The last meal I ate out in a restaurant was fish and chips back in March. I miss restaurants, but luckily I like cooking too. I’m the kind of person who cuts out recipes from the Sunday papers. Along with handwritten ones I’ve collected over the years, they’re all stored, a bit messily, in a box that sits on the top kitchen shelf.
Today I decided to tidy and edit the box, but as I pulled it down a folder came too. Not a folder exactly, but a brown cardboard binder, which I remembered from long ago. I opened it up and on the first page was a sticker bearing, in my mum’s tiny neat handwriting, the words, “A Few Tried and Tested Favourite Recipes”. I’d inherited the folder when she died, and it has sat up there hidden and forgotten for several years now, but I lost an hour today looking through it once again.
It’s a messy, scruffy kind of scrapbook. Some recipes are typed, some written by hand, many cut out from magazines and glued or Sellotaped in. A lot of them don’t quite fit the page, or the edges are not quite straight, or they’re not quite aligned. It all adds to the homemade charm of the thing. And there is no real order to any of it – no sections of starters and mains, or savoury and sweet, or chronological placing, and so recipes from my childhood sit alongside meal ideas from later on.
Here is the recipe for her fruit cake, which she made countless times for my dad and brother, and here is the fridge cake which in turn became my own children’s favourite after we found that one was allergic to eggs and couldn’t eat regular birthday cake. I still make it now. Mum wrote detailed directions, but then at the end she has scribbled: “I find it quicker to put everything in the saucepan except the crumbs and heat it together – depends how much time you have when you decide to make it!!” I smiled at that – the acknowledgement that sometimes a recipe is an idealised version of how we actually cook.
Some pages are separated by little makeshift book marks. On closer inspection these turn out to be torn up bits of crosswords from the Telegraph, completed in my dad’s handwriting. One marks a recipe for Pork Fillet Sauté Normande and another, our family’s favourite thing, Potato Dauphinoise.
There are dishes collected here which are fantastically era appropriate, like “Individual Fish Flans” and “Doreen’s Peppers”, or “Speedy Coq au Vin” and “Chicken Fromage”. “Stuffed Marrow My Way” is described as being “fit for a party!” A cake made from Ritz biscuits is followed by the unbeatable promise of “Salmon Spectacular”.
There are recipes she might have followed for a posh dinner party, or which were cut out in one of those moods when you think, “I know, I’ll try something different.” So I’m not sure whether she ever actually made a Jambalaya, or a Korma, or a Pheasant Casserole – but at least she thought about doing so, and it’s the thought that counts. She wasn’t an ambitious cook, but she was a kind cook. She made the things we liked and went easy on us about the things we didn’t.
After Ben’s surgery in 1992, when he was told he’d have to eat a low fat and low fibre diet for the rest of his life, she rose to the occasion, searching for meal ideas, adapting and modifying, coming up with things that he could eat – a fish pie made with skimmed milk, a mixed fruit brûlée made with fat-free yoghurt.
As I turn the pages, I come to Christmas, where her reliable Sausage and Chestnut Stuffing is followed by a whole page from Woman’s Own magazine entitled “Easy Boxing Day Buffet”. And I laugh as I read the suggestions – Coronation Turkey, Party Rice Salad, Fruity Meringue Nests – none of which we ever ate, on Boxing Day or any other day.
I close the folder, and put it back on its shelf, and think about the Boxing Day to come, which will by necessity be quiet, and therefore easy, and certainly won’t need any special recipes at all. I will probably make a fridge cake, and this year I might put everything in the saucepan all at once, just for the hell of it, and because my mum told me I can. I have it in writing.
This article appears in the 25 Nov 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Trump