Katharine Whitehorn’s Cooking in a Bedsitter: an appreciation

When I went off to uni in 1977, Cooking in a Bedsitter was one of the books I took with me, and it got a great deal more use than any of my textbooks. Although Katharine Whitehorn had written it for a different generation of young people (it was first published in 1961), the material conditions of life had not changed so very much; if your student room was in a moden block you might be lucky enough to have a shared kitchen, but if you were in an old university building or living out in digs, the best you could hope for was a single gas or electric cooking ring in your room, and no fridge. There were no take-aways other than fish and chips; pizza was still regarded as foreign food and McDonalds had yet to achieve a serious presence on the high street. Chilled ready-meals were many years in the future. So if you wanted to cook for yourself, the challenges were enormous – and it was those that Katherine Whitehorn addressed. Cooking in a Bedsitter was not a book of recipes; it was a lifestyle book, shot through with her trademark down-to-earth simplicity and straightforward common sense.

It was that punchy pragmatic tone which characterised her Observer column. Take for instance her observation (early ’60s, remember) that a woman at a party needs to hold a bag, gloves, plate, drink, serviette, fork and cigarette – AND have a hand free for shaking hands. Having identified the problem, she then worked out the answer, and a photograph of her doing it appeared on the cover of her Social Survival (1968). (Bag goes on the arm, gloves between fifth and fourth fingers, serviette between fourth and third, cigarette between third and second. Hold the plate with first finger and thumb, with the thumb holding down the wineglass and the fork resting on the plate. Your other hand is free for eating, drinking, smoking and shaking.)

In the same vein, Whitehorn’s opening chapter of Cooking in a Bedsitter defined “The problem – and some of the answers”.

Cooking a decent meal in a bedsitter is not just a matter of finding something that can be cooked over a single gas ring. It is a problem of finding somewhere to put down the fork while you take the lid off the saucepan, and then finding somewhere else to put the lid. It is finding a place to keep the butter where it will not get mixed up with your razor or your hairpins. It is having your hands covered with flour, and a pot boiling over on to your landlady’s carpet, and no water to mop up any of it nearer than the bathroom at the other end of the landing. It is cooking at floor level, in a hurry, with nowhere to put the salad but the washing-up bowl, which is any case is full of socks. (p. 13)

My copy of the book had one of Penguin’s great new photographic covers of the 1970s, which “allowed the title to be ‘read’ instantly from the image alone” (Baines, 2005, p. 205). In this case the image was of a cast iron bed frame, hung with cooking utensils and food items (see above). Arresting and funny, this was an illustration of the same problem: that the place where you cook is also the place where you sleep.

Whitehorn’s answers to this problem included casseroles (“far the best way of cooking a number of different things together, as one must on a gas ring” p. 16); a damp cloth (for wiping), a water jug (for adding water during cooking) and a plastic bucket (for emptying dregs); newspaper (as a work surface and wrapper for rubbish); and equipment (“it is not a question of the best possible tools, but the fewest” pp. 20-21). All these she covered in her magisterial first chapter, followed by a supremely useful “beginner’s index” of ingredients, including “how much to buy, how to prepare, standard cooking times” (p. 27). The recipes, although they occupied the remainder of the book, were in a sense secondary; fundamentally this was a book on how to approach and think about cooking – which is why its popularity endured, even as ingredient availability expanded and food tastes changed.

Here are some of Whitehorn’s best insights, which have shaped my cooking from that day to this.

  • “Cooking to stay alive.” Most of the recipes in the book fall into this category, the other being “Cooking to impress”, for which there are special tips. “(1) Finish any cleaning. You can finish cooking without shame in front of your visitors, but you cannot very well sweep under their embarrassed feet. (2) Set the table – it will reassure people that they have come on the right day, and that there will be a meal eventually. (3) Get yourself looking nice. In a house you can disappear and finish dressing – in a bedsitter, no.” (p. 145) And for the cooking itself: “Never have more than one thing that needs last-minute attention.” (p. 144) Further guidance is divided according to the category of person you are trying to impress: “(1) The troglodyte in the next bedsitter. (2) Couples … who … have forgotten what it was like to cook in a bedsitter (if they ever knew), and it is your business not to remind them. (3) Your parents, or your parents’ spies… (4) Delicious little parties à deux.” (p. 147)
  • “The potato-shaped space.” “Most of us have a potato-shaped space inside that must be filled at every meal, if not by potatoes, then by something equally filling – rice, bread, spaghetti, macaroni, and so on.”(p. 16)
  • On drink and parties (by her husband, Gavin Lyall). “It is a bad rule to buy the cheapest of anything, and a good rule, when faced with the temptation, to buy the best of something cheaper…. The happy fact is that nobody will know you thought of giving them champagne anyway.” (p. 175)

And here, as a specimen of how all this works out in practice, is one of my most-used recipes from the “Cooking to stay alive” section: Leeks Lucullus.

3 leeks (about 1lb)
2 or 3 potatoes
1 tablespoon grated cheese
butter
top of the milk
salt, pepper
Boil leeks and potatoes together in salted water with lid on pan till tender – 15-20 mins. Pour off liquid. Mash leeks and potatoes with a fork; stir in as much butter as you can spare (at least a teaspoon), cheese, creamy milk. Eat with a piece of toast. If you have a grill, sprinkle more cheese and brown the top. This looks like pale green mashed potatoes, but tastes delicious. (25 mins.) (p. 65)

Rest in peace, Katherine Whitehorn. Thank you for teaching me how to think about cooking, how to think about life, and that it’s possible to be smart, practical and funny all at the same time.

References

Baines, Phil (2005), Penguin by Design: A Cover Story 1935-2005 (London: Allen Lane).

Whitehorn, Katharine (1963), Cooking in a Bedsitter (Harmondsworth: Penguin)

See also Obituary of Katherine Whitehorn by Janet Watts and ‘Thank you, Katharine Whitehorn, for giving all the female reprobates a voice’ by Barbara Ellen.

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