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The old scrapbook recipe collections that tell the story of our lives

Jay Rayner
·7 min read

The cookbooks I’ve written about over the past three months were not included randomly. They weren’t selected because they offered up 97 clever things to do with a courgette and a spiraliser, or for their novel ways with quinoa. They were chosen because they had a serious impact on how we cook and how we eat. They were big sellers. As a result, week by week, people have discovered that they had the volume I was eulogising on their shelves. Some readers have owned a few of them.

But as this is the last column in the series, it’s time to look at a collection of recipes almost everyone has. I certainly have one. Mine has the word “Challenge” embossed on the front. That’s not a description of how hard the recipes are. It’s the name of the venerable stationery company which manufactured the blue, hardcover A4 notebook within which those ideas for dinner are contained. It is our collection of recipes cut from magazines and newspapers, photocopied from a friend’s book or scribbled down by a relative. It is an unplanned collage of a good life, or a feverish attempt at one, measured out in ingredients, volumes and oven temperatures. It is the ballad of traybakes and crumbles, of new and sophisticated ways with pasta and swift things to do with chicken and a bunch of lemons.

Mine is a ballad of tray bakes, crumbles and ways with pasta

It was started by my wife, Pat, more than 30 years ago. “I transcribed the first recipes because I was coming to the end of university and was preparing to live alone in London,” she says, though admits this version of herself, deftly cooking intricate meals in her London flat – cauliflower Mexicana anyone? – didn’t quite materialise. Other recipes later joined them, cut from magazines, the title of the publication and the name of the writer lost long ago. “I think I was hoping evening meals might be more exciting,” she says.

It is aspiration expressed through the medium of scissors and Pritt Stick. Witness: cider-glazed chops or peppered ham and tomato risotto or lamb and apricot kebabs. Many dishes remained just an aspiration. Some were cooked once or twice. Then there’s the discoloured recipe for Italian Celebration Turkey, which I return to often, if only for the stuffing. It’s a glorious mess of unsweetened chestnut purée, Parma ham, marjoram, sausage meat and onions cooked down in sherry. I have no idea who wrote it.

The food historian Dr Annie Gray describes these collections as a “sublime and fascinating form of biography”, which go back as long “as people have been writing things down”. Until the end of the 19th century, when the cost of paper dropped significantly, they were mostly hand-written volumes. “They would still have been other peoples’ recipes,” Gray says, “Just not necessarily with attribution. After that, when paper becomes cheaper, you start to see them being cut out from newspapers and magazines.”

A few years ago, she found a volume by the 19th-century cookbook writer Florence A George on a Cambridge market stall. The book was interesting enough. “But better than that, it was stuffed full of recipes cut from newspapers and magazines dating from 1907 to the 1950s, collected by a previous owner. That’s pretty much a woman’s whole life measured out in these dishes.”

I ask my friends to show me theirs. My neighbours have a hardback notebook embossed with the word “Recipes” clearly designed for the purpose. Except they’ve never quite got round to sticking anything into it. Instead, like the Florence George volume, it’s simply stuffed with loose folded pieces of paper: a torn page of Nigella Lawson here, a handwritten description from her mum there. At the other end of the scale is an extraordinarily organised friend in the food world who has multiple ring-bound volumes of laminated pages. “If a recipe doesn’t get cooked enough, it gets pulled.” It’s a serious business.

A few years ago, a close friend, Sarah, paid her daughter to stick all of hers into a ring-bound album. She admits she cooks few of them, but they do still tell her story. “There’s a lemon drizzle cake in there that I did many times when the kids were small and it reminds me of their childhood,” she says. “And there’s a Yorkshire curd tart recipe from my late sister written in her own hand, and that’s very important.”

Does everybody really have one of these? No, not quite. Unsurprisingly, lots of the collections I studied include contributions from some of our biggest name writers, slumming it in periodicals. So, does Nigella Lawson have one? “I’m not that organised,”’ she says. Nigel Slater? Nope. Surely Yotam Ottolenghi has a collection of recipe clippings? He did, he says, along with his own notes. But through adaptation they eventually became recipes in his own books and were chucked. “Now, when I am looking for an old dish I can’t quite remember,” he says, “I reach out to one of the books or even, sadly, resort to Googling things like ‘Ottolenghi rice salad’.” He should simply have cut it out from the Guardian. It was published there in May 2009.

An internet search history will never be as romantic as a scrapbook

Perhaps the ultimate example of the recipe collection as biography is the laser-printed, ring-bound edition put together by the mother of my friend Tim Anderson, the MasterChef winner and Kitchen Cabinet panellist who grew up in Wisconsin. “The original volume of Anderson Family Recipes dates from 2003 when my brother and I were off at college,” he says. “It’s recipes from my mother and grandmothers, food we ate when we were kids, though they don’t actually originate from my family in any way.” All of them came from boxes of torn clippings. It is a sturdy snapshot of American midwestern cooking, often incorporating the unashamed introduction of one canned or jarred product to another. Hooray for Betty Crocker. “There’s something called chicken Costa Brava involving chicken breasts, a jar of shop-bought salsa, jars of olives and tinned pineapple,” Tim says. “I really liked that growing up.”

Statement of the obvious: online recipes now threaten these fabulous collections. There’s a chicken teriyaki recipe on the website natashaskitchen.com which I have cooked many times. I have never printed it out. I search it up every time, even while acknowledging its rather sad that I do so. An internet search history will never be as romantic as a scrapbook. It’s time, I think, to put a sheet of A4 through the printer. Perhaps it’s time we all did. Because without these collections we’ll lose a significant slab of our shared cultural, and edible, history. Future historians will not be able to work out our life stories through the dinners we dreamed of making. That would be a crying shame.

News bites

Tomorrow marks the opening of outdoor drinking and dining. Obviously, we could all do with help finding places ready to welcome us back. Bravo then to the team behind catchmeoutside.co. It’s a searchable map of venues across the UK. Input a postcode or town name and it will show you what’s open nearby, whether their outdoor space is bookable, covered, has heating and so on. There are already hundreds on there, but it needs more so business owners, please add your details.

Many restaurants don’t have a viable outside space which means other business models will continue. And so, the much-admired Black Axe Mangal, at London’s Highbury Corner, has just joined the meal kit business. The £85 BAM Weekend Feast box covers both dinner and brunch. The first version included lamb offal flatbread, hispi cabbage with fermented shrimp butter and a cream egg fondant cookie with Luxardo cherries (black-axe-mangal.bignight.app).

I rarely feature individual food and drink products, but Wildpress is worth knowing about. It’s a new range of bright, distinct apple juices made from lesser-known varieties, harvested from small English orchards. They have mellifluous names like Rebel Harvest and Somerset Haze and are streets ahead of the usual sugary hit of most juices. Plus, sustainability and biodiversity metrics are embedded in the whole business. With prices starting at £4.50 a bottle, they cost more than standard juices, but you get something better for your money. (wildpressjuice.com).

Email Jay at jay.rayner@observer.co.uk or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1