Lately, I have been reading Jay Rayner‘s restaurant reviews in The Guardian.

He writes the way he speaks, which make them all the more enjoyable.

During lockdown in the first few months of 2021, he looked back at classic British cookbooks and chefs who changed the world of food in the UK during the 1980s and 1990s.

His last lockdown column on April 11, 2021 was about the family recipe collection, whether it be a box of clippings, a notebook or a scrapbook.

‘The old scrapbook recipe collections that tell the story of our lives’ brought back a lot of memories for his readers and for me.

Excerpts follow, emphases mine.

He opens with this:

The cookbooks I’ve written about over the past three months were not included randomly. They weren’t selected because they offered up 97 clever things to do with a courgette and a spiraliser, or for their novel ways with quinoa. They were chosen because they had a serious impact on how we cook and how we eat. They were big sellers. As a result, week by week, people have discovered that they had the volume I was eulogising on their shelves. Some readers have owned a few of them.

But as this is the last column in the series, it’s time to look at a collection of recipes almost everyone has. I certainly have one. Mine has the word “Challenge” embossed on the front. That’s not a description of how hard the recipes are. It’s the name of the venerable stationery company which manufactured the blue, hardcover A4 notebook within which those ideas for dinner are contained. It is our collection of recipes cut from magazines and newspapers, photocopied from a friend’s book or scribbled down by a relative. It is an unplanned collage of a good life, or a feverish attempt at one, measured out in ingredients, volumes and oven temperatures. It is the ballad of traybakes and crumbles, of new and sophisticated ways with pasta and swift things to do with chicken and a bunch of lemons.

Rayner’s wife Pat started the cookbook over 30 years ago:

It is aspiration expressed through the medium of scissors and Pritt Stick. Witness: cider-glazed chops or peppered ham and tomato risotto or lamb and apricot kebabs. Many dishes remained just an aspiration. Some were cooked once or twice. Then there’s the discoloured recipe for Italian Celebration Turkey, which I return to often, if only for the stuffing. It’s a glorious mess of unsweetened chestnut purée, Parma ham, marjoram, sausage meat and onions cooked down in sherry. I have no idea who wrote it.

Food historian Annie Gray says that these recipe collections are:

a “sublime and fascinating form of biography”, which go back as long “as people have been writing things down”.

I fully agree. No two recipe scrapbooks or ring binders will be the same. Mine is completely different to my late mother’s and grandmothers’. Unfortunately, those are lost forever. My mother threw hers out before I could inherit it. My paternal grandmother’s went to my aunt and disappeared when she died.

Fortunately, my maternal grandmother’s collection went to her eldest granddaughter who, in the 1970s, had the genius idea of compiling them and publishing them in book form for our whole family. Everyone has a copy. Even better, anyone of us who had a favourite recipe could contribute it to the book. As a result, the recipes range from the traditional late 19th-century European staples from our family to more recent recipes from the Middle East and Asia, popularised in the United States of the late 1960s. We have my grandparents’ tastes, our mothers’ favourites from the 1950s and world food from the grandchildren.

But I digress.

Returning to Rayner, he says that the food historian Annie Gray bought an old cookbook with further pleasant surprises in it:

A few years ago, she found a volume by the 19th-century cookbook writer Florence A George on a Cambridge market stall. The book was interesting enough. “But better than that, it was stuffed full of recipes cut from newspapers and magazines dating from 1907 to the 1950s, collected by a previous owner. That’s pretty much a woman’s whole life measured out in these dishes.”

A friend of Rayner’s paid her daughter to compile her recipes in a ring-bound album format:

A few years ago, a close friend, Sarah, paid her daughter to stick all of hers into a ring-bound album. She admits she cooks few of them, but they do still tell her story. “There’s a lemon drizzle cake in there that I did many times when the kids were small and it reminds me of their childhood,” she says. “And there’s a Yorkshire curd tart recipe from my late sister written in her own hand, and that’s very important.”

Tim Anderson, an American who won the UK MasterChef title a few years ago, also has an album of family recipes from his childhood in Wisconsin:

“The original volume of Anderson Family Recipes dates from 2003 when my brother and I were off at college,” he says. “It’s recipes from my mother and grandmothers, food we ate when we were kids, though they don’t actually originate from my family in any way.” All of them came from boxes of torn clippings. It is a sturdy snapshot of American midwestern cooking, often incorporating the unashamed introduction of one canned or jarred product to another. Hooray for Betty Crocker. “There’s something called chicken Costa Brava involving chicken breasts, a jar of shop-bought salsa, jars of olives and tinned pineapple,” Tim says. “I really liked that growing up.”

Yes! I remember lots of those recipes, particularly the ones using packets of powdered onion soup mix or Campbell’s cream soups for sauces. Happy days!

I make all my sauces from scratch. It’s something I truly enjoy doing, but fond memories linger from my mother’s ladling cream of mushroom soup onto a beef dish and putting in the oven. Beef parmesan was one of my childhood favourites. For anyone wondering, the parmesan was Kraft’s, already grated, in the round cardboard container. We couldn’t get the real thing back then.

Jay Rayner implores us to make our own cookbooks for posterity. I have a handwritten one of my own, which I put together several years ago. I also have ring binders full of other recipes, some tried and tested, others which I’ve not yet used.

Rayner says that organising our family recipe collections is important:

An internet search history will never be as romantic as a scrapbook. It’s time, I think, to put a sheet of A4 through the printer. Perhaps it’s time we all did. Because without these collections we’ll lose a significant slab of our shared cultural, and edible, history. Future historians will not be able to work out our life stories through the dinners we dreamed of making. That would be a crying shame.

I couldn’t agree more. Fortunately, my far better half and I also have my mother-in-law’s extensive cookbook collection, from a 1960s edition of Larousse Gastronomique to Robert Carrier to Delia Smith. It is a 20th century treasure trove to behold — and to use!