Good Taste by Caroline Scott: an unexpectedly emotional read – book review –
As the Great Depression casts a long shadow over the country in 1932, food writer Stella Douglas is commissioned to put together a history of food in England that will lift the spirits and make people feel proud of their national cuisine.
But it’s a task that becomes doubly difficult when Stella discovers that most of England’s favourite dishes actually have their origins in other lands, and then faces a powerful distraction from Freddie Langham, the handsome antiques dealer who comes to her rescue on a marathon cross-country journey to unearth lost recipes.
Historian and highly acclaimed author Caroline Scott – whose haunting novels, The Visitors, The Photographer of the Lost and When I Come Home Again, contemplated different aspects of the aftermath of war – forges a delicious new path with this paean to food set at a time when modern England was starting to emerge from the past.
And what a tale of light and darkness, tears and laughter, and dainty and not-so-dainty dishes, Good Taste proves to be as Scott packs in a fascinating exploration of social history alongside a moving tale of friendship, family and self-discovery, all set against a 1930s backdrop facing much the same changes and challenges, hardships and crises as our contemporary world.
When Stella Douglas, author of a much-loved but not very successful biography of forgotten cookery writer Elizabeth Raffald is summoned from her Yorkshire base to see her editor in London at the end of 1931, she is dreading being told her career is over before it’s even started.
She has recently given up her home in London to return to live with her father in Calderdale after her mother’s death left him vulnerable, fragile and seemingly ‘shrinking.’ However, she misses the bright lights and bustle of the big city, and particularly her close friend, chef Michael, the man who has been her comfort and confidant for many years.
But far from losing her job, Stella finds she is being commissioned to write another book... this time a history of food in England and how the English like to eat. ‘Nostalgia is potent stuff,’ says her editor, ‘and it’s fashionable at the moment.’
Her task is to charm her readers with a book of food that is quintessentially English and will remind English housewives of the old ways, and English men of the glory of their country.
The only problem is that most English food is really from elsewhere so Stella sets about inviting recipes from all corners of England in the hope of discovering a hidden culinary gem. But what she discovers is oatcakes and gravy, pan loads of offal, and lots of potatoes.
Longing for something more thrilling, she heads off to speak to the nation’s housewives. And when her car breaks down in Gloucestershire and the dashing and charismatic Freddie Langham springs to her rescue, she is led in a very different direction...
Despite a storyline rooted in English food and eating habits in the mid-20th century, Good Taste is an unexpectedly emotional read as Scott, whose own origins are in Lancashire, takes us deep into the lives of a family struggling to cope with grief, and into an exploration of the sentimental connections between favourite family dishes and the different generations.
Each family has its own particular memories of food and this is made apparent in the sometimes amusing and often moving letters that flow between Stella and the many people from across the country – and across the social divides – who respond to her plea for traditional recipes.
Foodies will love Scott’s sumptuous ‘letter of love’ to all aspects of food and cooking, but there is also the joy of observing Stella’s soul-searching battle to become an independent woman making her own way in the world, the poignancy that comes from the discovery of her mother’s diaries, the northern wit that never fails to bewitch Scott’s readers, and the alluring frissons of romance that add seasoning to all the boiled beef and dumplings that were so loved in the Thirties.
Brilliantly researched and written with the stunning authenticity that is the hallmark of Scott’s work, Good Taste is best served after a hearty meal and with a glass of your best vin rouge to hand!
(Simon & Schuster, hardback, £16.99)