Jacqueline, a man for all seasonings

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Where Do Cookery Books Come From? A fairy-tale in four parts

Part one: the idea is born

NORMAN BRUNT took a last sip of his cold black coffee, stubbed his cigarette out, coughed till he went into double focus and pulled his typewriter towards him. 'It is at this time of year that our culinary thoughts turn again towards . . .' he wrote.

He stared out of the window. His thoughts turned to nothing at all. He glanced up at the sky. The clouds lay low over London, grey and greasy, like the lid on a cold casserole. Call this August? Call this summer? Here he was, Norman Brunt, the finest cookery writer of his generation, and all he could think about was slipping down to the pub for a pint and a sandwich.

The phone rang. 'Yes?' he said cautiously. Few freelance writers admit to their names immediately.

'Jacqueline?' said a voice. 'Oh, Derek, hi,' said Norman.

It was the Saturday section of the paper. Norman did a weekly cookery column under the name of Jacqueline Barry. Using a pseudonym helped to make it appear that the paper had its fair share of woman writers.

'Derek' was a woman editor called Erica. It was their little joke.

'How's the piece coming on?' said Erica. 'Fine,' said Norman.

'What's it about?'

'Well, I haven't finally made my mind up yet.'

'You bastard. You haven't started the bloody thing yet, have you?' Norman winced. Why had he never been able to get used to equality of language among newspaperpeople? 'I thought of homing in on a particularly summer subject,' said Norman, playing for time.

'How about picnics?' said Erica, and rang off.

Part two: the idea starts to grow up

AN HOUR later, down at the pub and busy with his second pint and third pork pie, Norman reflected on picnics. He tried to remember all the picnics of his youth. They didn't seem to come back readily. So he tried to remember just one picnic from his youth. He failed. He made a fleeting attempt to remember his youth. It didn't come into focus very fast either.

'Jesus,' said Norman softly to himself. 'How would Elizabeth David have started this?'

'When we think back to the golden glowing picnics of our youth,' he found himself thinking, 'it is to piles of prawns that our minds turn, with small silver salvers of freshly-turned mayonnaise with the slightest touch of mint added, to paper-thin slices of smoked salmon, to the rolls cooked that morning, to the frilly chicken legs marinated in tarragon along with 40 kinds of salad that we no longer seem to grow. One of my favourites was paper-thin beef wrapped round chervil butter . . .'

Where did all this stuff come from? None of it corresponded to any experience he had ever had, yet out it came as if it really were his youth coming back.

The sad truth is that it was really all the cookery books he had read in his life coming back.

'It is at this time of year that our culinary thoughts turn again towards our favourite cookery book,' he whispered to himself, sadly.

Part three: the idea grows up

'NORMAN?' said the voice of his publisher. 'Loved that piece on picnics on Saturday. So nostalgic and romantic, yet practical too.'

'What's so bloody practical about putting a bit of mint in home-made mayonnaise and carting it out into the country for the wasps to eat?' said Norman.

'. . . and I think it's going to make a lovely, lovely book. Let's meet and talk about it.'

Norman felt ill. He couldn't think of anything worse. He slipped down to the pub for a pint and two filled rolls.

Part four: an idea goes out into the world

'WHERE'S that book I got you for Christmas?' said Father. 'That picnic book.'

'The Golden Age of Picnics by Norman Thingy?' said Mother.

'Yes. It's going to be a lovely weekend, they say. Why don't we put together a super picnic and go out into the country? Just like the old days.'

'Have you read that book?' said Mother. 'It's full of home-cooked rolls and wafer-thin turkey and God knows what. It's a book for reading, not cooking from.' So they went out to the country and had a lovely pub lunch of beer and filled rolls.