Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Convenience Food Martyrdom of St. Delia

The patron saint of my kitchen is surely Delia Smith.

I have most of her books, usually given to me as Christmas presents by my sister over the years. (I would usually buy her the same book in return!) Every single one of her recipes I've tried have turned out really well (apart from one curry recipe which was way too mild for my chilli-tempered tastebuds) and I've reaped the praise. (My book club members - even the non-vegies - are begging for my/Delia's nut loaf for the next meet.)

My mum hated cooking (apart from puddings and cakes which she pulled off rather well) and you tasted that resentment in every mouthful (soggy cabbage, congealed gravy, overcooked meat). She also relied on tinned and packet food and frozen foods much of the time, as did so many in her generation of British housewives, post-war rationing. Frozen fish fingers, cod in butter sauce, baked beans on toast, Heinz spaghetti hoops, boil-in-the-bag rice, faggots (the haggis actually was invented in the British Midlands!) with tinned mushy peas, instant coffee, television dinners in neat aluminum trays, tinned salmon for Sunday teas, oven chips ... the litany goes on.

I wasn't allowed into the kitchen which was her territory, and I had only a few cooking lessons at school with a veritable dragon of a domestic science teacher, so it was through books that I learned to cook. My first, a birthday present in 1973, was Good Housekeeping's Basic Cookery, which I still use a lot. (I'm working up the energy to go downstairs in a while to make a ginger loaf cake.)

I grew up in a generation in Britain where food was particularly bland and boring, and before many of the ingredients that have become every day fair were common. In the shops in the village where I lived there were no no "exotic" vegetables such as courgettes (zucchini) or aubergines (brinjal) or peppers, garlic was seldom found and even then a single clove in a dish seemed to be the limit for the British palate, the thought of using herbs was quite revolutionary and only dried ones were available, yoghurt was just beginning to make an appearance, and there was no olive oil or black pepper. Such was our insularity that that we never ate dishes with foreign origins. I had my first Chinese and Indian food in my late teens, and felt I was becoming very cosmopolitan.

Delia Smith opened a window onto a culinary world I'd never known, where one used a whole range of fresh ingredients, and cooked with a real love and respect for the food.

Although I try to keep most of the books on my shelves in good condition, my cookbooks wear their war wounds with pride. The cover has almost come off my Complete Illustrated Cookery Course (above), and Delia Smith's Christmas (left) would provide a forensic scientist with much DNA evidence (including a smear of blood when I grated my finger in with the lemon peel).

I also scribble comments meant for future reference on all the recipes I've tried (below right), with notes of changes and substitutions and suggestions for future modifications. My cookbooks are completely interactive.

I didn't see Delia on TV until some cookery shows began to be shown on Astro, and by then she was being upstaged by the cheerfully slapdash Jamie and food-porn star Nigella, both of whom canoodle happily on my shelves. But no-one supplants Delia.

But now comes news that St. Delia's halo is crumbling. Britain's Daily Mail talks about the "demonising" of Delia (and puts a pair of red horns on her picture) and Delia Goes to the Darkside screams Alex Renton's headline on the Guardian website :
We burnt Delia last night. "How to Cook", Volumes One and Two: the books went up in strangely pungent smoke as the crusted pages gave up the essences of recipes we sweated over 10 years ago: coconut milk, lime juice, crème fraiche, "classic fresh tomato sauce". "Fresh" is on most pages: the black pepper never appears without the words "freshly milled".
What's the original kitchen diva done wrong? Well her latest book, and the TV programme based on it, is called How to Cheat at Cookery(which was also the title of the first book she wrote) and the recipes are all based on convenience foods. Tins, jars, packets, frozen stuff. Her fans are devastated and accuse her of selling out.

Whilst I'm not averse to time-saving methods and a bit of creative cheatery myself, Delia in her previous incarnation taught me that food can be fast and delicious and composed of fresh ingredients. One of my favourite recipes I learned from her, a sort of pasta Alfredo of the sort that posh restaurants charge RM30 or so per portion for can be produced in 7 minutes with a couple of minutes spare to assemble a tomato salad. Drop by and time me if you don't believe it.

