Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Grandes Dames of cookery

Left to Right: Roden, Jones, Prever and Norman.
Settle in folks, this is gonna be a long 'un (great thing about blogging, no word count, yay!)
A Wednesday in September in London; a day in which I cursed myself for not taking one of the many umbrellas left and lost at The Underground Restaurant. Huge gloopy raindrops, darkened skies, soaked feet in silly high heels, skidding through oily puddles, dishevelled and damp, I arrived everywhere looking like a drowned rat. Despite my sartorial ineptitude, I had an inspiring day filled with the wisdom of a worldwide cabal of what I will term the Grandes Dames of cookery.
The morning I tripped up to Golders Green where a Jewish Literary Festival is being held at Ivy House. I was invited by my friend, Viking wet dream and food anthropologist @scandilicious who was celebrating just having completed her Masters on cheese. (Imagining scholarly treatise on Welsh Rarebit (why is it Welsh?) and Dairy Lea triangles (so hard to get the foil off) but I'm sure it's far more complex and exotic than that!).
I know Golders Green so well. I changed buses there every morning to go to school. I went to a very Jewish girl's school and from a young age I knew words like 'beck' (as in 'she's a right beck' (North Londonese for Jewish princess), 'chutzpah', 'shiksa' and 'I met that boy at 'shul''. I enjoyed Jewish humour, envied their self-confidence and supportive families, sighed resignedly at the high marks they got for exams. I could never compete with the Jewish girls at my school with their designer clothes from Jigsaw and Daniel Hechter. It being the 70s, we still talked about the holocaust as a recent event. All of my Jewish friends had lost family; their families in England a surviving husk of their previously huge extended network. My first Saturday job was at the Golders Green branch of WH Smith. I lurked around the bus station every Saturday night, waiting for word of parties in Temple Fortune, Childs Hill, Barnet and millionaire's row (now populated by Asian families as is Golders Green), Bishops Avenue. Afterwards we'd all go to Maxwell's or Calamity Jane's hamburger joints in Hampstead. Milkshakes and burgers were still new and foreign (the sushi of their day) and trays of lurid green and yellow relish and unlimited Heinz ketchup were objects of wonder.

