Book review – Pluck it, gut it and cook it very well real deal

2012-11-24 12:55

The Downstairs Cookbook: Recipes from a 1920’s Household Cook by Margaret Powell, Macmillan, 332 pages, R155

Margaret Powell is the real deal: Downton Abbey’s Daisy and Mrs Patmore rolled into one. But that’s hardly a surprise as she is one of the inspirations of the successful period drama and her 1968 book, Below Stairs, was where the seeds of British TV’s Upstairs, Downstairs were sown.

This cookbook was completed in 1970 and is filled with matter-of-fact observations, recipes and a good deal of lecturing if you show any signs of being a slovenly cook; or worse, an unappreciative eater.

“It has been suggested to me that an entrée makes a good meal to eat while watching television. Perhaps it does, but is it worth the time and trouble that the preparation takes? Surely the whole object of a meal . . . is that people should appreciate it.

If it’s only a subsidiary to one’s eyes and ears being attacked by vision and sound, then I don’t think that it matters what people who want to watch television eat because they won’t notice. Serve them with corned beef sandwiches until they get their priorities right.”

Can’t argue with that. TV is a well-known foe of good digestion and is a great conversation killer.

Powell started as a kitchen maid and cooked her way to being Cook in a big house in England in the 1920s. She died in 1984.

She says quite candidly in the book that she looked for a husband to escape domestic service but after the carnage of the World War I, she says they were hard to come by.

Not one to wallow, she got on with learning the trade that her mother and grandmother had had before her. So, at the tender age of 15, she assumed the role of kitchen maid.

In the first chapters, Powell describes learning to cook. What she knew about preparing food when she wrote The Downstairs Cookbook in 1970 is what so many of our new crop of “organic”, “head-to-tail”, “locally sourced” celebrity chefs are trying to get back to.

The food cycle comes full circle with our return to knowing where our food comes from, so it’s the ideal time to rerelease this fabulous little book.

Because this book was written in the early days of processed and frozen food, Powell has some choice words about it. Most of us would agree with this, having recently been re-educated in the importance of avoiding hormones, chickens that are fed to each
other and bread with a thousand E numbers in it.

She also has plenty to say on the subject of soulless supermarkets: “Then you queue up to pay the cashier, whose eyes are down on your basket and whose fingers click up the figures like some super bingo player.”

But what makes Powell a food heroine and her book a must-have is this sentiment: “Food is more than just food. I never eat food because it does me good; I eat it because I like it. I like it to be prepared and cooked well . . .”

If I had a little more space in my dining room and a little more confidence in my spatulas, I’d be throwing a seven-course Downton Abbey-inspired dinner party this holiday season – but I probably won’t pluck the turkey myself.

Follow me on Twitter @GayleMahala

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