Here's what Delia herself says.

Incidentally, Delia was in KL not so long ago with Norwich City FC and she signed some books in Kinokuniya. I'm still kicking myself for not going with my food-splattered, falling apart, scribbled on copies for her to sign.

(Rob sent me the links via Facebook and I think he is horrified too!)


Rob Spence said...

Feet of clay...
She seems to resent the fact that there's a new generation of cookery heroes and heroines, and has come up with this desperate throw of the dice to maintain her position. At least she isn't recycling her old recipes, which is what she has been accused of in the past.

Kak Teh said...

I think her book and programme came at a time when other chefs are trying to promote healthy cooking and then the Queen herself appeared using processed food. Food critics are worried that whatever St Delia does, says, are taken as the gospel truth. She uses a non stick pan and the next minute there was a rush for the pan!

Eliza said...

Sharon, would be great if you listed all your favourite (and useful) cookbooks, and why you like them. Thanks for this post. I'm a baker in the making.

Lydia Teh said...

I have a Good Housekeeping recipe book, but a newer edition with coloured cover. It's also very well used, with flour remnants,egg splatter etc. I've only tried a fraction of the recipes, but one of my favourites is scones.

How to cheat at cookery - I would expect a harried mum to resort to convenience food, but not a cooking guru.

bibliobibuli said...

rob - yes, that would make sense.

kak teh - yes, she has had enormous influence ...

eliza - may well do that! (and may as well meme it to you and other enthusiasic cooks!)

am not good at baking though. never seem to have an oven here that has the right temperature. does anyone else have this problem?

lydia - nice to know you are a good housekeeping fan. there have been several versions of the basic cookbook and mine is just so 1970's you wouldn't believe it.

talking about scones, abu learned how to bake them from that same book, and then he used to turn up at relatives houses with his butter and flout and dried fruit and ask if he could just go into the kitchen to knock up some scones for tea. everyone loved him for it. but soon the scone-craze was over.

anis audrey said...

My "Delia Smith" is Ellice Handy. The book I have now (stolen from my mum's collection) was printed in 1961. It's torn and tattered (and stained with egg and butter) but very, very precious! Whenever I miss home, her recipes bring me back to my mum's kitchen in an instant.

Anonymous said...

I'm not good at baking either. I barely eat about 1 meal/day. Mostly I use the microwave. Cooking is overrated anyway, you can survive a week w/o food.

PS. Coffee makes you hungry.

ArtsVeronica said...

OH! Now, I know exactly why a lot of aunties hail their Delia Smith cookbooks. Your article put her books into context for me, Sharon; my maternal Malaysian family take pride in making things from scratch - Delia Smith, or no Delia Smith - so I grew up thinking everybody else did the same. How funny that you & I come from opposite backgrounds that way, Sharon, but that we both like cookbooks/cooking :)

I've only heard about insular food cultures in parts of the UK but I had not got an insight into what it was like until I read this article of yours. Am beginning to make mental image links of post-war rations cooks to the rationing lifestyles of "The Girls of Slender Means" in Muriel Spark's book.

Poor Delia, having got shot for revealing her secrets at tricking more people to go fresh. Her revelations make her more current, actually. Career moms do need some long-life quick-fixes, especially with Indian/Nyonya recipes for guests which began in households full of servants, peeling, plucking, pounding, grating & churning all day!

Yes, the mark of a good cookbook is when it's all messed up ;D

Enjoyed reading this v much & will show to my hub (used to live in London & has lots of fly in the UK).

Btw, tried out my 1st Jamie cookbook for Easter. Don't have much confidence in "western" cooking yet so was scared to even open the book (although enjoy his shows v much). But, everything turned out so perfect I felt like a robot well-programmed at a food factory! That man is a genius.