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MILFs & Boon

Or; in the kitchen with my best mate’s mum

About mid-February last year, we were sitting around one afternoon, exchanging the usual disenchantments on the subject of St Valentine’s Day, when my best mate’s mum casually dropped into conversation the fact that in her younger days she once co-wrote a book for Mills & Boon.

Well. I was agog, I don’t mind telling you. My cup of furtive, post-adolescent imagination ranneth liberally over. Slavering and drooling may have been involved.

The rest of the room went rather quiet. “Is there, erm, any chance that I could… see it?” I asked, trying not to sound too excited. My mate (we’ll call him ‘Dominic’) was now looking decidedly uncomfortable.

His mum got up and went to fetch the volume from wherever heirlooms of inestimable value are kept hidden away from prying eyes. Returning to the living room, she placed this Holiest of Holies gently in my hands. “Enjoy yourself,” she said, in the voice of Charlotte Rampling.

I was not disappointed. Spine rent asunder, pages falling out through excessive consultation, and a familiar but unplaceable tacky residue all over the dog-eared and faded cover, the image whereon showed a young gentleman in C.18th servant’s garb, surrounded by a good many permutations of Great British flora and fauna. The jacket copy alone promised ‘girls’: ‘attractive’, ‘interesting’, ‘expensive’, and ‘repeatedly used’. Not to mention ‘evidently enjoyed’!

And inside, oh my…! It was everything that I could possibly have hoped for. 239 pages of sizzling – not to mention educational – elaborations on the finest and most ancient of arts, up to and very much including the latest hand-held technologies, comprehensively accompanied with dozens of ‘specially drawn illustrations’ (even if, rather disconcertingly, it said ‘the artist has relied for reference on diagrams’).

As befits a manual of this nature, the introduction warns of ‘disappointment’ and ‘frustration’, and cautions against being ‘too ambitious,’ or ‘making excessive demands on skill or resources’. But it hopes ‘a girl who has been shown a given method may try [X, Y or Z] with a good chance of success’. ‘Freedom to experiment’ is key, and the ‘collective teaching experience’ highly rewarding in the case of ‘girls who work enthusiastically’. ‘After a demonstration lesson,’ the reader is all-but-promised, ‘girls go eagerly to the bookshelves…’ And not just the girls, I thought! I could feel myself moving rapidly along the predicted spectrum from ‘very slow’ to ‘very hot’.

Dom’s mum had used a pseudonym, I noticed. And tended to refer to ancillary lace-wear (e.g.), rather coquettishly, as ‘doyleys’. But who can blame her? North Derbyshire in the early Seventies wasn’t exactly a hotbed of open-minded cosmopolitanism. So in general the language tends towards the blunt and technical (the narrative not being of the utmost importance in these situations, if you catch my drift), but already one can detect the signs of a pervading Continental influence – ‘in the French style’, and so forth – counterbalancing the slightly staid, Victorian English fare.

It’s a classic tale of ‘fools’ and ‘tarts’, ‘Swedes’ and ‘beef’ – an oyster-laden romp of liaisons involving maitres d’hotel and maids of honour positively dripping with ‘almond essence’. There is, it is true, no clearly identifiable heroine; but I like the sound of an evening with Bain-Marie, and Chicken Maryland seems like she ought to be a game bird. The sub-plot of Rich Short-Crust (seeks Quiche Lorraine) reads like an outré outtake from the Pilgrim’s Progress. And the delectable Chelsea Buns ends up with a nasty case of rose hip (something to do, no doubt, with overuse of her Rabbit fricassée™). She’s partial to a bit of ‘cod Portugaise’, is our Chelsea. But frankly she’ll take anything, even, asked nicely, a ‘chocolate truffle’. We get more than a few glimpses of her friend Eve’s ‘pudding’.

The dramatis personae are not all from the top end of the social spectrum, mind you (‘We have often preferred margarine to butter’, remarks a Bertoluccian sub-protagonist, unblinkingly. It makes it ‘easier to cream’) and in the seamier passages there is much otherwise unremarkable dialogue concerning ‘raw weight’ and ‘average portions’. One of the minor characters contracts, at one point, a touch of ‘small mould’ on his ‘Welsh rarebit’. (SPOILER ALERT: they make you wear an arrowroot cup.)

