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.