If The Katherine Mansfield Cookbook was itself a recipe, it would be a little gem.
Words: Nicola Saker
There is an entire sub-genre of cookbooks that are produced as fundraisers and they vary from the very good to the indifferent. This belongs firmly in the former category. All proceeds from the 44-page booklet, edited by Nicola Saker (author of Blue Sky Kitchen) and designed by Roger Joyce, go to the Katherine Mansfield Birthplace Society, which looks after the Wellington house in which Mansfield was born.
Katherine Mansfield was a prodigious writer, not only of the short fiction published in her lifetime, but also of letters, journals, diaries, scrapbooks and lists. In these, like a trail of breadcrumbs, are recipes, menus and descriptions of food and the kitchens in which it was prepared and cooked. It is a compilation of recipes drawn mainly from these sources.
The recipes reference significant life events, such as one for Plum Soup that was served at the dinner party where she met her second husband, John Middleton Murry. Friends and rivals are also given the nod – who knew Virginia Woolf was an excellent baker of bread? Or that together Mansfield and Murry brewed up jam: “We have just made red plum and aspire towards quince …”
Interspersed with the recipes are amusing insights into Mansfield’s approach to food and people. A favourite has to be her advice in a letter to her friend Ida Baker: “I ousted my flu finally with ½ bottle of champagne. I felt really awful the first few days & then one day ordered champagne for lunch and it did the trick. Its worth knowing. Its not an extravagance.”
She gives Swiss cooking a serve: “And the FOOD. It’s got no nerves. You know what I mean? It seems to lie down and wait for you; the very steaks are meek. There’s no contact between you and it. You’re not attracted. You don’t feel that keenness to meet it and know more of it and get on very intimate terms. The asparagus is always stone dead. As to the puree de pommes de terre, you feel inclined to call it ‘uncle.’”
Equally, she understood how good food could be simple and also warm, delight and seduce: “I feel so gay and at peace – the whole house takes the air. Lunch is ready. I have a baked egg, apricots & cream, cheese straws & black coffee. How delicious!”
The Katherine Mansfield Cookbook is beautifully presented, with photos, illustrations (especially good is a portrait of Mansfield by Seraphine Pick) and content that make it alluring. Its A3 format and $20 price tag (online at katherinemansfield.com) make it the perfect, affordable gift for locals and friends overseas.