Written by Sarah Ledger


Rated or Dated: Cooking in a Bedsitter

Standard Issue writers are revisiting a film/book/TV series to see if it’s stood the test of time. This week, Sarah Ledger finds herself draining her spuds in the communal bathroom.

Cover of a recent edition of Cooking in a BedsitterWhat and why: In 1961, sandwiched between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles’ first LP, Katharine Whitehorn published Cooking in a Bedsitter. Rationing was over and the sexual revolution was just beginning. Back then, thousands of twentysomethings – including my mum and dad – filled the gap between education and respectable married life living, sleeping, washing, cooking and eating in a single room in someone else’s house. Fridges were for the rich, supermarkets had yet to catch on and rules about naked flames, asbestos and sanitation were unwritten.

Cooking in a Bedsitter is Whitehorn’s cheerful guide to the pitfalls of living in impractical surroundings for those without the slightest knowledge of food or ingredients.

Rated or Dated: The book opens with a glossary – starting with Apples. It provides basic instructions for making tea and toast and boasts recipes like Corned Beef Slaw, half a tin of corned beef mixed with shredded cabbage and grated carrot.

There’s plenty of practical advice, recommending newspaper as “your work surface, your floor covering, your splash mat…” and suggesting that the best place to keep food cool is under the bed, although she warns, “you had better find a way of reminding yourself of its presence before it does.”

These days, preparing and cooking food is remarkably simple. Even the most rudimentary student accommodation is handsomely equipped with wipe-down surfaces and running water. The thought of frying herring in the bedroom or charging down the corridor to drain the potatoes in the bathroom sink is almost beyond imagination.

Older edition of Cooking in a BedsitterAnd it’s not just attitudes to food and sanitation; the sexual politics are primitive. In the section entitled The Third Paw (a dog has a thought for every paw: “food, food, sex and food”), Whitehorn addresses men and women separately on the issue of asking him – or her – up. It’s clear the expectation for men is that making dinner is part of the process of seduction and equally clear that the girl – while fending him off – may use her culinary skills to establish herself as a potential wife.

But Whitehorn’s breezy charm shines through and even though we now have microwaves and a Just Eat app in case of emergencies, Cooking in a Bedsitter is a peep into a unique slice of history. A time when landladies ruled with a rod of iron, a visit from parents “or your parents’ spies” required a borrowed tablecloth and Tripe Catalan – boiled tripe fried in onions and tomatoes – is considered an acceptable alternative to beans on toast. Verdict: Dated – but worth a read.

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Written by Sarah Ledger

Champion soup maker; of a surprisingly nervous disposition. @sezl & sezl.wordpress.com