This essay will wander from looking at English cookery books of the 1950s and ’60s to two Irish food writers who were very important in their day, and from there to an impression of the writings of MFK Fisher (less a food writer than a woman who looked at life through the lens of food), noting especially her freedom of voice and subject. From there, it takes in a very different book by Fisher: one that appears to be a travel book but really addresses a domain of human interaction of particular relevance, it seems to me, in the Covid era.
Two asides before we go further: vegans, vegetarians and others may find some of the material analysed, quoted or remembered in this article unpleasant or offensive, but my interest is in ways of seeing and eating in the context of their day; similarly, even MFK Fisher uses “he” when referring, for example, to the general reader but, as this was the norm during her writing life, exclaiming repeatedly over it here would be pointless and tedious.
Let’s start by looking at some ways of writing about and around food in the English-speaking world as post-WW2 austerity eased for the expanding and now generally servant-less middle class, as a range of formerly exotic foods became available and affordable and as the kitchen became (again?) a place of self-expression or social display (perhaps also a cheap substitute for cosmopolitan travel). What is most characteristic is a certain missionary or proselytising tone (you too can [re-]discover the pleasure and possible worlds of cooking and eating), but mixed with encouragement (with a little effort and imagination, and by trusting this writer and guide, you can build satisfyingly on inherited or home tradition or you can explore new worlds).
Here is Elizabeth David introducing French country cooking:
Good cooking is honest, sincere and simple and by this I do not mean to imply that you will find in this, or indeed any other book [,] the secret of turning out first-class food in a few minutes with no trouble. Good food is always a trouble and its preparation should be regarded as a labour of love, and this book is intended for those who actually and positively enjoy the labour involved in entertaining their friends and providing their families with first-class food.
Here is Len Deighton, best known as a writer of thrillers, but capable of bringing unexpected thrills and a certain snap to the kitchen explaining how to make a sabayon, a dessert which can be conjured up out of almost nothing:
If you want to serve it cold, beat the bowl while it’s resting on ice. When the sabayon is tepid, add a quarter pint of thickly beaten double cream which will help it to stay firm. Some cooks add a little dissolved gelatine but this is cheating. If you do it, deny it.
Despite its awful title, Où est le garlic or Len Deighton’s French cook book, the little 1965 Penguin edition is unpretentious, compact and attractively designed and illustrated (down to the bullet-points and the cartoon-like strips.) Was it designed to attract men who had other important things to do, they thought, but could still, when the instructions were laid out as in a car repair manual, execute a brilliant fricassée? (You can be proud of the short cuts endorsed by Len Deighton: “Either a fricassée or a blanquette can have a béchamel sauce substituted for the cream and egg yolk. In each case it will be acceptable and in each case equally incorrect.”)
Jane Grigson wrote works for the ordinary cook as well as more specialised works – on aspects of French cooking, for example. Her voice is warmly enthusiastic and helpful, but her style can rise to moments of discreet poetry, as here at a local market in France, when she notices the long narrow body of the garfish, its “blueish-green glow” and vicious small teeth:
In her quick way, Mme Soarès the fishmonger saw we were hooked, and came over to explain that the glowing sheen of the skin was repeated in the bones. ‘I’ll cut one up to show. See?’ Sure enough, they were an exquisite greenish-blue, like Persian plates in a museum. The colour doesn’t disappear in the heat of cooking either, so you have an elegant articulation of peacock glory against the white flesh on your plate. (It’s caused by a harmless phosphate of iron, discovered in 1823 by J G Vivian and named vivianite.)
The respect for Mme Soarès’s skill is characteristic, while the poet Marianne Moore would have appreciated the attention to detail and colour, the poetry in the sheer factuality. The title of a later Jane Grigson book, Good Things, demonstrates how attractive perfectly pitched simplicity can be.
And here is our own Maura Laverty, author of Full and Plenty, the Complete Guide to Good Cooking:
I love kitchens. The preparation of food has always been to me what literature or music or painting is to others. It is such a kindly, friendly, unselfish art, the art of cooking, and every little step in the preparation of even the simplest dish is an opportunity for self-expression.
