Thought for Food

by Cecily Finn and Joan O’Connor

Museum Press, London, 1957

It was in The Winding Stair bookshop in Dublin (how appropriate) that I came across this very distinctive little cookbook, perhaps twenty years ago. It was the concept that appealed to me and so I bought it for little money (there is no price marked, alas but it was probably £2.50 or thereabouts).

The concept is, as I say, distinctive, although it has been copied, deliberately or otherwise, many times; indeed some occasion-based cookbooks may pre-date this 1957 offering. The difference is that this one is highly imaginative, firmly grounded in the realities of middle-class (actually, rather upper middle-class) life and actually very sound on food. There’s a underlying sense of humour too.

This is all the more remarkable, not so much for the time it appeared – during the hangover after post-war austerity - but for the fact that the two authors were not cookery writers. More of them anon.

What comprises the book is a series of menus for specific occasions. We get the title of the event, for example: First Dinner Given by Bride to her Parents; followed by details under these headings: Aim, Setting, Menu.

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The bride, incidentally, produced “melon salad, chicken Provençal, Green salad (Webb’s Wonder if possible), Baked apples with walnuts and raisins, Coffee”.

The aim, according to the authors, is “Nothing extravagant, but a certain ‘something’ that was lacking in those Sunday dinners at home. No malice; just a touch of “You see how well I manage my way.” Needless to say, this menu is followed by the somewhat more taxing one for the bride’s parents-in-law, reassuring them that their son has married “someone who really cares.”

Other menus are for very specific occasions. How about Supper Given After Board Meeting (Held to Discuss Crisis)?  It concluded with cheesecake. Or Dinner For Husband’s Managing Director and Wife (Solid Type)? It starts with smoked trout and proceeds to roast pork with sprouts.

I rather like the Dinner to Celebrate Twenty-Fifth Wedding Anniversary (Formal):

Lobster Newburg

Pheasants with olives

Game chips

Spinach purée

Hungarian Salad

Savarin des Fruits

Coffee

Liqueurs

Marrons glacés

The Hungarian salad, incidentally, comprises thin strips of variously coloured peppers tossed with a vinaigrette and a little raw onion. Could be worse, I suppose.

One can’t help feeling that some of the occasions are born of experience, perhaps bitter. Consider Supper For a Couple Who Return Unexpectedly From the Airport (After you have just seen them off) and Luncheon for a Publisher Suffering From the Occupational Disease of Dyspepsia.

My favourite, however, has to be Dinner Given the Night the Pipes Burst, largely for its wild ambition:

Tomatoes au gratin

Guinea-fowl with apples and cream

Potatoes dauphine

Banana purée fraise

Whipped cream

“…you must eat in the kitchen. Preserve a stiff upper lip and a gay insouciance. Although no water raises difficulties, they are not insuperable. (‘Too much of water’ has, in any case, ruined many an English meal)”

Cecily Finn started her career as a schoolteacher before marrying a Russian Jewish emigré called Saloman Zimmerman. She spent the War years with her husband, a British diplomat (or possibly spy), in Sweden and later wrote radio plays with her friend Joan Osiakowski (née Druce) who used O’Connor as her pen name. Joan’s mother was Irish, her great aunt was George Eliot and she spent some of her schooling at Downe House in Kent with Elizabeth Bowen of Bowen’s Court fame.

As I write, there’s a copy of Thought for Food available on abebooks.co.uk from a bookseller in Australia. It comes up quite regularly.