A Cookery Book

No matter where one's allegiance lay on Thursday 8 June, when the UK went to the polls, it's probable that we're in agreement that the political landscape here is wild and tumultuous. What happens over the next days, months, years, is unknown to us all, from Ken Clarke (current longest serving MP), to the newest 18-yr-old voters. 

But real life goes on. When I turned up at the primary school gates on Friday to collect my son, I watched mothers with week-old babies in buggies, teenagers racing through the playground, slightly late to pick up their younger siblings, toddlers taking careful early steps, grandparents carrying scooters ready for the journey home. We talked about how to sneak vegetables into fussy eaters, the summer fair, juggling work and childcare, outgrowing clothes, summer holidays.

It's all dreadfully ordinary. But the thing about the ordinary is that it is uniting. We share an experience, even if just for one moment, and we recognise each other.

Virginia Woolf was a writer who could turn the ordinary into the sublime through her words. In praise of the power of the ordinary, here is her piece written in 1909 about a newly-published cookbook:


A Cookery Book. 

The Cookery Book of Lady Clark of Tillypronie. Arranged and edited by Catherine Frances Frere (Constable & Co., 1909).] 

Independently of the knowledge they convey, cookery books such as The Cookery Book of Lady Clark of Tillypronie, arranged and edited by Catherine Frances Frere, are delightful to read. A charming directness stamps them, with their imperative, ‘Take an uncooked fowl, and split its skin from end to end’; and their massive common sense which stares frivolity out of countenance. Then, apart from the wonderful suggestive power of the words they deal in—Southdown mutton, hares, jugged venison, fresh strawberries—it is pleasant to think of herbs growing on moors, hares running in the stubble, spices brought, with bales of embroidery, from the Indies; and the strings of words themselves often have a beauty such as poets aim at. ‘Strain it and sweeten to taste with sugar honey or candied Eringo root … add a few cloves, whole pepper, salt, a bay-leaf, a sprig of thyme, one of marjoram, and some parsley … Then a finger-glass and rose and orange water poured over the guests’ hands.’ Not only are the furs and fruits beautiful in themselves, as they lie heaped together on a Dutch canvas, with a thin Venetian glass among them and a necklace of silver balls drooping over the corner of the table, but it is a relief to think of anything so practical as cookery. The cook gets something done every day; she has no time to ask why she cooks, or to question the ultimate effect upon the world; the plainest cooks are happier than most artists in that they have one dish which they do to perfection—a work of genius in its way. Sir John Clark’s anxiety lest the reader should infer that because his wife was interested in cookery, she was a ‘mere housewife’ seems to us misplaced. It is a genuine art after all, calling not only for skill, but for virtues of character; and the fact that one is interested in any subject, whatever it may be, makes it all the more likely that one is interested in others. From a glance at those ‘three thousand pages of manuscript’, scored ‘like a shepherd’s plaid’, from which Miss Frere has compiled the present book, we can see that to Lady Clark the kitchen was only one ‘department’ of life; the library was another. Anecdotes, rhymes, names of French plays, and new books to be read, quotations like the quotation from Voltaire—‘Tout est perdu quand on digère mal; c’est l’estomac qui fait les heureux’—crowd into the corners of the recipes. Then, too, she was cosmopolitan, for, when her husband was in the Diplomatic Service, she had the chance of knowing many people and of sampling the cookery of Europe. ‘When any dish interested her’ she made inquiries of the artist, who, touched by her intelligence, told her what she wanted; if this was impossible, she ‘sketched’ her impressions in a notebook. Thus, as Miss Frere says, Lady Clark ‘may be said to have focussed much of the best cookery of Europe in her collection’; India and Turkey each yielded her something. Royal ladies and ambassadors contributed to the book. There is a poet’s pudding—the poet Rogers’ pudding—otherwise called lemon pudding. ‘… brown it with browning, Lady Clark commands cryptically on one occasion. ‘Do not scruple to add rabbits if it suits a somewhat empty larder’ is an aside under goose pie; and then there is a sentence which reads like an aphorism, ‘When a pig is sacrificed for future bacon, there is still a good deal for present consumption.’ But the housekeeper confronted in the chill early hours with the formidable ‘What shall we have to-day, Ma’am?’ will rather be assured that Lady Clark’s book is full of suggestions for small houses and simple tables, which the ordinary cook will accept gratefully and can carry out triumphantly. In saying this we shall have the support of a number of witnesses, for Lady Clarke’s wisdom, copied and passed from hand to hand (like the songs of the early minstrels), lies in many a kitchen drawer already. Even for those who know them, this handsome volume, in which references to the recipes are made as easy as possible, is a far more convenient shape in which to possess them; and a much larger public will thank Sir John Clark for putting his wife’s collection at their disposal. When tired or dispirited the cook should read the introduction by Miss Frere, and the description which is given there of a Scottish household will put energy into her at once.

Times Literary Supplement, Nov 25, 1909