Cooking the books

Even with the enormous growth of recipes online, there’s nothing quite like the heft of a cook book to anchor you in the kitchen. The stains of previous attempts – failed and successful – may shrivel and wrinkle the paper or stick the pages together – but they are testament to the fact that you have a culinary history. (That said, I, for one, am grateful for Yotam Ottolenghi’s cook books with their padded-cell covers and sheeny, stain-resistant pages, which acknowledge that preparation and cooking is a messy job. ) But cookbooks are not mere functional how-to guides; they’re emotional journeys.

When clearing my mother’s house after her death, the hardest items to jettison were her cookbooks. She was a great cook and baker, though I suspect her skills hadn’t come to her naturally. She went to classes in the School of Catering in Cathal Brugha Street as a young wife and her bible was All in the Cooking, a workaday volume of recipes for everyday life full of family stalwarts – lots of dripping, as I recall – on which a whole generation of 50s kids were raised. Her edition was falling apart – a sure sign that it had been pressed into service – and she had bound it in corrugated cardboard covers to keep it together. It was stuffed-full of transcribed rogue recipes, written in her own hand, as well as clippings from newspapers and magazines.

There was also a couple of big, bold, full-colour productions among her cook books, probably gifts. These were essentially coffee-table books from a time when cooking transitioned from being a practical virtue to a spectator sport, and colour printing came into its own. One I recall is The Hamlyn All Colour Cook Book, which, when I went searching for it online, I discovered was authored by Mary Berry. Interesting how the notion of the celebrity chef hadn’t quite happened in 1970 when this book was published. The Hamlyn volume is an illustrated social history of its time. It features a compendium of aspirant recipes for the upwardly mobile. Black Forest Gateau, Swiss Fondue, Chilli Con Carne, Prawns in Marie Rose sauce – dishes that are now being studiously deconstructed in an ironic way by the master chefs of today.

One book I came across in my mother’s things that I wasn’t familiar with was Full and Plenty by Maura Laverty. As I leafed through it I was amazed to discover that long before the Nigel Slaters and Nigella Lawsons of this world, Irish author Maura Laverty had written a cross-genre cookbook.

Hardly surprising since Laverty (1907-1966) was first and foremost a fiction writer, and creator of Ireland’s first TV soap – Tolka Row – in the 1960s. Born in Rathangan, Co Kildare, Laverty, one of nine children, led a colourful, if sometimes financially precarious life. Her father was a farmer on a two-hundred-acre holding, but his gambling ruined the family financially. He then set up a drapery business, but this enterprise also failed. Eventually, he died, and his widow turned to dressmaking to support herself and her children.

Maura moved to Spain as a teenager and acted as governess and later secretary to Princess Bibesco, a rich socialite and writer, who was born as Elizabeth Asquith, daughter of British prime minister Herbert Asquith. She subsequently became a foreign correspondent in Madrid, and wrote for one of the city’s newspapers, El Debate. She returned to Ireland in 1928 to marry James (Seamus) Laverty and in 1937 joined 2RN, the forerunner of RTE. She later became head of women’s and children’s programmes and substituted as the station’s “agony aunt”. When her husband ran into financial difficulties, she supported the family of three children, and became the breadwinner when the marriage broke down.

Writer Nuala O’Faolain recalls meeting her in the 50s. “Maura was in the world of Ireland and Dublin… she knew how to earn good money .She got me my first ever professional job, passing on a commission to research authentic recipes for the new Bunratty Banquet. . .but I used to feel loneliness coming from her. Three children were growing up on the proceeds of her hard work. Where was her husband ? A husband was never mentioned.”

Despite her acumen with money, Laverty never lost the feeling of financial hazard.  In 1946 she wrote:“Someone asked me the other day if I were getting a touch of arthritis in the first and second fingers of my right hand. I’m not, it’s just that my fingers are getting that way from having to keep them crossed all the time.” 

Her best known novels are closely autobiographical. Her debut, Never No More (1942) is based on her childhood recollections of life with her grandmother. It was well received by critics and came with an enthusiastic preface from Sean OFaolain. She followed it with Alone We Embark (1943), a novel about marital infidelity, which, although temporarily banned by the Irish censor (not apparently on moral grounds but for its depiction of harsh living conditions) won the Irish Women’s Writer’s Award. Her third novel, No More than Human, another semi-autobiographical work set in Spain, was published in 1944.

According to the Dictionary of Irish Biography, she may have drawn on her impressions of Dublin’s poor during a period living in the Fitzwilliam Lane area for her final novel, Lift Up Your Gates (1946), the story of Chrissie, a young girl growing up in the slums. However, her biographer Seamus Kelly, suggests that she might have also relied on personal experience. It’s believed that she was sent, aged 9, to live with a childless couple for two years, in Hardwicke Street in Dublin’s north inner city, which would have placed her there in the middle of the Easter Rising.

Laverty also wrote numerous children’s stories and a collection of her fairy tales was published posthumously in 1995. On top of that, she wrote three other cookbooks – Flour Economy (1941), commissioned by the government to teach housewives how to cope with wartime rationing. Kind Cooking (1946) – illustrated by artist Louis le Brocquy – and Feasting Galore (1952).