Maura Laverty’s task was a little harder than that of her British contemporaries. The expanding Irish suburban middle class was as yet only a glimmer in Lemass’s eye. Laverty had to attract both an urban public and to broaden the horizons of the rural and small-town housewives who found a constructive outlet for their interests and energies in Muintir na Tíre meetings.
She sought to make the ordinary Irish kitchen a place where simple human qualities and virtues could find happy expression. The little stories from the imaginary Midlands village of Kilderrig with which she introduced each chapter conveyed the idea of pleasure in food-making and food-sharing as both a human pleasure, good in itself, and as a social good. The stories she tells are morality tales of a kind, where food may lead to the dissolution of blocked feelings, to the enhancement of community life or to the erosion of strictly policed class barriers. Thus, to the surprise of many in Kilderrig, Polly, a woman who returned from America with both distractingly stylish clothes and some money in the bank, chooses to keep company again with Jimmy Moore, who has remained in the lowly and poorly paid position of assistant in Grogan’s grocery store. Polly’s face quickly loses the hint of hardness it had gathered during her American years; Jimmy has a new set to his shoulders; and before long the pair have married and, what’s more, taken over a disused shop to which the villagers soon transfer their custom:
But it was not the regeneration of Jimmy that brought custom to the Moores. It was the fact that Polly threw in free with the goods we bought a share of the cooking wisdom she had gathered during her years in America. […] “Anyway, we said, why should we have gone on dealing where we got nothing but sour looks and grunts, when the Moores offer us good value, smiles and a free course in cooking.”
Kitchen and shop are not just human centres of activity but centres for the transmission of values – or in this context, “virtues” is maybe the applicable word.
Elsewhere the stiffness, snobbery, ceremony and specialised vocabulary of a high-class restaurant offer only brief resistance to the shared pleasure of crêpes Suzette (“pancakes at their most gorgeous”). In another story, Mr Hennessy, a hard-hearted Fishery Board official has at last caught Barney, an adept young poacher of otherwise good character, red-handed: “Barney’s girl”, Nellie, is just about to lift the fresh and just-cooked salmon from the pan. Hennessy is determined to send Barney to prison. Nellie is devastated that her father will now never allow her to marry Barney. She is so devastated that she appears to have entirely lost her appetite. But her devastation has not erased a certain shrewdness. Appreciating the miracles that can be wrought by good cooking, she entices Hennessy to eat her portion of the salmon (which will otherwise, as she says, go to waste) and leaves the Board official and the poacher together at the table. Mr Hennessy overcomes his reluctance and tucks in with increasing enjoyment. Soon he has an inspired change of heart: Barney will replace the retiring water bailiff and get the open-air employment that suits him; Nellie returns to guarantee Barney’s future honesty ‑ and young love can blossom.
One can see how Laverty’s straightforward story-telling ability – she had also written two uncomplicated but, for the time and place, a little over-frank, autobiographical novels, which were duly banned – qualified her only a few years later to script Tolka Row, RTÉ’s first urban soap opera. That Laverty’s own life was more complicated and less conventional than the voice of her book did not bespeak hypocrisy. An uncondescendingly democratic voice was needed to draw ordinary under-skilled readers to discover themselves as creative cooks – or simply to feel that they could themselves rise to the demands of a special occasion. Autobiographical nuance and revelation on Laverty’s part were irrelevant.
A brief digression may be in order at this point. Most drb readers will, I suspect, have a rather imprecise conception of pre-1960s food culture in Ireland. It was only while this essay was coming together in some fashion that I came across a reprint of Florence Irwin’s Cookin’ Woman, originally published in 1949. An Ulsterwoman, Irwin was employed by the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction (DATI) as an instructress in domestic economy in Co Down for most of the decade preceding the outbreak of the First World War. During the war, she cared for wounded soldiers; after it, and after Partition, she held important positions at Stranmillis teacher-training college. For decades, she wrote a food column in the Northern Whig. As she herself puts it in the first paragraph of her book:
My literary style, if I have one, is the style of the Cookery Article or a Broadcast talk – a style which I have been exercising for many years, and during those years many humorous or quaint happenings have been fixed on my memory.
