How did your Nan cook Christmas dinner?

By Val Hewson

In December 2021, I gave a talk in Sheffield Central Library about what vintage recipe books can tell us about our heritage, both individual and shared. Here are my slides and notes from our Events page, along with a related paper written for the Inheriting the Family project on Research.     

During the talk I asked the audience to recall the cookery books important to them. About 20 people responded on cards, anonymously – an unscientific, but interesting, survey. They quoted a wide range of books, from Mrs Beeton to Nigella, domestic goddesses both, from the 19th to the 21st centuries, from kitchen ranges to smart ovens.

The cards suggest that we identify recipe books with their authors – Delia Smith, Mary Berry, Marguerite Patten and the rest. The recalled titles are often not quite right, half-forgotten while the authors stick in our minds. They are acquaintances, if not friends.

Marguerite Patten (1915-2015), for instance, appears twice on the cards. She worked for the Ministry of Food during World War Two and then became a regular on radio and television.   

My first recipe book was by Marguerite Patten. Everyday Cook Book in Colour.[i] Sold second hand by the local library! Started a lifelong love of cookery.   

Marguerite Patten. WW2 Home front / Rationing recipes (not exact title). Could be Victory Cookbook. Has many recipes for non-meat meals/vegetarian meals.[ii]

The Observer journalist, Katherine Whitehorn (1928-2021), conjures up for a whole generation memories of leaving home, being a student, the first job, getting married and making do:

Cooking in a Bedsitter by Katherine Whitehorn.[iii] Given to me late 1960s or early 1970. I had left university and was working and flat sharing in London. This is the 1st cookery book I owned.

Cooking in a Bedsitter, often reprinted, must have been tucked into suitcases by many anxious parents.

Then we have Elizabeth David (1913-1992), whose championship of French and Italian cuisine fired a revolution in British food.    

Elizabeth David. French Provincial Cooking.[iv] This is more than just recipes – can sense the location and smells and sights and people.

To illustrate the point:

… the most enjoyable of French country meals; unexacting ones, ordered and served with the minimum of fuss. An omelette, perhaps, followed by the sausages which were a speciality of the local butcher, a vegetable dish and some cheese; or perhaps snails and a homely stew, intended probably for the patron’s own dinner but gracefully surrendered; or a vegetable soup, a slice or two of country-cured ham and a beautiful big green artichoke; and on another occasion, a langouste with a mayonnaise which was among the best I have ever tasted, because of the fine quality of the Provençal oil which had gone into it, and which was followed by a dish of tender young string beans of that intense green and delicate flavour which only southern-grown beans seem to acquire.

Elizabeth David, French Provincial Cooking, introduction (Kindle edition).

Unsurprisingly, Delia Smith, Mary Berry and Nigella Lawson all feature on the cards too. They are among our most familiar television cooks, with Delia and Nigella, if not Mary, needing only first names. Delia gets three mentions altogether, more than anyone else.

Mary Berry. Her recipes are straightforward and easy to follow.

Have bought lots of cookery books over the years but the one I always go to and is my favourite is Delia’s Cookery Course. I also have Mary Berry’s Cakes, which I use often.[v]

Nigella Lawson, How to be a Domestic Goddess.[vi]

The first of all celebrity cooks is named just once, still an icon 160 years after the publication of her Book of Household Management.[vii] Often imagined as an old lady in black bombazine, another Queen Victoria, Isabella Beeton died from complications in childbirth in 1865, aged 28, and never knew of her fame.   

Isabella Beeton, by Maull & Polyblank, 1857 (National Portrait Gallery, Creative Commons licence).
Engraved title page of Beeton’s Book of Household Management, Wellcome Library copy, 1861 (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons).

Mrs Beeton – lots of plain, uncomplicated recipes which don’t require a huge range of ingredients (unlike many of the modern, contemporary ones!)

At this point, you may be asking where the men are. On the whole, they are absent.   

1000 Recipe Cook Book. Delia Christmas Book. Nigel Slater’s 30 minute Recipes.[viii]

Not all the books quoted are by celebrity cooks. Good Housekeeping has published dozens of books, ranging from the encyclopaedic to the pamphlet, since it was founded in the USA in 1885 and the UK in 1922. Here we have (along with an honourable mention for Woman’s Weekly).

Good Housekeeping Cookery Book.[ix] Bought by my mother-in-law when first married in 1973. The book I used with really good instructions which I used a lot when I was young was Woman’s Weekly.

and the unfortunately unidentifiable:

Good Housekeeping book.   

