Robert B Parker’s Spenser private eye novels had some influence on my Cliff Hardy series. Parker was a whiz with the one-liner. ‘Work for you?’ Spenser said to an unappealing would-be client, ‘I’d rather spend the rest of my life at a Barry Manilow concert.’
Len Deighton’s early works were in part a model for my books about espionage agent Ray Crawley. Like Spenser, the unnamed hero of Deighton’s The Ipcress File (given the name Harry Palmer when played by Michael Caine in the film) was a gourmet cook.
I don’t know whether Parker was a cook but culinary details in many of his books suggest he may have been. Len Deighton certainly was and possibly still is. In 1965 he published the hugely successful Len Deighton’s Action Cookbook.
Cooking is one area where I could not follow these masters of their genres.
When I lived with my parents, my mother cooked. I believe I once or twice saw my father fry his morning bacon and eggs when my mother was unwell. Although my older sister and I stayed at home longer than I care to remember, it never occurred to anyone to teach or ask us to cook.
Similarly, when I married, my first wife cooked. This changed when the marriage broke up and cooking for myself became a necessity until the next woman came along. My speciality was curried sausages made with Clive of India curry powder and served with rice. No chutneys. No pappadums.
Jean, an excellent cook, cooked during our first 11 years together and later, when I was a part-time parent of three, I had to cope. I was capable of only the basic things – sausages or fish fingers with mashed potatoes and frozen peas, tuna with rice and tomato paste, sardines on toast.
When Jean and I got together again she cooked, but I continued making meals for the kids sometimes and gradually extended my range when Jean was in full-time employment. Extended, but not extensive, my cooking remains basic. I have five dishes: spaghetti bolognaise, lamb stew with rosemary, braised lamb shanks, shepherd’s pie and chilli con carne.
I usually cook for us once a week, very occasionally twice and it is a loop, as it were, of these meals. I have tried to branch out. I attempted stuffed cabbage leaves without great success. I was ambitious enough to try a golf partner’s recipe for ‘Lamb on a Spoon’. This involved putting a leg of lamb in a sea of salted red wine in a covered tray and leaving it in the oven on a very low heat for eight hours. The first time it worked well; two further attempts were failures – heat too high: dry meat; heat too low: raw meat.
It will be noted that the meals I can make all involve dealing with the ingredients as a whole. I am completely unable to time the simultaneous arrival at table of meat or fish and a variety of veg.
I can’t say that I enjoy cooking but, accompanied by music and a little wine as production proceeds, I don’t mind it. I clean up as I go because, whether I cook myself or am cooked for, that’s my job as Jean salvages my occasional failures, tweaks my meals that need something extra and serves. My maternal grandfather was a chef but the talent didn’t pass down; however he also liked Robbie Burns and I did pick that up from him.