Friday, 22 August 2008

Cream horns, Hitler, Mrs Wicks, and the joy of the vintage cookbook

I bet you've never heard of Mrs Wicks. Well, neither had I, until yesterday, when I bought her cookbook, issued in 1939 by the Shell Company of South Africa. I was thrilled to add it to my small but growing collection of South African cookbooks and food manufacturers' pamphlets from the thirties, forties, fifties and sixties, and even more delighted when I found several handwritten recipes and old war-time cuttings** pasted on the inside covers of the book.

Finding any hand-penned recipe tucked between the pages of a vintage cookbook, or written on its end-papers, tickles me pink.

Old, dog-eared, cake-batter-flecked books like this appeal to me for many reasons. The first is purely visual: their covers and illustrations are so enchanting and innocent, in a mid-century kind of way. Even the photographs, which are generally frightfully ugly - especially when they involve jellied savoury rings and stuffed eggs, with their piped-on, turdy toppings - have a peculiar appeal. But, most important of all, I appreciate these books for the fascinating historical documents they are.

They reflect so much of the last century's attitude to women as domestic goddesses and aproned, lipsticked home-makers. Read in this light, they are sometimes heart-breaking. Cookbooks of this era often contain little poems and homilies about how to show docility and consideration towards one's husband. A few of them - and particularly South African vintage cookbooks - lament the 'servant problem', making comments about their servants that make my cheeks burn with indignation and shame.

But the overriding value of these little books is the brilliant recipes they contain. Not all the recipes, mind you. The war-time recipes, which reflect the hardships of rationing, make dismal reading, with their scrag ends and powdered eggs and outer cabbage leaves. Kitschy recipes of the sixties and seventies, involving a lot of jelly powder, Ideal evaporated milk, tinned fruit and stuffed eggs, are not inspiring. But scattered all over these books, and especially in the cakes, bakes and preserves sections - which generally make up half of every cook book published before 1960; goodness, but our grandmothers loved cake - are many wonderful old recipes that quite obviously have been passed down from mother to daughter over countless generations.

Gingerbread, ginger beer, Boston Loaf, Sussex Pond Pudding, Queen's pudding, fruit cakes and puddings and pies, syllabub, and a host of old South African recipes such as bredies, koeksisters, Hertzoggies, samoosas, biltong, mampoer, boerewors, pickled fish, melktert... the list goes on and on.

These recipes, some of which are many centuries old, are becoming an endangered species as the culinary landscape is flooded with squid ink and fish sauce and Balsamic vinegar and horrid towers of cheffy saffron-this and cardamom-that.

I started collecting mid-twentieth-century cookbooks about two years ago, when I grabbed an old sixties cookbook my mother was turfing out. I flipped through it with the scornful attitude of one who reads glossy food magazines, and was about to turf it into the don't-want pile, when I came across a photograph of a rabbit-shaped white cake coated in coconut flakes, and, a few pages on, a ghastly - and frankly rather pornographic - picture of a pastry horn overflowing with whipped cream. Both pictures evoked the most extraordinary response: I was transported in an instant back to 1967, and could feel myself standing on a chair on chubby toddler legs in our family kitchen, poring over the very same cookbook, and wishing my mom would make rabbit cake and cream horns for pud. I could hear the low hiss of our gas stove, smell the comforting whiffs of potato-topped fish pie baking in the oven, hear the buzzing of fat flies trapped in the sticky, curling yellow fly-strip hanging from the kitchen ceiling. A petrified knot of neurons in my forty-something old brain unbundled themselves, and along came a flood of memories of my childhood. Reading these old books and pamphlets is like tasting memories; like burying my nose in my mom's floury apron.

** One of the war-time cuttings reads:

SEND HIM A CAKE. Here is the way to make it yourself.

The way to a man's heart.... that applies more than ever before nowadays. Here's a recipe we know will please him. [I am going to try this recipe out, along with the Cinnamon Loaf, written by Mrs Evans of Germiston, South Africa, in 1940, picture left, in the next few days, so please check back soon]

And, on the flip-side of the cutting, the
news that Hitler received at his headquarters the Hungarian Regent, Admiral Horthy, who later returned to Budapest.
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