And What’s More, Baby, He Can Cook


There are many fine reasons to read SHOTS Magazine’s appreciation of Len Deighton on his 80th birthday, but the very fact that Charles Cumming wrote a long essay about the merits of the spymaster’s culinary arts as set forth in books like OU EST LE GARLIC? and LEN DEIGHTON’S ACTION COOKBOOK is nothing short of marvelous:

When it comes to cooking, he is a man of immense learning, but also one determined to take the mystery out of the process of turning raw ingredients into simple, delicious meals. Deighton was, for a time, The Observer’s cookery writer, the Nigel Slater of the Swinging Sixties, and every week would draw a simple cartoon strip to illustrate the stage-by-stage process of preparing a particular dish. These strips are reproduced in Ou Est Le Garlic? and the Action Cook Book. They show the amateur cook how to prepare everything from a simple chicken stock to Coquilles St Jacques, from a hollandaise sauce to Osso Buco. Legend has it that one of the strips is hanging in Michael Caine’s kitchen in the film of The Ipcress File.

There is no doubt that the books, which were published in the mid-1960s, were intended partly to cash in on the huge success of Deighton’s early novels….But these are serious cookbooks. I wouldn’t trade mine for any of the so-called modern classics by Gordon and Jamie and Nigella. Long before Heston Blumenthal came along with his egg and bacon ice cream and his canister of liquid nitrogen, the young Len Deighton was schooling himself in the science of French cuisine. There’s very little the author of Billion Dollar Brain doesn’t know about the boiling point of clarified butter or the impact of heat on a shin of veal. But he doesn’t make you feel bad for your culinary ignorance. Quite the opposite, in fact. The books are chatty and low key, with that lovely dry wit which characterises the novels.

  Which is why the Deighton revival is particularly important, because it also reveals the author's cultural relevance during a particular time and place that only happened once, but has resonance today. Sure, the cookbooks sound kind of kitschy at first, but the 1960s were a time when cookbooks as a genre were just taking off &#8211; and now, with the superstar chefs on the wane, maybe it's time to bring them back. I mean, I could see a cookbook called JACK REACHER EXPLAINS IT ALL, can't you?