Cooking and eating red meat and loads of it was once a path to true love. When she published her bestselling cookbook, Full and Plenty in 1960, Maura Laverty made it clear that the combination of an accomplished cook and an appreciative recipient of the food could result in marriage.
In introducing the chapter on meat poultry and game, Laverty wrote of “a monarch among stews” by Statia Dunne, which “won her a husband- and that at an age when she had almost given up hope of her ever having a man of her own to cook for”. Her cooking was particularly important because “Statia, nearing forty . . . was not the type to catch a man’s eye. She had pale hair and skin and was as small and shy as a wren”.
Then Dr Crowley came on the scene. He was "at the age when a man who is not married begins to show the need of a woman who'll see that his clothes are pressed and his collars properly laundered, and who'll make sure that he eats good regular meals. Poor Dr Crowley looked lost and neglected."
He was first called out to Statia’s house when it was filled with the smell of her beef stew. “That’s a grand smell”, he said shyly. “Wouldn’t you stay and have a bit”? responded Statia. Crowley came back for further visits and “before he was half-way through her culinary repertoire, they were engaged”.
By the time she published Full and Plenty, which along with stews, is also full of cakes and cream, Laverty, born in Kildare in 1907, was an accomplished journalist, broadcaster and novelist and a remarkably successful cookery writer. Her 1946 book Kind Cooking had even created a splash in America. To the modern eye, the folksy tale of Statia and Crowley appears blatantly sexist, but perhaps of more significance was the brief preface to Full and Plenty which focuses on the idea of a balanced diet, and disputes the notion of "fattening" or "slimming" food: "Most good foods are fattening if you eat too much of them . . . you can enjoy good food, even when you are slimming, provided your diet is balanced."
It is no harm to remind ourselves how sound this age old advice is, given the furore during the week over the World Health Organisation’s report on links between red meat consumption and certain cancers. A pattern has been evident for years now, where a report highlights potential health consequences of consumption or over consumption of a certain food. Eggs, butter, meat, oily fish, sugars and fat spring to mind as examples in recent years of produce that has generated contradictory research findings. The findings are often cited selectively or reported on in an alarmist way.
Spokespeople for various interested groups then come out to bat for their sector and numerous medical consultants urge us to see diet as one lifestyle factor among many that influence health. Then it all, as it did with Laverty over 50 years ago, boils back down to balance and common sense. I was explaining to children recently that before the Famine of the 1840s, poorer children from 11 to 15 years of age ate an average of 5.1kg of potatoes per day and adult males 6.4kg. It was a remarkably monotonous diet, but a relatively healthy one. The dangerous reliance on one crop, however healthy it was, of course became horribly apparent with the onset of famine. But the expansion of food options in the time since, in relation to variety, volume and processing, has brought its own problems.
On top of that, genetics, metabolism, movement, class and trends all have to be factored in to the food consumption question, which brings me back to Laverty. I did not have to seek a copy of Full and Plenty from the stacks of a library, or find it in a bookshop full of rare gems; I was able to pull it down from my own kitchen shelves. This well thumbed copy has been passed down the generations and the reason it has not just survived, but is still used, is because it serves as a useful and practical antidote to the deluge of fad food books in recent decades.
We have been subjected to an overwhelming amount of such books and diet plans, many of them spin offs from cheap television shows, haranguing us to be majestic in the kitchen, or encouraging us to intermittently starve and gorge ourselves into shape. We have also been bombarded with voluminous reports with often tentative or partial conclusions about the consequences of consuming certain foods.
But the advice about everything in moderation trumps them all. Laverty’s “minimum daily ration” included egg, cheese, butter, bread, vegetables, fruit and “a serving of meat or fish or bacon”. She also thanked the heavens that “we enjoy better-flavoured meat, creamier milk, richer butter and cheese” than others. Bring it all on.