Sunday 31 January 2016

In praise of The Pauper’s Cookbook

I often tell people that I can cook because my mother couldn’t, or wouldn’t. She was far more interested in studying, writing, teaching and taking us to museums and bookshops, on walks along the riverbank in Durham and, importantly, instilling in my brother and me a love of whiling away afternoons in cafés. All of these are very important life skills.

But she did sometimes cook more than the usual, hasty beans on toast or egg and chips, and when she did, it was from Jocasta Innes’s The Pauper’s Cookbook.

I was just writing something about 70s food, which made me pick up my old, yellowing copy for the first time in years. Flipping through it, I can see it through my mother’s young eyes and understand why it must have been so appealing.

This book is about as far away from the 70s housewife world of perfect garnishes and dainty hors d’oeuvres as it’s possible to get. It’s crammed with recipes for the hurried, harried and skint. It has a let’s-get-on-with-it tone and a spirit of adventure, with recipes such as brandade of tuna fish, tortilla, and Suleiman’s Pilaff (bits of leftover cooked lamb, mixed with garlic, patna rice, tinned tomatoes and ‘a pinch of thyme or rosemary’ – the ‘pinch’ makes me think that the assumption is they’re inevitably dried, not fresh).

Welcome to the 70s, so many beans, so much brown earthenware.

I love the cover photograph, with its earthenware dish which would look quite at home in many of today’s faux-rustic East London restaurants. I love the trickle of burnt-on sauce from the pork and beans, and I love, love, love the blurb on the back cover:

‘So leave it to the affluent to court indigestion at the Waldorf-Ritz: here’s how to live it up in your own squalid tenement without recourse to poaching, rustling, guddling, scrumping or shop-lifting.’ How could you possibly resist? And now I need to go and find out what the hell ‘guddling’ is.

French onion soup

I wanted to make something from the book without having to run out to the shops (too cold, too lazy), so my eyes fell on Jocasta’s recipe for French onion soup. Her recipe was much simpler than the one I create here. Its ingredients are 1 quart basic stock, 4 large or 6 small onions, knob of butter, 1/4lb grated Cheddar, 4 slices toast, salt and pepper. But with my Twenty-First-Century fancy London ways, I have at my disposal wine and brandy, Gruyère cheese and an end of slightly stale baguette. But it is absolutely in the spirit of Jocasta, if not to the letter.


80g butter
4 large yellow or white onions, about 1kg prepared weight, halved and thinly sliced
100ml white wine
1 litre beef stock
1 tbsp brandy
About ¼ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
4-6 slices of baguette, about 1cm thick
100g Gruyère cheese, grated
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Warm the butter over a medium heat in a heavy-bottomed saucepan
 or casserole. When it stops foaming, add the onions and a good pinch of salt.  Fry gently, stirring often, until they are just beginning to turn golden - they shouldn’t caramelise at all. This could take at least 30 minutes, up to 45 minutes.

The raw sliced onions…
...transform into these soft, golden ones.
Pour in the wine and stir again for a couple of minutes until almost completely evaporated. Next add the stock and some salt and pepper and simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Grate in the nutmeg, pour in the brandy and season with more salt and pepper if necessary. 

Heat up the grill.

Ladle the soup into heatproof bowls. Place a slice of bread on top and scatter the cheese over the top. Grill until golden and bubbling. Serve immediately. 

I love the way Gruyère melts into delicious stringiness.


  1. Oh Debora...memories, memories! You have brought them flooding back over the past couple of days with your tweets and this blog! French onion soup is always wonderful, thanks for reminding me....x

  2. When I left home in the early 70s for a succession of rather gloomy damp basements in some of the more rackety parts of central London, a combination of frequent ‘phone calls to my mother & the friendly encouragement of the Pauper’s Cookbook held my hand as I learned to cook. The gravy stained brittle pages of my own copy have long ago crumbled away, so lovely to be reminded of it. Jocasta Innes was a remarkable person and there is a nice appreciation of her here and and some more here

  3. Oh, I loved that book! It was my saviour in my student years. That, and Katherine Whitehorn's 'Cooking in a bedsit' was all we ever used. Sadly, my copy fell apart, its greasy pages almost dessicated with over-use. I remember Janssen's Temptation, I think - or was that from the KW book? And of course the herbs were dried! Where would you have bought fresh herbs in those days? And students rarely thought of growing such things on their window ledges. Thanks for the memories....

    1. So many people have happy memories of it Margaret! It's quite remarkable the breadth of her ambition, given the ingredients she had at her disposal then - dried herbs, not so many spices (though she could have got them in the East End I would have thought, she would have had to think of readers who weren't so fortunate) - we are so lucky now as you can get practically everything everywhere, or online. So glad you enjoyed reading my post.

  4. Hello Rachel, It's so easy, I wonder why I don't make it more, especially as I pretty much always have the ingredients knocking about. So good.
    Hello James, Thank you so much for sharing your story, which I know echoes the story of lots of people who liked to eat nice things but didn't necessarily have many skills or much cash. I really think it is a pioneering book. Her tone is just the right blend of brisk self-assurance and coaxing. The Pauper's Homemaker was also a really excellent book of its time. I might pull that down of the shelves one day soon too. Thank you too for the links to Spitalfields Life, one of my favourite blogs. How wonderful to see those pictures, for I understand that though the outside doesn't look very different, the interior has been entirely stripped out by the new owners. Time moves on, I suppose.

  5. So the thing I never understand about FOS is why you would put the croute in the soup + THEN grill it? Surely easier to grill the cheese/bread first then drop it onto the soup? Ensoggening (presumably the point) would still happen, but you are spared juggling four bowls of lava-hot soup on a baking tray? Answers please.

    1. Put the imminent threat of third degree burns is almost entirely the point. Seriously though, I like to pretty much cover the entire surface of the soup with gruyere and get it really hot and bubbling and you can only really do that under the grill. It means you have to be a bit more careful than my usual fairly casual plate slinging when serving, but it does cool down fairly quickly once it's on the table.

  6. ah the magic of old books!
    My mum was a hasty cook, and even when she took the time, it never tasted very good. She was missing the most important ingredient and that is the love for cooking!


Comments are now closed.
This site has migrated to

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...