Susie Rushton: Ms Grigson's recipe for female liberation


Wednesday 03 November 2010 01:00 GMT

Life is too short to stuff a mushroom. But did Shirley Conran ever try sieving a potato? Probably not; she wrote that famous line back in 1975 when, as everybody knows, there were endless fun things for a busy superwoman to get up to on a Saturday night, like swallowing drugs at a David Bowie gig or protesting Vietnam in a loud flowery-printed smock, or watching Al Pacino's latest movie. Well, things have changed, Shirl. The feminist war mightn't yet be won, but the remaining battles are in public life and the workplace, not the kitchen. There's no shame in stuffing a mushroom any more – only in doing it badly.

I know this because every time I switch on the TV a pair of smug presenters is ironically growing their own cabbages or unironically pickling a pumpkin whole. When they're not on the allotment, telly gourmands are in the studio-kitchen swooning over the difficulty of making a perfectly oblong-shaped potato fondant.

Why couldn't I too become a vegetable-cooking genius? Then I came across a copy of the late Jane Grigson's Vegetable Book in a cookshop. An encyclopaedia of roots and legumes, dense in text and unaccompanied by glossy pictures, it is a brilliant treasure of history, recipes, and practical advice, arranged alphabetically from artichokes to yams, via the obscure delights of hop shoots and orache. For each veg, the well-travelled Grigson delivers a fascinating scrap of detail about its use in the medieval age or a snippet of advice from some French housewife or Israeli greengrocer she has met. First published in 1978, (the same era as Conran, you'll note, but I guess Jane, then the food writer for the Observer magazine, probably thought merely stuffing a mushroom a little gauche), the book is still frequently pillaged for ideas by contemporary food writers and chefs.

My attitude to cooking vegetables had been: take out of bag, put in pan, simmer until floppy. Grigson's book has been a revelation. The recipes aren't hard, it's just that she encourages you to cook things you'd never bother with, and take more care in preparation. For instance, she writes that you shouldn't peel potatoes before cooking them, but rather slide the hot skins off once they're done – retaining more flavour. (Highly painful to execute, but true.) And what sort of mad gadget is a mouli-legume? Also on the matter of archaic equipment, for fine slicing she advises me to invest in a mandolin (not a stringed instrument, I discover, but a giant razor blade that is guaranteed to one day slice off my fingertips).

So in the spirit of Julie & Julia, the movie in which a hapless amateur cook sets out to make everything in Julia Childs' book on French cookery, I am spending this winter working through Grigson's exhaustive 600-page study. Not all efforts so far have produced tasty results. Satuday's soupe à la citrouille (pumpkin soup) was bland beyond my wildest imaginings. Picture a liquid made from orange-coloured wool, slightly milky at the edges, with no scent; I ate it out of politeness to myself. The weekend before, potato cakes, Orléans-style, had promised so much. For 40 minutes I patiently pushed soft, cooked spuds through a sieve with the back of a spoon, making a bowl of potato fluff which I then kneaded into a dough with butter, as per Jane's instructions. The cakes looked lovely and golden, and tasted foul. Really, who knew that mixing potato and butter – two resplendent flavours, foolproof in combination, you'd think – could pass for fried, congealed wallpaper paste?

But the triumphs – beetroot gratin, made with parmesan and cream; celeriac remoulade, which puts coleslaw in the shade for ever; the grandly-titled Goethe's turnips with chestnuts – have made up for the missteps. I wouldn't make them after a day at work, the first-wave feminist objection to fiddly, time-consuming food preparation. But if you think vegetables are boring or don't know what to do with the greens and squashes piled up in the supermarkets right now, I urge you to look up Grigson's book. Life is too short not to.

Happy 50th, Doctor Marten

Boot of choice for punks and goths in the 1970s, by the time I got my first pair of Doctor Martens in the early 1990s (cherry red, just the eight holes, obviously, I wasn't a psychopath) the brand had already sold out. Fourteen-year-old girls wore DMs not to be independent but because they wanted to belong to a gang, and maybe snog an indie-kid boy with floppy hair who wore matching boots.

We threaded coloured beads on the laces and stencilled hideous hippyish flowers on them, but they remained stubbornly ugly. Sometimes we wore them with school uniform, which wasn't strictly against the rules, because the rule book had been written 20 years before and banned "white shoes and slingbacks", which none of us would be seen dead in. Fifty years old this week, you'll hear and read a lot of rubbish about the DM boots' uninterrupted association with subculture and rebellion. I think my parents even paid for mine.

At home in Belo Horizonte

Best known to England football fans as the scene of a monumental humiliation at the hands of an inferior American side at the 1950 World Cup, the Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte is moving out of the shadow of its bigger, ritzier rivals. The nation's sixth biggest city, of 2.5 million citizens, its name means, rather wonderfully, "beautiful horizon"; in the 1940s, its wide avenues and pleasant layout were designed by Oscar Niemeyer.

Far inland, it doesn't have beaches, though, and no legendary Carnival, meaning international tourists pass by on their way to explore Rio de Janeiro or the inland capital. But BH, as it is known to inhabitants, must be getting something right. It already produced Juscelino Kubitschek, president back in the 1950s, who constructed the capital Brasilia and oversaw a period of accelerated growth; now another citizen of Belo Horizonte, Dilma Rousseff, has been elected the country's first female President. The New York Times noted that "off-the-radar hotspot" Belo Horizonte is the bar capital of Brazil, where "every night of the year seems to have something of a party feel". Expect England fans to feel right at home in 2014, despite bad memories.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in