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The Delia supremacy

As the Borough Market Cookbook Club comes together on 25th September to celebrate the 80th birthday of Delia Smith, Mark Riddaway pays tribute to her enduring influence on British cooking

“OTHER WRITERS DECORATED THE WALLS OF BRITAIN’S DOMESTIC CULINARY CULTURE. BUT DELIA BUILT ITS FOUNDATIONS”

At the start of the 1980s, there were four cookbooks on my parents’ kitchen shelf: a battered family-heirloom edition of Mrs Beeton, and the three volumes of Delia Smith’s Cookery Course. I don’t think Mrs Beeton ever saw much action (hare soup and matelot of tench weren’t really the order of the day in the new towns of the M4 corridor), but those Delia books, crusted with flour and yellowed by spicy thumbprints, dictated absolutely everything that happened in that room.

Back then, Delia (whose level of fame rendered her surname completely redundant) bestrode British domestic cookery in a manner that today, in this multi-platform, multi-channel era of ours, seems completely implausible. Those three books alone – in their individual volumes, then later repackaged as a single edition – sold over six million copies. Her TV broadcasts drew audiences of a scale that today would be more representative of a World Cup semi-final or a royal death than a show about omelettes. A casual mention of an unusual ingredient or a specific item of cookware could cause an earthquake in Britain’s retail supply chains. There were, of course, others who wrote and talked about food, often much more brilliantly – the likes of Margaret Costa, Madhur Jaffrey, Claudia Roden – but while they played their part in decorating the walls of Britain’s domestic culinary culture, Delia built its foundations.

It was in 1969, as a cookery writer for the Mirror, that she began her ascent into the public consciousness. Her earliest appearances on TV came on Look East, a distinctly Partridgean regional magazine programme in East Anglia, after which, in 1973, she was offered her first solo BBC1 show, Family Fare. The Delia Supremacy began in 1978 when the first series of Delia Smith’s Cookery Course landed on BBC1 and it only really ended at the close of the millennium when Jamie Oliver began slugging olive oil around to the sounds of Toploader. Even as that new era of more kinetic TV cheffing knocked her from her pedestal, she still sold books by the bucketload – 2009’s Happy Christmas being a particularly gargantuan hit.

The single-volume edition of Delia Smith’s Cookery Course

Her power was drawn from the convergence of several streams. Those early appearances on the screen coincided with the explosion in availability of colour televisions – as big a game-changer for TV cookery as it was for snooker. At the same time, the supermarkets, for all their many faults, were beginning to make available to the wider public wildly exotic ingredients such as pasta and chilli powder. And then there was Delia’s true genius: her realisation that, right then, an entire generation was crying out for basic instruction – and that she was exactly the right person to provide it.

People who were raising families in the 1970s had grown up in a post-war world in which food was scarce and cooking was functional. Butter was rationed until 1953, meat until 1954. Government intervention aimed at making food production efficient also made it narrow and cheerless. Imports were rare and costly. Britons of my parents’ age never really learnt to cook, because ‘cooking’ wasn’t really a thing. At school, children were taught ‘home economics’ – the single most depressing synonym imaginable, stripped of any vestige of pleasure. Bereft of choice or skill, you just ate what you had. If you had cheese, you made a sandwich. If you had vegetables, you boiled them.

Then along came Delia, with her colourful floral blouses and direct, school-teacherly manner, and slowly but surely things began to change. She presumed no foreknowledge, she judged nobody. In her generous, unpatronising tone, she offered instructions on how to poach an egg or soften a chopped onion. Then, as her audience’s confidence grew, she took on complex-sounding techniques with frightening French names, and thoroughly demystified them. And she did this not just on the telly, which rarely troubles the long-term memory, but in the books that accompanied them – a revolutionary multi-media concept.    

Delia was never cool, never particularly charismatic or interesting. Serious food people often derided her utilitarian approach to cooking, her embrace of tinned vegetables, stock cubes and sliced bread. But the effect of her work was quietly radical. It was she who opened many people’s eyes to the possibilities that lay in foreign flavours, giving short shrift to the old idea that spices and garlic were disgusting and un-British. It was she who made large parts of the population aware of the very existence of bean sprouts, tahini and cranberries. Her ‘exotic’ food may have lacked for regional authenticity and cultural context, and I’m glad that I can now buy a Palestinian cookbook produced by two Palestinians and a guide to the food of the Caucasus written by a Caucasian (in the very narrowest sense of the word), but I also have no doubt that Delia’s repertoire of curries, chillies and goulashes played their part in shaping Britain’s current openness to the myriad flavours of the world. And while my mum’s chicken curry – Delia’s 1979 chicken curry, plus a few decades of subtle evolution – is no more Indian than my elbow, I still love eating it.

Looking at the front covers of those Cookery Course books, with their very of-its-time italic serif font and their strange inconsistency of cover images (a pepper grinder on part one, a pavlova on part three), gives me the strongest of Proustian rushes. It makes me think of licking a wooden spoon coated in raw cake mix, of the smell of browning meat, of my dad peeling spuds while Sports Report chuntered from the radio. It makes me think of the excitement of dinners that warranted a side of potatoes boulangere – a special Delia dish for special occasions. And it makes me grateful that, because of those books, I had the opportunity to grow up in a kitchen where cooking actually happened.

The Borough Market Cookbook Club’s Delia Smith at 80 takes place on 25th September, 10.30am – noon. Members will come together to talk about Delia ’s books and recipes, and indulge in a celebration of her work and influence.

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