I am a sucker for books about food history, so this book caught my attention as soon as I spotted it. What clinched my settling down to reading it however, was the very poignant first lines of the introduction,
One day in 1977, an elderly lady stood weeping in her bedsit kitchen, methodically shredding her memoir into tiny pieces and washing them down the sink. Her son-in-law and daughter had told her that no one would be interested in her life.
The elderly lady was Georgina Landmare (nee Young), born in a small English village on the Hertfordshire/Bucks border on 1882. She began her cooking career as a scullery maid, after a brief stint as a nurserymaid when she left school at fourteen. Annie Gray says that it was only the intervention of her granddaughter Edwina that prevented all of the memoir being destroyed. The author points out that in Britain, by that era nobody really wanted to admit that their relatives had once been in service. And those roles were not really seen as important in the modern world and it was seen as something to be ashamed of.
Food historian Annie Gray draws on the fragments of memoir left to piece together Georgina Young’s early life. She was also fortunate in having the help of Edwina’s recollections of her grandmother to add to the basic archive record. Having said that, much of the detail of Georgina’s professional life has to be surmised from contemporary sources about life in service, the type of food cooked and the styles of recipes that were in vogue in different social circles.
The discussions about menus and the types of food that would have been served both above and below stairs are fascinating. In addition, the effect of wartime rationing on Georgina’s cookery (particularly as she was by then working for the Churchill household) shows just how talented a cook she was. The latter part of the book talks about Winston and Clementine Churchill’s relationship with Georgina and their regard for her many good qualities. After the war, Georgina Landmare even wrote a cookery book about recipes served up at Number 10, which sadly is now long out of print.
This a very readable book about a bygone era in food and cookery, but also a satisfying piece of social history. Many people worked ‘in service’ in Britain and Ireland and it is nice to see that their histories are slowly being brought to light.