously. Not so in this case, each is just a paragraph long, in long-form writing (rather than just notes) with no photos (there are some artist’s sketches occasionally). When I’ve looked at historical cookbooks up until the 1960s in previous research (Elizabeth David springs to mind), they all seem to follow that format. I think it’s because there is so much pressure on cookbook authors and editors to produce polished and shiny cookbooks for sales. If you think about it, the internet can provide a lot of the basic recipes that you need, so other books have to be exceptional, whereas the more historical cookbooks have the opportunity, and need, to provide the more basic recipes in lieu of the internet and even the crowdsourced methods.
The recipes themselves run from tomato soup to fish in bananas (more on that later). I’ve got to admit that I really love the authorial voice – it’s so prim, upper-middle-class English and of his time. The 1930s exude from the page, and in a sense, they too tell the story of which ingredients made it to the UK, which in turn tell the story of migration. I feel that I have to pick on one recipe in particular – the fish in bananas.
I don’t think I’ve ever come across such a recipe, I asked a few of my friends who are in the industry, and they hadn’t either. The recipe starts by saying “if you like fish in bananas, you should try sole caprice…” look maybe I’m at my most incredulous and cynical this week but does anyone really like fish and bananas? However, if you look at the history of the banana this recipe starts to make a little more sense – and not just because odd food combinations are interesting in and of themselves. Up until the late 19 century bananas, whilst available in the UK, were (for various reasons) not as commonplace as they are today, and that including them in recipes actually reflects a small trend. Bananas were also linked to male sexuality and potency and there were many bits of folklore that picked up on this. In fact, Josephine Baker, who had entered the world stage in the 1930s, was doing a cabaret act that involved (you guessed it) bananas, which highlights the link between bananas and sexuality. I can see that this recipe was (in a polite, British way) actually a recipe for an aphrodisiac – leave out oysters and have a banana instead!
My last point brings us back to the photo (the empire imported fresh fruit), as I have mentioned above it is a statement and truism of its time. However, it clearly shows how the impact of empire has had on different foodways (as empires often do), how affluent London was at the time, and in a way, this recipe is showing the, ehem, fruits of empire. Even in the 1920s, when refrigeration had become widely utilised in transportation methods, fresh exotic fruit would have been semi-luxurious. Again, to include the banana in such an oddball recipe speaks volumes about how the fruit was viewed.
Bananas, eh, who knew?