The Jewish Literary Festival had invited Claudia Roden, Jill Norman, Judith Jones to a round table discussion hosted by Victoria Prever. All of these women are high achievers in the world of cooking: Claudia Roden has written seminal works on Jewish and Middle Eastern cookery; Jill Norman worked at Penguin in the 60s, authoring her own cookbooks as well as safe-guarding the literary heritage of Elizabeth David; Judith Jones, perhaps less well known to British audiences, an editor (Julia Child's) and writer. Victoria Prever is a chef and restaurant critic for the Ham & High and Jewish Chronicle.
These are my notes on the discussion, I came in late and heard Judith Jones talking passionately...
"I hate the words 'fast' and 'easy'. How can you learn any art form overnight?"
Jill Norman:
"Some things are meant to be fast and easy...I was part of a small team at Penguin in the 60s. When they divided up the editing departments, I got 'cooking'. I didn't cook"
The audience laughs, the implication is clear, she got what was considered the female area of expertise.
"But I knew how to eat. I learnt to eat in France when I was a student at the Sorbonne. Nobody was publishing food books at that time except for Penguin publishing.
Elizabeth David was very conscientious about her books. She frequently updated them with footnotes about when ingredients became available in England.
Jane Grigson's book on charcuterie was a classic. We bought the rights. It wasn't an instant best seller but sold slowly and steadily. It stayed in print until four years ago.
Books were expensive and people didn't have much money then. But towards the end of the 60s everybody was interested in cooking, trying new things..."
Claudia Roden on styling:
"Your food was never likely to look like the photographs in the books. Stylists would spray food with oil for instance. Nowadays the style is different. Often they use close-up pictures. But it's easier to produce food now that actually looks like the pictures."
Judith Jones: "I find I have to be there when they are taking pictures..."
Roden:
"The photographs can be misleading. Once I did a stuffed artichoke recipe. The stylist put the stuffing in a huge pyramid on top. But if the home cook did that there wouldn't be enough stuffing for all the artichokes..."
Victoria Prever:
"Who tests their recipes?"
Jill Norman:
"I test everything. Sometimes things didn't work, or a chunk of information was left out. My children grew up with very eclectic food."
Judith Jones:
"You can't just hand over to a tester. Nothing is totally foul proof, you have to use common sense. A chef is hired, who will hire a writer. The writer is at home somewhere. You have to insist that the writer works with the chef and asks questions"
Prever:
"Are professional chefs, who produce cookbooks, a good thing?"
Roden:
"Someone mentioned Gordon Ramsay. In one of his books there were 40 mistakes with the recipes. He'd changed his home economist, sacked her, and got a new one. He was very angry with the publishers Michael Joseph. He blamed everybody but himself. Michael Joseph didn't want to do his next book after that"
Norman:
"You have to test the things that sound most improbable"
Prever:
"Has it put you off food forever?"
All of the ladies shake their heads "No".
Prever:
"What do you think of celebrity chefs, the teaching out there?"
Norman:
"On the whole I'm not in favour of the celebrity chef culture, they don't help people to cook better. It's become a spectator sport. You'll watch them cook, with a ready made meal on your lap"
Roden:
"One thing that is good is that it's made say, young men, previously ashamed of cooking, think it's a good thing to do. Because of Jamie Oliver, my grandson wants to cook"
Questions from the audience:
"There are so many books out there but more and more people are buying ready made food. I just stayed in the US with a family who had the most wonderful kitchen but never cooked"
Roden:
"It is disappointing. Women are all working, there isn't someone at home all day. But you can do a quick meal, quicker than a box in the supermarket"
Judith Jones:
"Young people were inspired to cook for they fell in love with Julia (Child). In 1961, when 'The Art of French Cooking' was published, it exploded. People are sick of celebrity stuff."
Roden:
"Could cooking be just a fashion? Like skateboarding?"
The audience laughs.
Norman:
"Some of it will persist. Farmer's markets. The economic downturn could be positive. Writers and supermarkets explain what to do with inexpensive meat."
Prever:
"Is there a downturn in food publishing?"
Norman:
"About 5 percent. It takes time for it to filter through. There are also issues of greenness, excess of packaging..."
Audience:
"Each of the panellists introduced us to food of different nations. What do you think of fusion foods?"
Norman:
"CONfusion. Unfortunate mixtures of ingredients. It's generally Pacific rim with Western, cooking things in coconut milk. A couple of chefs do it well...Peter Gordon, that chap in New Zealand, where it came from"
Judith Jones:
"American is a country of immigrants. It's kept cooking fresh and diverse"
Roden:
"In the last century, for the first time, there was a big change in the foods of countries. There is this idea of 'creativity'. It's pushed by editors of food mags who have run out of ideas. They've done all the classics so every year they want to do new things.
I do feel like it's betraying cultures. A lot of dishes have lost their identity altogether. Iranian chicken with a Moroccan sauce for instance. Where is this recipe from? The internet! We can lose cultures if we mess with them too much. There is a dilution of the recipes. Recipes are led by editors. Original ethnic restaurants are less expensive than restaurants that copy and dilute those recipes."
Audience:
"When I was growing up, everybody ate everything. Nowadays vegetarianism is popular. Are you sensitive to food intolerances? At a dinner party last night, there were six people. Each one of them had some kind of food intolerance."
Roden:
"With Spanish cooking it can be hard to find a dish that doesn't have a bit of ham. I just say you can do it without ham"
Norman:
"I will say this is how the dish is normally made but you can make it without meat. My daughter became veggie and so it was a part of our family life. I say we do vegetable dishes not vegetarian dishes."
Audience:
"We can now get all types of food all year. The quality and the taste has gone"
Roden:
"We try to help, for instance add sugar to tomatoes. In Spain there are not many herbs and spices. People are encouraged to add more aromatics."
Norman:
"Pity we have so many fruits that taste of nothing much all year round."
Louds murmurs of agreement from the audience.
Norman:
"Ethically it's tricky. I try to push locally grown foods.
Prever:
"Do you try to eat seasonally?"
Roden:
"I don't. I'm always trying recipes. It's always a trial. I'm glad of vegetables that come from Egypt, that Egyptians can sell their artichokes."
Prever:
"What about organic?"
Norman:
"For me it's more important that they are local."
Audience, guy with American accent who turns out to be Daniel Young of @youngandfoodish :
"Since I moved here I've noticed a real distinction between the classes in terms of what they eat. Even the 'peasant' cuts of meat such as brisket are expensive. How can we bring quality cooking to the working class?"
Norman:
"You don't need a great deal of meat to flavour things. But cheaper cuts do need to be cooked longer so there are issues over the expense of cooking something in the oven all night. People who have columns are trying to address this. Using vegetables in season is cheaper."
Prever:
"Jamie Oliver tried to encourage people to eat well"
Judith Jones:
"There are strategies...leftovers, using the same ingredients to create different dishes for next day's lunch. We ought to start a movement also to make supermarkets sell smaller quantities. It's particularly a problem in the US."
Audience (I fess up, it was me):
"What do you think about food blogs? And the new underground restaurant movement?"
Judith Jones:
"I have a blog. We are all in the electronic age, publishers can't ignore it. It's great to google things. Good, intelligent blogs help people"
Norman:
"Blogs that are good but a lot aren't"
Roden:
"I have a cousin in Paris. He joined a blog, or a club. (She seemed uncertain lol)I asked him about the recipes because I've noticed there are such discrepancies...one will say, cook this for three hours, another will say an hour and a half. My cousin told me that there are comments below, people will say if it didnt' work. "
Judith Jones:
"Some of the recipes are contradictory but it is interactive."
The talk ended there. I could have listened to them all day. It made me think that I ought to be more diligent about putting recipes up.
I talked to them afterwards and they were very interested in the idea that people were cooking for others in their homes, being hospitable and convivial.
I bought Claudia Roden's bible 'A new book of Middle Eastern Food', she signed it 'To MsMarmitelover, I think what you are doing sounds great, best wishes Claudia Roden"
You never know, one day I may be honoured with a visit.
Afterwards I made my way to Islington to meet with another Grande Dame of cookery, this time from Japan, Harumi Kurihara. I will write about that in my next post as I'm sure you need a chance to get a cup of tea and so do I.
For any inaccuracies I apologize in advance.

