Word of mouth

Annie Bell welcomes the re-release of Arabella Boxer's classic `Cookbook'
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Having grown up with Arabella Boxer's cookery writing in Vogue, she has always been shrouded, for me, in a certain mystique. In real life, she is very self-effacing, so it seems typical that the moment we start discussing her re-issued First Slice Your Cookbook, she straightaway passes credit for its design to her late ex-husband, Mark Boxer, the cartoonist and former editor of Tatler. The notion of dividing a cookery book into three sections - starters, main courses and puddings - so it can be flipped to line up whatever menu you happen to have settled upon was inspired. When it was first published, in 1963, it shot into the bestseller list, and now it is re-released, ready-sliced and flagrantly Sixties.

But what were people eating inbetween changing 45s on the Dansette? "You must remember that in 1963 rationing had only been over for nine years," Boxer points out. "And it didn't end just like that, things were coming in very slowly." As a backlash, food suddenly became incredibly rich. In fact, only half the Sixties recipes have survived the original (the rest are new), and it's curious how refreshingly simplistic they now seem - green pea soup, eggs mimosa, leek tart, grilled chicken wings, navarin of lamb, chocolate roulade and floating islands.

"Everyone says cooking has got so much better, and some things have, but attitude to food hasn't," says Boxer. It both irks and saddens her that ingredients should be singled out for a brief obsession, under-used one minute, over-used the next. She cites the ubiquitous pesto: "I love pesto, but I don't want it with everything." Sure enough, at the restaurant, her main course arrives with a requisite splodge of green to the side of the plate. Ingredients, too, she feels are being taken out of context. "I saw a menu for a restaurant the other day with sea bass baked in sea salt with aromatic herbs and wasabi beurre blanc. It's such a crazy idea."

The Sixties that Arabella Boxer knew was firmly imbedded in classical tradition, and her love of plain English cookery was well-serviced. France, too, provided aspiration, as did Italy by way of a bowl of spaghetti and a flourish of black pepper. "For a treat," she says, "we would go to Simpson's or the Savoy ... and for really special occasions, there was the Mirabelle."

But more often it was entertaining at home, picnic lunches in the garden. "I would spend all day cooking for a dinner party. I was 29 and I'd been married for six years, but both partners rarely worked in those days." She is very aware that people no longer have the time to cook in the way her generation did. "Apparently, in New York you can now get apartments without kitchens at all," she says. Then, she's back to being self-effacing, "I felt quite competent with food, but people's standards were less exacting then, it was easy to shine in the way you dressed and cooked." Not so easy, though, to shine some 35 years later, which Arabella Boxer still does

`The New First Slice Your Cookbook', by Arabella Boxer, is published by Grub Street, pounds 18.99.

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