Alison Healy... on when a cookbook is about more than just food

The cookbook only came out for special occasions. The pages with the most splatters are the ones with the sponge cake recipes: feathery sponge, chocolate sponge, one egg sponge, hot milk sponge.

 

It sits with the other cookbooks in my kitchen but it doesn’t look like them. It doesn’t have glossy photographs to illustrate every recipe. The layout is dull, with several recipes squashed into every page but it’s the best thumbed cookbook of the lot. This is the 1960 edition of Maura Laverty’s Full and Plenty, the one with the blue and yellow cover. It belongs to my mother but I took it for safe-keeping when it dawned on me that she would never use it again.

The last time I visited her in the nursing home, she put out her hand to shake mine. Her questioning eyes said that she knew me from somewhere but she couldn’t quite say from where. The children don’t know the real her, the woman she was before the fog settled over her memory. Before she had to ask them several times what their names were or what classes they were in. They marvel when they see photographs of her standing up. “Granny could walk once,” they say, amazed.

But while she doesn’t remember us, there is every chance that some of her recipes might be retrievable from her memory. She baked every day of our childhood, in between rearing six children, milking cows and feeding calves. The cream Stanley 9 range cooker constantly churned out cakes of brown and white bread to feed the family, the two farm workers and anyone else my father might invite in as we were sitting down at the table. And she always made something nice for tea time. Apple tarts, chocolate cake, coconut buns, ginger cake. Tea-time was the highlight of the day.

She didn’t need Full and Plenty for that baking. The cookbook only came out for special occasions. The pages with the most splatters are the ones with the sponge cake recipes: feathery sponge, chocolate sponge, one egg sponge, hot milk sponge. It falls open on the Christmas cakes recipes and the section on fancy yeast breads and buns.

I loved to sit at her elbow as she scooped mugs of flour from the huge Odlum’s bag in the flour press. She would add a whisper of spice or a scatter of raisins without consulting the weighing scales. She scoffed during my early baking experiments when I insisted on carefully levelling off every teaspoonful of baking powder.

But Full and Plenty was more than a cook book. It was a repository for things she wanted to keep. There are shopping lists written in her elegant hand on the back of envelopes, listing ingredients like Bextartar and brandy essence. There’s a flyer for the 5th Annual Westport Horse Show in 1971 with the top prize of £500, sponsored by the Player/Wills cigarette company. The show would be rounded off with a “Grand All-Night Society Ball”.

There’s a recipe for boiled cake, culled from a newspaper. On the back, the Savoy advertises the last day to see Yul Brynner in The Long Duel while the Ambassador is showing How Green Was My Valley.

There is a page from the Sunday Independent, published in November, 1952, presumably kept for the article on Christmas icing. Alongside, Betty Allan writes about a trip to Paris and enthuses about the flower sellers’ sweet-smelling bunches of violets and mimosa. She marvels at the fact that some of the taxis have interior heaters and notes a new innovation – stalls selling steaming sausages called hot dogs. Quite what my mother would have made of these fripperies as she struggled to stretch meagre rations on a small Sligo farm is anyone’s guess.

It could have all been so different if she was born 40 years later. Highly intelligent, she won a scholarship to boarding school and went on to work in the town hall before leaving to marry my father and move in with his mother. The confines of her world quickly shrunk to our townland and the weekly foray into the local town for the grocery shopping. She carried it all home with ease on her bicycle because the farm supplied a lot of what we needed. We briefly kept turkeys too, although in 1971 she had saved a leaflet for VG supermarkets, which was running a competition to win one of 1,000 turkeys. It also offered Sunrose margarine for 6p and cherries for 8 and a half pence.

A browning newspaper clipping sent from England shows a photograph of our cousin Colette from Cambridge who won a new bicycle in a slogan competition. Nearly 40 years later, I still remember the excitement when we saw her photograph in the newspaper. Her winning line on why she would like a new bike: To take the wait off my feet.

Full and Plenty was my mother’s only cookbook. In my kitchen it jostles for space beside the big names, Jamie Oliver, Rachel Allen, Neven Maguire and Delia Smith. I take Full and Plenty out to look for an oatcake macaroon recipe she once made. When I’m returning it, the Jamie Oliver book falls over and some things tumble out. There’s my sister’s brown bread recipe scrawled on the back of an envelope, a recipe for Donal Skehan’s mud pie culled from this magazine and a Guardian recipe for Darina Allen’s apple tart.

Maybe we’re not so different.

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