Tuesday, 17 February 2015

As Cooks Go by Elizabeth Jordan


Note the 'Invalid Fruit Tart' postcard from my friend Clare...

I don't remember where I heard about As Cooks Go (1950) by Elizabeth Jordan - please let me know if it was from you! I dimly remember reading about it somewhere, either a blog or a footnote in a book, but I have been unable to trace the source. What I do know is that it arrived in my house on 13 October last year, and that I was sold by the title coming from one of my favourite Saki quotations:
The cook was a good cook, as cooks go; and as cooks go, she went.
That was enough to have it winging to my door; that, and the fact that there was a cheap copy going on Amazon. I'm very glad I did, as it's right up my street - and I think almost all regular readers of Stuck-in-a-Book would also find a lot to love here.

It took me a page or two to realise/remember, but this is non-fiction; it is Jordan's account of becoming a cook. If the spectre of Monica Dickens' glorious One Pair of Hands is in your head, then it was also in mine - and remained there. As Cooks Go certainly isn't as amusing as One Pair of Hands, and isn't really trying to be, but it is a lot more informative about the day-to-day life of a cook - and also has the virtue of being an account of necessity, rather than a frivolous experiment. For Jordan needs the money, essentially.

As Jordan explains on the first page, she hires a charwoman because she so loathes cleaning and cooking, and must find a way to pay for this. And decides to do so by becoming a cook. This may seem (aptly enough) like jumping out of the frying-pan and into the fire, but it is monotony that Jordan wanted to avoid. In her new role, she would cook (and sometimes serve) elaborate dinner parties, but in different houses on different nights of the week. She starts off working for two bachelor brothers in one house, a friend and her husband in another, and so on.

As the memoir continues, we see Jordan in various different settings. She tries her hand at cooking in a restaurant, in a hotel, and as the chef in a large private house. She undertakes a series of cooking lessons, hitchhiking to Scotland every weekend to see her children (more on them anon). In each situation, she recounts tales of the people she has to work alongside - sometimes complimentary and affectionate, but more often wearied. Although the book is not first and foremost a witty one, I did love the odd moment of dark humour:
Mrs Blackmore both owned and managed the hotel. She was a widow, and as I became better acquainted with her I envied her late partner for a release which can only have been welcome.
More impressive than her memory of dozens of people is her recollection of the foods cooked and meals served. As Cooks Go could almost serve as a recipe book, and I think would greatly entertain anybody partial to recipe books. She details many of the meals she cooked, giving tips as to seasonings and flavourings, unusual combinations of ingredients, and the most efficient ways of cooking anything from trout and potato to Bondpige Med Slor and Chou Farci Maigre. This is all the more impressive, given that she was working with rations. I don't recall any dates appearing in the text, but it was published in 1950 and the war is not mentioned, so I assume it all takes place between 1945 and 1950? Some foods now considered commonplace (rice, for instance, and gnocchi) were new and exciting to Jordan - while some sections proved that there is nothing new under the sun...
During the first week-end in Scotland I started to read The Way of All Flesh; when I left the Oak Hotel I had reached page seventy-five. Later on I started to read it again quickly, hardly able to put it down. It was a relief to be able once again to read, to enter into the stories of other lives recounted with humour and sensibility. It is monstrous to me that, except during a short time of crisis, people should have to work so hard that they have no time to think of anything but the trivial everyday worries of material existence. Many times have I heard the boast that there is no time for anything but expediences. I think rather that it is something of which to be ashamed: it is certainly a disease of modern life.
Jordan focuses almost entirely on her career in As Cooks Go - which is, of course, her prerogative. It does make it slightly unsettling when she mentions, in passing, that she and her husband have separated, and their children are living with her parents. There is a space of a year where she barely sees them at all - and although the whole process documented in the book is leading towards Jordan being able to live with her two daughters, the emotional turmoil of her romantic and maternal life is determinedly put to one side. As I say, entirely her right to do so - but it is still a slightly unsettling background to the day-to-day anxieties of cooking.

But, besides this small issue (and an extremely abrupt ending), As Cooks Go is a really great read. It isn't screamingly funny (for that, do turn to Monica Dickens and One Pair of Hands), nor is it remotely charming - instead, it is realistic and engaging, refusing to sentimentalise or satirise, but simply to show the life of a cook in various places. Anybody with an interest in domestic life and working women in the late 1940s will find a great amount to fascinate from a seldom documented perspective.

8 comments:

  1. I just now ordered it. Thanks for the tip off - looking forward to this one - sounds quite fascinating.

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  2. Just goes to prove that everyone's life is extraordinary in the detail however ordinary it seems from the outside.

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  3. Oh, that does sound fascinating!

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    1. I also want to make the recipes now... although a lot of powdered egg and other rationing stuff makes an appearance....

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  4. Oh, lovely - one for me. I did so love One Pair of Hands - it is my lifetime's ambition to never tackle a misbehaving boiler. ;-)

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  5. Hi Simon - the book has arrived and I am half-way through - it's excellent! Thanks again for the tip. Now wondering if the author wrote anything else? She has a slightly curt but exceedingly readable style. And yes, I too am rather astonished at the stoic way she has referred to her life-altering situations - her separation from her husband and subsequently her children. And those hitch-hiking trips - absolutely mind-boggling.

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