The first chapter is in fact mostly made up of little snippets of autobiography that also show her affection for the people she taught and later wrote for. Though “quaint” anecdotes may lose their savour over time and though it would be unfair not to mention the many rich main courses and desserts that Irwin included in her book, we can appreciate how, remembering her early experience travelling from village to village, Irwin consciously addressed readers with minimally equipped kitchens. These rural readers knew exactly what they were eating. No circumlocution was necessary when outlining the preparation of a goose:
Shut the goose up in an empty shed over night to ensure an empty crop when killed. Kill early in the morning. This prevents the goose suffering from hunger. Pluck as soon as killed, leaving the pinions unplucked. Hang up by the feet for a week or so. Singe to remove down and hairs. Cut off the feet at the knee.
Further detailed instructions are offered on removing the head and innards, on separating the giblets from the more edible meat, on opening the gizzard, and other technical matters. (The unplucked pinions, Irwin notes, could serve as brushes for the kitchen stove.)
Irwin’s writing occasionally showed a little touch of almost gratuitously poetic detail:
Thirty years ago, as you approached Cape Clear Island the low hedges were covered in the month of July with what looked like white garments of even shape and size. On getting a closer view you found these were large flat fish being dried in the sun after salting. Ling, in fact. The fish was procurable in all country shops at 4d. [pence] a pound and was a popular purchase for the dinner on Friday and other fast days.
Nor was Irwin afraid to mention the Famine, souperism or, as a member of the organisation, the women of the St John Ambulance Brigade “who have run a soup kitchen during all the years of fuel shortage in Eire […] and so have supplied thousands of expectant mothers, children and old men and women”. These women used a sawdust-stove – for the making of which Irwin supplied a “recipe” in the final “Miscellaneous” chapter:
Apparatus Required: – One 15 gallon oil drum (procurable at a motor garage),1 broomstick, 1 wooden mallet, 2 or 3 bricks, an old metal door mat or 3 or 4 iron bars.
The mallet was needed to hammer the layers of sawdust down firmly so that it would not burn too quickly.
Laverty had already made a name for herself as Irwin gathered the material for Cookin’ Woman. Full and Plenty did not come out of nowhere in 1960. Judging from the style of an earlier, much slimmer book (Kind Cooking, with a chapter by Sybil Le Brocquy and “decorations” by a certain young Louis of that name), she must have curbed her innate anecdotalism and taste for teaching through fiction when composing Full and Plenty.
The fact is that there is some tension between the democratic presentation and the content of Laverty’s book. It contains many relatively straightforward dishes and tips for those on a tight budget. On p 260, for example, under the heading “Good dishes from left-over meat and poultry”, we are advised to “serve it in patties, pies, croquettes, fried in batter or hashed or creamed”. Most of those could be tackled with little equipment in a typical Irish kitchen of the period. On p 258, however, something more challenging is gently introduced, with a diplomatic negotiation of class difference:
To cook venison
There is a Munster proverb which advises against ‘bheith ag ithe na feola fiadh agus an fheol-fhiadh ar an gcnoc go f[ó]ill (eating your venison while the deer are still on the mountain [the Irish version of the proverb is, as given, a little incoherent]. For many of us, the deer will remain in their mountain haunts. But, just in case a haunch of venison should one day find its way into your kitchen, this is how you should cook it.
The recipe that follows has three-week prelude. In how many Irish households would a haunch of venison be hung for three weeks, be rubbed over each day, be washed in water and dried with a cloth, be smeared all over with dripping, be wrapped all over with a stiff flour-and-water paste, be again wrapped in greased paper and tied with string, be weighed and placed in the oven, be basted frequently, be removed from the oven thirty minutes before it was fully cooked so that paper and paste could be removed, be dredged with flour and returned to the oven to be delicately browned, and eventually be served with a sauce made from redcurrants (simmered in a glass of port wine, a glass of cider and a bouquet garni until reduced by half) and redcurrant jelly?