8 comments:

  1. Wow, what a fabulous way to spend an afternoon. I absolutely adore Claudia Roden.

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  2. Thanks for writing that up - I'm still gutted I couldn't make it.

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  3. Haha, I have to say I agree with this to a degree:

    Norman:
    "CONfusion. Unfortunate mixtures of ingredients. It's generally Pacific rim with Western, cooking things in coconut milk. A couple of chefs do it well...Peter Gordon, that chap in New Zealand, where it came from"

    Being from New Zealand I have always felt we really lack a distinct cooking style, unless meat and three vege counts. We really have a weird blend of traditional english cooking meets rural style food. In my books it doesn't. I must say I got so excited once I started travelling and got into thai and indian foods.

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  4. Did you go to South Hampstead???

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  5. I sure did Natasha...a difficult experience to be honest.
    I wasn't conventional enough for it.
    They had a tendency to make pupils feel inadequate rather than boost their confidence.
    When I went to the 25 year meet up of our class I was amazed how many girls said 'I wanted to be a vet' or 'a doctor' or something but the school said I wasn't good enough.

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  6. Okay, were we in the same year? 1977-84? I rebirthed myself as Natasha when I left, was Debby Lehrer. I went to a 25th reunion and didn't realise until then how little I had liked the place .

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  7. Hi
    I came upon your transcript of the JCC event by chance.
    It was really interesting to read what you had to say and your perception of the event. I really enjoyed it and was very much in awe of those Grandes Dames.
    For your info - i went to NLCS (79-86) and my (very much) younger sister went to (and didn't particularly enjoy) Southampstead. We may have crossed paths at some point!
    Perhaps we'll bump into one another again.
    Best wishes
    Victoria

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  8. Thanks for your comment Victoria. It was so interesting wasn't it?
    I didn't enjoy South Hampstead either...too much pressure and not very encouraging to pupils...always telling you what you couldn't do rather than what you could....but still it's good that this blue stocking schools exist for girls.
    Yes it would be nice to meet!

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