But the authorial voice in Full and Plenty (1960) is not of a woman of letters leaning on her prodigious reputation. In the introduction she writes – “The preparation of food has always been to me what literature or music or painting is to others” – as if she’d never written herself.

As food and design historian Rhona Richman Keneally remarks, the book was “part home economics manual, part fiction, part creative memoir, part assortment of historical and folk tales”.

“Unlike Laverty’s novels, which were banned or decried because they approached controversial subjects in a graphic way, her cookbooks could be successfully subversive in part because of their genre: they could fly under the radar, seemingly innocuous as mere accumulations of cooking instructions,” Kenneally adds.

The book showcases Laverty’s accomplishments as an author and playwright, but it never talks down to its audience. “Cooking,” she tells her readers, ” is the poetry of housework.”

Full and Plenty is set in the fictional Ballyderrig where the “author” of the cookbook, or the persona she adopts, lives, so that we see the recipes as belonging to characters she writes about. Each section is introduced with a short story in a playful mood, in which the featured food plays a part, sometimes fleetingly, sometimes centrally. In the “Bread” section, Mrs Feeney is in a tizzy because her 35-year-old son has got engaged and is inviting the fiancee to tea. Mrs Feeney can’t bake a cake to save her life, though she’s a champion bread-maker. However, the prospective daughter-in-law Anna is a “college-trained cook with classy notions about dressed-up dishes.” Mrs Feeney drafts in her controlling neighbour Mrs Donnelly to make the fancies, but when the “scornful college-trained cook” arrives, it’s Mrs Feeney’s soda bread she admires, while passing over Mrs Donnelly’s iced sponge and marble cake.

“I always think it’s in the cooking of plain food that a real cook proves herself,” Anna says to the assembled company, which includes Mrs Donnelly. “Any child could make a sweet cake that will pass. . . But there’s no way of disguising badly-made soda bread.”

The match with the mother-in-law is assured and Mrs Donnelly slinks away unnoticed.

“Fish” features a conscientious fishery board official who’s seduced into eating a poached salmon (poached in both sense of the word) in the home of his arch-enemy, Barney Malone, the local who’s been thieving fish from the local river. “Vegetables and Salads” tells the story of a middle-aged landlady Lottie Fenton, who won’t serve onions to her new lodger, Hugh Doherty, because they have painful associations; her first love dumped her because of her oniony breath. (As an “uninstructed orphan”, Lottie didn’t know “that a glass of milk sipped slowly or a mouthful parsley chewed leisurely” will destroy all evidence of onion-eating.) But one day, while Lottie is at the dentist, Hugh breaks the taboo by cooking stuffed onions the way his mother did and is caught in the act. As with most of these tales, all ends well when Doherty, a 50-year-old man holding a torch for his landlady, overcomes the horrified reaction to the transgression. With an apron still tied around his ample middle, he strides masterfully across the kitchen, takes Lottie in his arms and declares his passion.

Statia Dunne nabs the local doctor with her famous stew in “Meats, Poultry and Game”.

“Canapés, Sandwiches and Toast” features Nan Clery, housekeeper to widowed seamstress Rose Brennan, who has to support a family of four on the proceeds of her dressmaking business. (A familiar figure for Laverty after her mother’s experience – and then her own.) Tied together by circumstances, the two women form a partnership that lasts 30 years and is closer to a happy marriage than a mistress/servant relationship. It was a configuration not uncommon in the Ireland of the time, an extended and well-functioning female household. “She (Nan)helped to lay out Tessie, the youngest, when she died of meningitis. She packed Lena’s trunk for her when she went off to be a nun. She knitted six pairs of socks for Paddy to take to Africa when he got his job in the gold fields. And she helped to dress Clare the morning she married the Dublin insurance man.”

This piece, written in the first person recounting the story of these two women, assures the reader that most of the recipes that follow are from Nan Clery’s repertoire. As in her other writing, Maura Laverty drew very closely from life, while at the same time maintaining the “fictional” world she’d created in Full and Plenty.

“A close reading of the language and storylines in these works highlights the remarkable abilities and positive impact that Irish women could and did have in the domestic sphere and beyond,” Rhona Richman Keneally observes. “Evident also is the resourcefulness with which women could and did adapt to evolving economic circumstances and incursions of modernity, and the sense of accomplishment that could come with housework – and especially cooking – if contemplated as a means of empowerment not oppression, and as a vocation unequivocally warranting deep appreciation and respect.”

Interestingly, my mother’s copy of Full and Plenty is absolutely pristine. It doesn’t look like she ever used it. Maybe she just read the fictional and memoir bits? Maybe it was another unwanted gift?

I have yet to try any of the recipes. ( Statia Dunne’s doctor-winning stew would be good place to start, I think. ) But it has made me curious about this gifted, versatile Irish writer, who subverted form to become an early pioneer of food fiction.

Above: Maura Laverty in 1963. Photograph: Courtesy of RTE Archive.