In 1960, Maura Laverty needed to attract elements of all sections of the Irish public. Maeve Carney, her daughter, a qualified cordon bleu chef, contributed the last real chapter, on “French Cooking Made Easy”. (A two-page “Useful to Know” mini-chapter dealt with oven temperatures, easy measures and tips about bread and breadcrumbs – one of number of discreet reminders, including a prefatory “Ballad of an Irish Wheat Field” and the subjects of the opening three chapters, that the book was published by the Irish Flour Millers Association.) If she had been writing ten years later, the new young urban public would probably not have felt attached so directly to a rural base and the upper middle class would have been more eager to assert their sophistication, real or imagined, new-found or inherited.
If the photographs bespeak middle-class space and money, the stories hark back to what might be called standard long-Free-State mode. Such modes do not change overnight – as witness the shock or puzzlement today that not everybody has taken to heart the liberal changes to the Irish constitution. But, within limits, a certain diversity of opinion was present in publications like Our Book, the 1956 Irish Countrywomen’s Association publication, or The Irish Housewife annual of the same year.
Full and Plenty and a thick scrapbook containing recipes culled mostly from newspapers were my own mother’s two chief reference works. She was from Cork City, though with family connections in the countryside. My father was a townie from a socially undistinguished street in Charleville (though the children had to be quiet when his own father was reading), but his heart was then – the West Kerry Gaeltacht would become a rival – in the North Cork countryside where he spent his summers on an uncle’s farm. In marrying this primary teacher, my mother had incurred some family disapproval. As a secondary teacher, too, she had had to give up her job on marrying. She was more sociable than my father, with an interest in the arts and in languages. She soon found herself with very little company or intellectual distraction in a house near something less than a village in south Tipperary. The couple moved to Cashel, where my father combined singing in the chorus of local productions of Gilbert and Sullivan with their shared commitment to the Irish language. They eventually moved back to Cork in the late ’50s – though my father chose to teach in small primary schools outside the city rather than deal with smart alecks from the city.
Thus it was that Maura Laverty’s book entered a growing household that embodied the complexities of social change. It was one of the few in the new suburbia where a cartload of raw manure would be dumped in the then-carless driveway for my father’s vegetable plot (my friend Diarmuid can conjure up a sloppier and more odorous manure pile in their family’s driveway on the other side of the city), where a few rusty and, to my eyes and imagination, sinister-looking rabbit-snares lingered in the garage, and where a pig’s head was boiled for hours before arduous excavations ultimately produced the makings of a large bowlful of brawn (compressed by a brick on an inverted plate). I shuddered when I found myself chewing a stray piece of gristle.
Full and Plenty was of its time. It was able to appeal to an Ireland where the urban/rural divide was not as great, with a gentle increase in the ingredients that could figure on the shelves (some of them used only at Christmas or other rare occasions, and changing colour, coagulating or dying as the years passed); with a gentle increase in references to foreign fashion, foreign travel, foreign settings (there had always been some); with a gentle increase too in diversity of opinion within a broad social consensus.
While the rural anecdotes and chatty, collective voice of Full and Plenty appealed to the imagined past of Free-State Ireland (cooking in the household was a female role, men were often presented as blundering innocents lured into domestic bliss by discreetly artful variations on established, conservative male-decreed taste), it was also appealing to the smaller public which had a more sophisticated idea of itself or of its future. In this sense, and to a degree that is still under-appreciated, Ireland presents a variation on a broader European pattern. Where food culture is concerned, there are multiple Irelands, Englands and Frances that cannot be placed within a single national timeline.
Most food writing addresses a particular public at a particular point within broader and changing cultural patterns. Some books may have a longer shelf-life because their appeal is to the relatively fixed or embedded elements of a food culture but even there most readers may well want, or can be enticed to buy, the latest packaging of such material.
