Tasty – a History of the Book


In my years as a university lecturer, I was enthralled by the academic field referred to as Book History, or the History of the Book.  This is not to be confused with literary history, the study of literature or textual analysis. The big difference is that Book History includes a focus on the book itself in its physicality: the cover, the paper, the print, the illustrations. Then there is the publishing history: when, where, how and by whom was it published? How many books were sold? How much did they cost? Who were the readers? What was its impact? I was tantalised by thinking about how I could explore Great-grandmother’s cookbook with Book History in mind. What questions would it raise?

This fascination with books runs in my blood: great-grandmother Girlie married into a family of printers, publishers, booksellers and journalists: her husband, Harold Herman, took over the business from his father, Harold Melville, who, in turn, had learnt the trade from his father, Herbert, a printer from Kidderminster in England, who emigrated to South Africa in 1862. I can imagine her asking Herman to bring home a notebook for her to record her collection of recipes, many of which are still stuffed in the back of the book, recorded on bits of paper, backs of envelopes and even on a bridge scoresheet! Was this an attempt to save paper or the serendipitous collection of recipes wherever she was?

The book itself is a simple, soft-cover school exercise book, measuring 18 x 23 cm. The original cover is blue, with The Tudor exercise book and a space for Name, Class, School and Date to be filled in. It was printed by Dirk Pens, of Potchefstroom, near Klerksdorp. Were they a common supplier to the Guests? Was it a free sample they received? What happened to Dirk and his business?

Instead of a simple exercise book, the cookbook is ingeniously covered with beige coarse linen which has been folded and tacked together to make a sturdy book. However, Girlie was a domestic artist not only in the kitchen: the cover is brightly embroidered with a garden scene, with the word Tasty emblazoned across at an angle.  The hollyhocks and bonnetted lady are reminiscent of the 1930s crinoline lady pattern. In her delightful book The Gentle Art of Domesticity, Jane Brocket (2008:166) describes this highly stylised icon appearing on tablecloths, aprons, tea cosies and tray cloths. While Girlie did not use the original transfer design, she was working within a popular and fashionable tradition. She uses gloriously riotous shades of pink and bright green, as well as a patch to applique the lady’s dress and combines several embroidery stitches. This creativity is a testament to a past age, where the homemade and handmade was the norm. I find this kind of work a great treasure in the history of women’s domestic art, and great loss in a mass-produced, sterile, flaw-free world.

The paper inside still shows the faded pink margin and faint blue lines. And across it meanders the careless scrawl of an inkpen. Girlie’s handwriting is a little challenging to decipher – here my years of marking students’ work give me an advantage. I wonder if she was left-handed – my grandfather was, although he was taught to write with his right hand at school by having his left hand tied behind his back. My eldest son, living in another, freer, age, turned out to be left-handed as well, revealed not through writing, but the desire to feed himself. This brings us full circle from Book History and back to food!

Perhaps there is still an academic lurking inside me and yearning to write about domestic artists and homemade books? For the moment, the recipes themselves beckon with the appealing first section entitled “Biscuits”, Cocoanut.




Mother’s Day memories

Mother’s Day always raises a slight ache within me, that I never knew either of my grandmothers. However, I was blessed with my wonderful maternal grandfather who lived with us all my life. Jimmy Guest, affectionately known by the Afrikaans “Oupa”, was a white-bearded Father Christmas figure,  gentle, wise, generous, endlessly patient and a magnificent storyteller.  The stories he told at bedtime were an Enid Blytonesque series, based on a family of bears who lived in the Green Forest and centered around a mischievous cub named Johnny Bear. My siblings and I thrilled to the tales of Sergeant Creamer, the polar bear police officer, and the villains (mostly goblins) who lived in the Dark and Evil Forest. Most stories were mild and charming, including summer swims, campfires and minor heroics. The most ghastly, which still chills me to this day, ended with an ursine priest, complete with shining crucifix, performing an exorcism in the Darkest and Most Evil Forest. But what was central to the stories was the image of Mother Bear in her tree kitchen, producing a stream of lemonades and chocolate cakes and delightful pies.  I wonder if Mother Bear wasn’t based on my grandfather’s own mother, Esther Davis Lucas Guest, the Great-grandmother whose cookbook is the inspiration for this blog. I remember Oupa and my mother reminiscing about “Muzzie”, a formidable sounding pillar of Klerksdorp society in the interwar years, and eating Sunday puddings from her recipes. My beloved grandfather died when I was 16 and left a massive lacuna in our family and my identity within it.  But this year’s Mother’s Day conversation with my own mother sparked off a whole new set of questions and a precious trickle, then flood, of memories of Muzzie, and my rediscovery of a great-grandmother: a teacher; a survivor of the Anglo-Boer War; a mother who lost two children; a mayor’s wife who hosted At Homes; a legendary baker of pies; a gifted needleworker; a frail old lady with Parkinson’s. Instead of ending Mother’s Day 2018 with my usual sense of loss of a female history, this year has been particularly poignant, with an awareness of memory  linking three physically and geographically distant women and reviving a thread of heritage that can be woven into a richer family tapestry.

The Great-grandmother’s cookbook project

Moving to a new country at the age of 45 is a challenge. Following my husband’s job to Nairobi, Kenya, I felt as if I’d lost my home, my history, my family, my friends and my job in one fell swoop. Without the defining identities of daughter, sister, friend, lecturer, editor, and having suffered an inexplicable and terrifying heart attack, I had to create – or at least rediscover –  my identity.

The upside of all of these losses, I consoled myself, was that I would have time on my hands to do all the things the aforementioned identities never allowed – I would exercise, nap and eat healthily; I would explore my cupboard full of wool, fabric, and blank needlepoint; I would write inspiringly, and, perhaps, I vaguely considered, pick up my research on the history of recipe books I had dabbled in before the marking took over.

Instead, after the chaos of the move and settling boys at new schools, I was poleaxed by both exhaustion and my empty schedule: my body was complaining loudly, and with a much longer school day for my boys, a magnificently efficient housekeeper,  and no marking or deadlines, I proceeded to fill it in time-honoured fashion of sleeping, reading, and baking.

It took nine months for boredom to emerge, and, close at its newborn heels, a small, whimpering creature named creativity. I unpacked my cupboard and finished a patchwork quilt that had been waiting for a decade. I churned out tapestry cushions. I upcycled dull clothes. I read my collection of vintage recipe books and baked even more. My perceptive teenager suggested a longer project, as I was clearly unfocussed. On our first trip home, my mother, perhaps in cahoots with said teenager, dumped a book and a pile of cuttings in my lap and said, “Here is a project for you.”


The project turned out to be my great-grandmother’s handwritten recipe book, including cuttings she had taken from before the Great War, through to the swinging sixties. It is a feast of a book, with recipes from friends included, along with notes on how many socks she had knitted for the war effort. My passions for cooking and baking were aroused, faced with delights such as “General Smuts cookies”. My editorial inclinations were titillated by the challenges of conversions to the metric system, and my historian side by the need to preserve this precious piece of family and domestic history for later generations.

This blog aims to share my journey though this perfect project, which speaks to so many aspects of my identity, as well as the recipes, history and family secrets it will reveal.