TV DINNERS: REMEMBERING AN IRISH PIONEER OF THE TELEVISION AGE.
When I was at an impressionable age, somewhere around 12, I was a keen viewer of a TV programme called The Galloping Gourmet. It was very much of its time, i.e. the early 1970s, as can be seen from the use of the word "Gourmet" without any obvious sense of irony. And the fact that the personable Australian presenter, Graham Kerr, regularly swigged his way through a bottle of wine in the course of each episode.
These days the forces of political correctness would have him slaking his thirst with Evian. Maybe even green tea.
Somewhat before my time came the formidable Fanny Craddock: wearing a fresco of make-up, the kind of clothes that would make Barbara Cartland seem like Coco Chanel, and bearing a toxic grudge against her long-suffering and rather hopeless husband, Johnny, who appeared on set solely as a target for her ire.
It's bizarre to think that the Craddocks were amongst the hottest properties in television in the 1960s, bigger than Ramsay and Jamie and Nigella combined - for the simple reason that there was no comptetition.
A lot of people believe that we here in Ireland had no celebrity cooks, that this was the preserve of the BBC. But nothing could be further from the truth. I can just about remember Jimmy Flahive, who was chef at Dublin Airport at a time when this was, by the standards of the day, a breathtakingly sophisticated place to eat, appearing on dozens of black-and-white Late Late Shows. His best trick was slicing onions - very finely, at Formula One speed and without drawing a drop of blood. All of Ireland would collectively hold its breath as Jimmy wielded the Sabatier.
Maura Laverty was, as they say, huge in the 1950s and 1960s. A creative writer by instinct, she larded her cookbooks with homely little stories of how good food and true love come together, even for the most confirmed of bachelors and spinsters in the bleakest bits of old Ireland. Her monumental book Full and Plenty was published by the Irish Flour Millers in 1960 and it was the cookbook with which I grew up. I still have my late mother's copy and return to it time and time again. The food is plain but wholesome, light on the garlic and the red wine, but sound, solid and built on the best of foundations.
In 1963, the Irish television audience, still dazzled by the new technology, were treated to a live cookery show presented by Monica Sheridan. Monica's Kitchen was a milestone in Irish television but also, according to those who can remember, a milestone in Irish food.
This sharp-featured, middle-aged woman, a Killiney housewife married to a barrister, was an instant hit. Her natural spontaneous wit and occasionally outrageous comments meant that viewers hung on her every word. And just as Nigella licks her fingers, so too did Monica Sheridan. But not in quite the same way. This caused a good deal of outrage and there were unconfirmed reports that shocked domestic science teachers considered presenting a mass petition to RTÉ.
Perhaps Monica Sheridan licked her fingers once too often on Teilifís Éireann. But she certainly galvanised the viewers and she won a coveted Jacob's Award for her series in 1963. Whether it was too hot for RTÉ, I can't establish at this stage. But Monica's Kitchen did not go into a second series.
However, she published a book to accompany her TV debut and Monica's Kitchen published by Castle Publications in 1963 is one of my most treasured possessions. It still crops up secondhand very frequently, a testament to how many copies were originally sold.
Opening it at random, I read "When I was a girl learning school-French I thought that oeufs à la coq were special eggs laid by perverted French roosters. It was a great disappointment to discover that they were just ordinary boiled eggs. Oeufs cocotte didn't sound very respectable either but they are, alas, nothing you couldn't write home about."
She is fascinating about garlic. "Thirty years ago [i.e. in the 1930s], garlic was in daily use in kitchens all over Ireland... In our house in the country, they put it into the food - and into the whiskey. Toothache, tonsils, stomach-ache, and all other internal complaints were doctored with the same medicine - two or three cloves of garlic crushed, and wet with half a glass of whiskey. This was poured down the patient's throat without a by-your-leave. It was a nauseating brew, enough to put anyone off whiskey for life." But not garlic. She goes on...
"To me, the smell of raw garlic is the nicest of all, but, if you come into your house on a cold evening, and smell a stew that has a few cloves of garlic in it, it will remind you of the little bistros in Paris, and Gauloise cigarettes, and strolling down the Champs Élysées."
Despite her affluent life in Killiney with maid and au pair (with whom she once cooked some garden snails, the subject of her funniest writing) Monica Sheridan had grown up as one of fourteen children on a farm in rural Ireland. She loved classic cooking but never lost her down-to- earth common sense. It was something she valued.
"There's nothing to cooking except ordinary common sense," she says in Monica's Kitchen. "You need a keen nose to smell burning, strong hands that can stand heat, and an occasional sense of wild extravagance coupled with a passion for economy...Cooking has little to do with recipes, which are dead things and all read like a doctor's prescription. Unless you are a complete dud, you need never worry about them. But if you've a real interest in food, a love of experiment, and the courage to try anything once - you can forget about caution and calories."
There was a delightful lack of reverence about Monica Sheridan, best exemplified by some of her comments on beef. "Passing through a fair," she says, "in, say Mullingar, you will see four-year-old Irish bullocks in the very pink of condition. They have the roving eyes and debonair looks of first-year medical students. A little gauche, perhaps, but nonetheless proud sons of bovine fathers. Give them a few more years and they could become a danger to the parish; but now is the time to kill them and eat them. when they are in their youthful prime."
It's hard to imagine Nigella Lawson or even Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall writing in these terms.
And her honesty is peculiarly endearing. "I once made ravioli," she wrote. "But the whole operation was so painful and so tedious that I cannot even bring myself to write about it." I can't help wishing that she had managed to record the disaster.
Not a single second of Monica Sheridan on Teilifís Éireann survives. And I can't find anyone who remembers her television series in any detail (I wish I had a euro for everyone who merely said "Oh yes, the woman who licked her fingers...") She went on to write a book on Irish food for the American Market (My Irish Cookbook) in 1965 and died in 1993.
She was a true original. True to her agricultural upbringing, to the traditional cooking skills she learned from her great-grandmother (who had lived through the Famine) and true to the essence of good food. Equally at home with a coq au vin or corned beef and cabbage, she might have done a great deal of good if her television career had not been cut short, not least in persuading us of how good Irish food can be.