One American food writer, born within a few years of Maura Laverty, stands apart from this pattern. Here is one of her sentences: “The girls wear queer rumpled turbans, and flop into the water, at regular intervals, several at a time, like drunken birds.” This is plucked from p 163 of a five-books-in-one compendium published by Vintage in 1976. That the book in question is Consider the Oyster (1941), that the section in question is “Pearls are not Good to Eat”, does not remove the element of surprise from the sentence, the quietly witty way its rhythmic structure imitates the action described. Characteristically, MFK Fisher’s lively, curious mind registers the difference between the shallow-water diving of China and Japan and the special skills and dangers (from sharks to burst lungs) of the Ceylonese version. One senses her pleasure in the detail of how certain Chinese place matrices in the shells of young oysters so that pearls may grow in the shape of religious, or even lewd, figures; tubs of water “well spiked with human dung” are mentioned in passing.
But let us turn to the opening section of the book, “Love and Death among the Molluscs”:
An oyster leads a dreadful but exciting life.
Indeed, his chance to live at all is slim. And if he should survive the arrows of his own outrageous fortune and in the two weeks of his carefree youth find a clean smooth place to fix on, the years afterwards are full of stress, passion, and danger.
He, but why make him a he, except for clarity? Almost any normal oyster never knows from one year to the next whether he is he or she and may start at any moment, after the first year, to lay eggs where before he spent sexual energies in being exceptionally masculine.
MFK Fisher was as open-minded and observant of variations within human sexuality as she was regarding molluscs; she fully faced up to her place in the food chain; she was capable of great personal frankness (about leaving Al, her first husband, while retaining affection and respect for him, in favour of an overwhelming passion [unto death soon enough] for another man, Chexbres, on the one hand; leaving details of a later marriage unspoken when describing how she came to spend months in Aix with her daughters, on the other). Her books are not composed to a formula – unless accumulating a whole from independent shorter sections can be considered a formula, but the organising principle may be a loose autobiographical chronology (The Gastronomical Me), the alphabet (An Alphabet for Gourmets), tip after tip on how best to survive wartime austerity and rationing (How to Cook a Wolf (revised and expanded after the war)), or anything at all regarding food in her personal or in human history that sparks her interest (Serve it Forth).
She must have had an underlying confidence that her writing, no matter what the subject, would satisfy readers. To what extent she embroidered on memory (and the inevitable gaps in it) in order to make a better story or to underline a point about passion, food, snobbery, cruelty or tolerance is almost irrelevant.
A few years ago, long after casually picking up the compendium The Art of Eating in the Rathmines Bookshop, I bought – with a vague memory of having encountered but not read it as a teenager – a cheap second-hand copy of Two Towns in Provence. During Covid lockdown, I happened to dip into and then to read this volume from beginning to end. In my mind, guided by the title on the cover, I was reading it as a travel book or a personal book about loved places – Aix and Marseille. This was accurate in its way, but reading – certainly my reading – like other appetites and activities, has its blind spots. I began to feel that the first half of the book only seemed to be about Aix, that it was really about the territory between friendship and strangerdom: shopkeepers, waiters, doctors, the lives of neighbours glimpsed or guessed at.
In the chapter about St Sauveur, Fisher wrote about a baptism conducted by a “fat careless priest” who “held the new child as it were a distastefully cold omelet that might stick on his fingers”. Later, on Maundy Thursday, a suspicious and disdainful young priest refuses her and her party entry to a usually closed-off section of the cathedral that she had once seen years before. She describes how, on another occasion, she experienced “one of the most impressive darknesses of my life”:
There was no sound except for the muted shuffling of our feet and the mouselike whispering of the people telling their beads, and the darkness in that great place was as palpable as flesh. It was oppressive. It pressed in upon my skin like the cold body of someone unloved.
She writes about the rhythms of the town’s main street and the Cours Mirabeau, (briefly) about Cézanne, but with special fondness of the discovery of a café where she and her daughters would always be welcome:
For more than three years, on and off, this place nurtured various phases of our varied lives. It was a solace and a refuge from everything: wind and blasting heat and rain, disasters, anxieties, too much noise or silence. It was protective of us, yet always aloof, able to do without us.
