In Praise of Plain Jane Cookbooks

I work in a small community library, and as a perk of the job I get first pick of the books sentenced to be withdrawn – a punishment meted out to books which are old, tatty or simply no longer being taken out. I have been known to get certain favourite novels out, then take them straight off my card, knowing that this alone would save them from being ‘weeded’ and placed on a trolley for 10p each.

Recently, a lot of cookbooks were weeded, and I, along with the other library assistants got to dip into this glorious pile. I am a glutton for both food and books, and as cookbooks encompass both of these I was delighted. Many had gone by the time I got there (those other pesky library advisors got there first) but one small brown hardback had been overlooked.

Good Things by Jane Grigson has a simple bowl of speckled eggs on its cover. Like its title, it is very plain, in the same way that a simple pine table, a well-cut cotton dress, and a perfect speckled egg are plain. Here the eggs have no adornment – they are not neatly arranged in straw to look ‘rustic’ – but rather presented in a plain wooden bowl. Looking at them reminds me of the thrill I used to feel, when as a child I was allowed to visit the henhouse and peer into the roosts for the fat brown eggs which appeared as though by magic. Oddly, an image with straw would not remind me of this, perhaps because the straw would be too clean and the light too strong. The straw of my childhood was smudged with the dirt our hens used peck about in, and we all knew that the henhouse had to be kept dark if we wished our girls to keep laying, the door only opened as far as it took to get in, before it was once again closed,the only light coming from cracks between the wooden planks overhead.

Good Things, published in 1971, is divided into four sections: Vegetables, Fruit, Meat and Fish. The ethos is one of seasonality, and there are no photos in the book, just black and white illustrations by MJ Mott – a colander of peas sits next to their empty pods on a wooden kitchen table, a leek is cut into revealing its ringed interior, a pair of hands – independent of a body - gut a fish, snail shells rest next to parsley and a garlic crusher, their inhabitants blissfully unaware of their impending fate. These images are few and far between however and the message is clear. This book is about food, and the recipes often overlap on one of the a3 pages – to give each recipe its own page seems an unthinkable extravagance.

 Photo copyright Kim Millon via  Jane Grigson Trust website

Photo copyright Kim Millon via Jane Grigson Trust website

Jane Grigson did not, however, skimp on the writing. Her descriptions evoke the smell of fresh fish on the deck of a wobbly boat off the coast of Yarmouth, of autumn woodland filled with mushrooms, tree roots and dark soil, the heady almost sickly smell of cherry brandy. We learn that Jane’s grandmother used to make lemonade in the early dark months of the year, calling it ‘Spring Medicine’ and declaring it cleaned the blood; that as a child during the war she was sent to stay in Westmorland (now part of Cumbria) where the landlady waxed lyrical about the sweet lamb pie she would make, if rationing were not in place; that the best gooseberries are ‘small, green, primitive and hairy’ and should be top-and-tailed with a pair of scissors.

Nowadays we expect our cookbooks glossy, gleaming, and heaving with sex-appeal. The ‘quirky’ ones go out of their way to be unconventional with their finger-licking poster girls and boys. I confess that I do love these modern cookbooks, especially The Little Paris Kitchen  by Rachel Khoo, a sexy, colourful boiling pot of a cookbook with cordon bleu influences and The Best Chocolate Pots Ever Tasted.

Still, there is something to be said for plain cookbooks. In sourcing the name of the illustrator of my edition of Jane Grigson’s Book I discovered another more recent copy, complete with new, bright images and glossy cover. I don’t think I’d like that half as much.