Three more books which are warmly recommended are:

Readers Digest Farmhouse Cookery Book.[x] They give information and the background of the different recipes. Lots of different categories, so a simple index.

Marks & Spencer c 1971/2.[xi] Can’t remember title! A4 paperback. Now has no cover, stored in a ring file binder. Used every week!

1970. Dairy Book of Cooking.[xii] From the milkman. Also remember Be-Ro.

Ah yes. Be-Ro. The books of baking recipes produced since the 1920s by this flour manufacturer are by some way the most popular with the Central Library audience.

Thomas Bell founded a wholesale grocery firm near the Tyne quays and railway station in Newcastle in the 1880s. Among his top-selling brands were ‘Bells Royal’ baking powder and a self raising flour. Following the death of Edward VII, it became illegal to use the Royal name. As a result, Bell decided to take the first couple of letters from the each of the two words of the brand name and turn them into the more catchy sounding ‘Be-Ro’.

Be-Ro – Home

Be-Ro ran demonstration events to promote their products and, when people asked for the recipes, the recipe books were written. There have been about 40 editions so far, and they seem to be both well-remembered and loved.

Be-Ro Home Recipes, published 1978. I bought this when I got married. The only recipe book I have kept after 7 house moves. Simple ingredients available. Recipes can be adapted – ingredients added. All you need to feed a small family.

The Be Ro Cookery Book. I was born in 1957. The Love of Cooking.[xiii] Sonia Allison. Bought for me in 1970s by my aunt as a good basic cookbook and still used today. Also loved by my daughter.

Be-Ro book. Good Housekeeping complete. 1975ish. Foodaid Book, celebrity contributed. (Terry Wogan, Delia Smith)

BeRo. Still my ‘go to‘ for basic recipes.

The Be-Ro cookery book. I still have one of my mums books, which I use regularly for scones and pastry – I love it!

It is at this point that I admit to fellow feeling. The Be-Ro book published around 1957 is the only cookery book I associate with my mum, and the gingham-aproned girl pictured on the cover has always been secure in my memory.

Once again, I realise that recipe books have a remarkable ability to awaken memories and to start conversations.


[i] Patten, Marguerite, Everyday Cook Book in Colour (London, Hamlyn Books, 1969).

[ii] Patten, Marguerite, The Victory Cookbook (London, Hamlyn, 1995).

[iii] Whitehorn, Katherine, Kitchen in the Corner: a Complete Guide to Bedsitter Cookery (London, Macgibbon & Kee, 1961). Re-titled and re-published: Cooking in a Bedsitter (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1963). 

[iv] David, Elizabeth, French Provincial Cooking (London, Michael Joseph, 1960).

[v] Smith, Delia, Delia’s Complete Cookery Course (London, BBC, 1982). Mary Berry has written several books of cake recipes including: Fast Cakes: Easy Bakes in Minutes (London, Headline Home, 2018); My Kitchen Table – 100 Cakes & Bakes (London, BBC Books, 2011); and Mary Berry’s Simple Cakes (London, BBC Books, 2014).

[vi] Lawson, Nigella, How to be a domestic goddess : baking and the art of comfort cooking (London, Chatto & Windus, 2014).

[vii] Beeton, Isabella, Beeton’s Book of Household Management (London, S O Beeton Publishing, 1861).

[viii] Barrett, Isabelle and Harrop, Jane (eds), 1000 Recipe Cookbook: Recipes for all occasions (London, Octopus, 1960). Smith, Delia, Delia Smith’s Christmas (London, BBC Books, 1990). Slater, Nigel, The 30-Minute Cook: The Best of the World’s Quick Cooking (London, Michael Joseph, 1994).

[ix] Good Housekeeping Institute, Good Housekeeping Cookery Book (London, Ebury Press, 1972).

[x] Reader’s Digest Association (ed), Farmhouse cookery: recipes from the country kitchen (London, The Association, 1980).

[xi] Hard to identify. The Marks and Spencer archive lists several cookery books from 1977 onwards, including: Wright, Jeni, St Michael Cookery Library: Cooking for Special Occasions (Sundial Books Ltd, 1977) and Selden, Elizabeth, St Michael Cookery Library: Family Meals (Sundial Books, 1977).

[xii] Allison, Sonia, The Dairy Book of Home Cookery (London, Wolfe Publishing, 1968). For the Milk Marketing Board? Sonia Allison rates a second mention below.

[xiii] Allison, Sonia, The Love of Cooking (London, Collins, 1972).

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