She is intrigued by “our tacit acceptance as more than tourists, less than townspeople”. Fisher writes of waiters and their ways and a curious incident where her non-racism is noted as her children play with an African girl; a disturbing chapter focuses on the prolonged consequences of annoying a gypsy fortune-teller; elsewhere, she is invited to lunch but her hostess expresses shrieking disbelief, in front of the other guests, at the very notion that a mere American could dare to call herself a writer on gastronomy; she sketches the mix of repeated rage at and underlying fondness for the woman who presided over her own boarding-house; she describes a sleazy doctor and another she admired; she describes the tacit drama of recognition and avoidance surrounding a street musician; and a long chapter centres on how glimpses from her window of the life of an unusual couple become “a morbid preoccupation”. She weaves back and forth between visits, long and short, before concluding:
The next time, I knew by now, might be any time at all, whether or not the map was exactly true to scale, and plumb, and legible to eyes other than mine. I need not worry about coming back, for I was there anyway.
As I paused in my reading, I began to see what was hidden in plain sight. I knew that the Two Towns of the title had first appeared as separate publications. However, it was only now that I began to reflect on the original title and sub-title of the book about Aix, Map of Another Town, A Memoir of Provence or to wonder at why I had skipped over the introductory page. There, Fisher had briefly outlined her true concern, what world she was really mapping, with what conscious artistry she went about her task.
The epigraph was from Jean Giono: “… it is very probable that if I had to draw the portrait of Paris, I would, one more time, draw it of myself”. Some paragraphs amount to an artistic credo:
Not everything can be told, nor need it be, just as the artist himself need not and indeed cannot reveal every outline of his vision.
There before us is what one human being has seen of something others have viewed differently, and the lines held back are perhaps the ones most vital to the whole.
Here before me now is my picture, my map, of a place and therefore of myself, and much that can never be said adds to its reality for me, just as much of its reality is based on my own shadows, my inventions.
Over the years I have taught myself, and have been taught, to be a stranger.
During lockdown, many people turned or returned to the kitchen, to long-neglected or to new recipes and skills. Old books were reopened or discovered. No doubt MFK Fisher’s books were among these. But why had Map of Another Town, a non-food book by a great food writer, spoken so insistently to me at this time? Lockdown closed off or restricted contact with distant family and friends. There were days when the only external human contact we had was with passing strangers. Little interactions suddenly loomed large. The strangers who politely or smilingly acknowledged our stepping off the path to let them pass. The ones who didn’t notice. The person at the check-out who didn’t glance up or salute us as he continued his exciting conversation with another assistant. The burly man who scoffed at our insistence on social distancing in a queue. The young woman outside the local Spar who flashed a smile at us for no reason. The overworked nurse at the walk-in injection centre who spoke brightly of the weather.
But others hovered on the borders of our lives. The skilled plumber who had done a big job six months before but whose chatty presence had become a distanced and chatless half-absence. The friendly shopkeeper that we gave up on as he realised that we had realised how systematically unresisting he was to the many maskless invaders of his little space. The neighbour whose undeviating rage … But then who knows what pain we caused here and what fear we caused there as we moved through a new world where thoughtless breathing was a crime.
This is the generally overlooked intermediate social world that MFK Fisher addresses in Map of Another Town. Her ability to speak across the generations and across human experience is one more reason to place her as a writer above other food writers.
Books by Maura Laverty, MFK Fisher, Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson and Len Deighton can be found in bookshops or online; relevant blog entries, documentaries, newspaper articles and much other material can also be sought out, along with the Blackstaff reprints of Florence Irwin’s The Cookin’ Woman: Irish Country Recipes.
Readers might want to consult the article ‘“I Can Talk About It, Can’t I”: The Ireland Maura Laverty Desired, 1942-46’ by Caitriona Clear or Impure Thoughts: Sexuality, Catholicism and Literature in Twentieth-century Ireland by Michael G Cronin.