That said, this particular reader can now consider himself enlightened as to the ‘savoury tricorne’, one (or more) ‘toad(s) in the hole’, the ‘tossing of salad’, and the timely application of a ‘Viennese finger’. ‘Macaroni a l’Americaine’ sounds a lot like something I might want to try, and ditto the enigmatic ‘Victoria sandwich’; but trust me, you don’t want to know about ‘cheese butterflies’. The ‘Russian pie’ sounds positively non-consensual.

All animal, vegetable and mineral life is here. No two pages pass without something being either on or off ‘the bone’, the pinching of fat, or the kneading of knobs of one kind or another, and altogether too much talk of liquids on the whole. Considerable space is given over to the forms and attendant etiquettes of ‘rough puff’. I am still not sure which is more difficult on the sensibilities, the stomach-turning passage about ‘removing the skins from nuts’ (‘the nuts are immersed in cold water, then brought to the boil…’) or the frankly harrowing ‘loosen each segment from its enclosing skin with a grapefruit knife’!! And I am pretty sure the ‘Yule log’ is illegal in most UN signatory countries.

You can have things ‘plain (rubbed in)’ or ‘rich (creamed)’, and with or without a succession of ‘melting moments’, ‘roly poly’ and ‘kebabs’, or any one of about 37 different types of ‘stuffing’. There’s even a section relating to the manufacturing, and use of, ‘stuffing balls’ – though I believe those are now called something slightly different.

‘Strain’, ‘taste’, ‘refresh’, the book exhorts us. ‘Decorate with half a glacé cherry!’ ‘Suggestions for piping’… ‘Making a cream horn’ (or was it vice versa?)… But never forgetting that this is, in the end, an instructional text – to wit, the mindful, prophylactic advice: ‘Pack your joint in a polythene bag, foil or moisture-proof paper[!?]’ Well, it is an old book, and perhaps back then times were, um, hard.

Discerning readers of a certain vintage and/or persuasion will by now have twigged that the magnum opus in question is, of course, a cookbook. Specifically, The Alfreton Cookery Book (M&B: London, Sydney, Toronto, 1972) by the maidenly threesome of Gillian Crompton, Mair Boothby and Jean Smith, with drawings by Eileen Posteen: a GCSE-level collection of recipes for the edification of 15-year-old Home Economics students. And while Mills & Boon do indeed produce many themed erotic sub-genres (Historical, Intrigue, Medical Romance and so on), cookery – alas – is not yet one of them.

But too late! Once you have set off down this single track (as any schoolboy, current or retired, could tell you), pretty much everything becomes ridiculous. The index alone becomes an absolute snort-fest (not a sex-move…), from ‘cream-cheese balls’ to ‘coating’ via ‘vegetables: general methods’. There is, disappointingly, not a single mention of ‘tongue’. But the ‘Manchester tart’ comes, as it were, right before the ‘Mandarin tartlets’. Or so I’ve been told.

To tease out just one (randomly-selected but) obvious euphemistic theme: ‘clear gel’, ‘savoury jelly’, ‘apricot glaze’, ‘economical batter’, ‘barley water’, ‘stuffing marrow’, ‘lattice jam’, ‘lemon curd’, ‘shellfish cocktail’, ‘egg wash’, ‘celery soup’, ‘scotch broth’, ‘almond paste’, ‘savoury milk’, ‘American frosting’, ‘yoghurt dressing’, ‘chuck casserole’, ‘white sauce’, ‘Dutch sauce’, ‘mock Hollandaise sauce’ (obviously, anything with the word ‘sauce’ in it), and – I absolutely promise you – ‘devilled butter’, and ‘confectioner’s custard’. It’s enough to make Fanny Hill blush.

Left unmolested, of course, a typical paragraph will more usually run: ‘All the recipes have been repeatedly tested, and the 25g basic unit is the same as that recommended by the Working Party of the UK Federation for Education in Home Economics. Oven temperatures have been left in degrees F, as we understand that cookers marked in degrees C will not be available for some considerable time yet. However a conversion table is provided.’

Still. A boy can dream.

ASH Smyth is a happily-married man. For now.

The Alfreton Cookery Book remains, tragically, out of print.

Readers interested in exploring the ‘Swedish tea ring’ are encouraged to write in for details. No perverts, please.

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