The other day my youngest son said to me: ‘cooking is easy if you can read. Just follow the recipe.’ That got me thinking. Is cooking really as easy as that? Is it something we learn, we inherit from watching our parents in the kitchen, or what? Does one not need a bit of an instinct, a feel, for when something is right? A roux or a gravy, for example.
Recently I was asked to supply a recipe for wartime jam-making for The Times. I checked the records from the WI in 1944 and sent the following message: 3/4lb sugar to 1lb jam. ‘Yes, but what is the recipe?’ came back the reply. I was briefly baffled. There was no recipe per se. In those days women who ran country households made jam as a matter of routine. They didn’t use recipe books for preserving, pickling or bottling. They just did what their mothers and grandmothers had done. It was hard-wired into their cooking repertoire. Preserving fruit and vegetables was a way of life in an era when 70% of rural properties did not have electricity. Larders with north facing windows and long stone or slate shelves were the places to store fresh and cooked food and the closest thing most women had to a fridge.
Of course there were recipe books and during the war a number of them were published by the Ministry of Food with suggestions for cooking with rations, while other, more adventurous, authors published recipes using herbs and wild fruits from the fields and hedgerows. But cookery basics were well-understood.
Currently the WI is running a campaign to encourage the teaching of Domestic Science in schools. This was the cornerstone of the early WI when it was set up in Canada in the end of the nineteenth century. But the burden of the education was not on cooking but hygiene in the kitchen. I would say that nowadays we understand hygiene but have perhaps lost our instinct for basic cookery. So yes, being able to read a recipe book should mean you can make a dish but the great art of cooking is to know instinctively what works and what does not.
In Home Fires there is an energetic jam making episode which exactly mirrors the ad hoc jam making by the Women’s Institute in 1939 when they saved 1,740 tons of fruit from going to waste by buying sugar from the Ministry of Supply. Waste not want not.