REVIEW: Good Taste by Caroline Scott
You can tell a lot about a person from what they like to eat…
England in 1932 is in the grip of the Great Depression. Author of a much-loved but not very successful biography, Stella Douglas is a bit depressed herself. When she’s summoned to see her editor in London, she dreads being told her writing career is over before it’s even started.
But much to her surprise, she finds she is being commissioned to write a history of food in England and how the English like to eat. It’s to be quintessentially English and will remind English housewives of the old ways, and English men of the glory of their country. The publishers hope such a book will lift the spirits of the nation.
The only problem is—all English food is actually quite terrible (and anything good is from elsewhere).
So Stella sets about inviting recipes from all corners of England, in the hope of discovering a hidden culinary gem. But what she discovers is oatcakes and gravy and lots and lots of potatoes.
Longing for something more thrilling, she heads off to speak to the nation’s housewives. But when her car breaks down and the dashing and charismatic antiques dealer Freddie springs to her rescue, she is led in a very different direction…
Full of wit, life, and—against all odds—delicious food, Good Taste is a story of discovery and one woman’s desire to make her own way as a modern woman.
CW/TW – sexual harassment, attempted sexual assault
“When you begin to think about what Englishness means—and, by extension, English food—it all starts to become rather precarious and complicated, doesn’t it?”
Dear Ms. Scott,
I will admit that the reference to this being similar to “Dear Mrs. Bird,” got me to read the blurb which then got me to read the book. So I guess that worked. But I want to say that while this is a well written book about historical England and its traditions, it doesn’t have that “resolutely cheerful in the face of the hardships of war” tone. Readers looking for that will be disappointed. But what it does have is a woman doing some self discovery while trying to whip up a book about English cookery as the nation faces the Depression and slight breezes of what will become the winds of war. I also discovered a lot of heartfelt emotion, a wonderful father-daughter relationship, and two people who really needed Lucien to knock their heads together.
Stella Douglas is one of the new, post-war women who leave home for uni with plans for a dazzling future. But unlike many of her fellow students – who all seem to be doing marvelous things, as they make sure to tell everyone at the party while conversing with Stella’s chest instead of her face – she decided to take the guaranteed paycheck for her weekly contributions to a women’s magazine (where she’s lately been doing articles for the financially challenged kitchen) in addition to writing biographies about famous historical cooks. After its slow sales, she’s thrilled when her publisher offers her the chance to write a book about English food. Stella, who adores the French food that her bestie and his roommate prepare as chefs in top London restaurants, nevertheless grabs the opportunity.
Replies to her appeals for information about family recipes and traditions pour in but after being deluged with oatcake recipes and contradictory traditional traditions, —
If only there weren’t so many inconsistencies and contradictions in the responses she was receiving. As she’d reviewed the letters on currant cakes, she’d again felt like she was required to referee competing legends. There did seem to be rather a lot of that in English food.
— Stella finds herself going on the road to suss out the true history of Bath buns and eels. Along the way she meets a man who might take the place of her bestie who has become engaged to a toxic society Bright Young Thing (who seems to be like an early version of an influencer). Freddie does mansplain on about the proper way to prepare rabbits (WARNING for vegans and vegetarians in this chapter) and pheasants but he’s handsome, fun, sets a lovely table, and urges Stella to “spice up” her book in order to get it to sell.
But when her house of cards topples and Stella has to face all the issues in her life, what path will she take and with whom will she take it?
I am SO glad that I’ve been faithfully watching GBBO because I knew what Stella and others were referring to when they talked about genoise sponges, hot water crust pastry, raised pies, split buns, and various other things I’ve seen on the show. Now I want to try a parkin, an Eccles cake, and some of the Christmas and Yule cakes that are mentioned. I’ll skip the eels though.
Stella is determined that she’s going to write a book that will earn back the confidence of her publisher. But when faced with umpteen recipes for oatcakes (that some readers got overheated and tetchy about) she realizes that she has to find more – something sparkling, something to grab the reading public’s attention. That is where Freddie takes her hand and leads her down a dark path of “embellishing.” It’s not a lie, he says, it’s just a small fib to liven things up. As she and her father are still grieving her mother’s death and her bestie is now running with the BYTs, Stella doesn’t have her usual sounding boards and steps off the path of truth and references.
What is the book actually supposed to be though? Only English cookery or does she include all the foreign influences, immigrant food, and trader’s ingredients among other things which now permeate “English” food? Is there anything that is solely and completely down to English ingredients and cooking methods? Stella thinks, “At what point did a foreign flavor become native? We are a mongrel nation.” Plus during a dinner with Freddie’s public school chums and their wives, Stella is bombarded with political viewpoints coming out of Germany and Italy along with the (more than slightly) bombastic opinions these people have about the working man and British foreign policy.
“Dessert? How deliciously northern of you! I suppose you have dinner at midday too, don’t you? And tea at six o’clock?” He looked amused by this thought. “For pudding it’s treacle tart and custard. I do hope that’s complicated enough?”
It said something about the English class system, and the strength of regional identity, that they couldn’t even agree on the names of meals, didn’t it? Stella made a mental note that she must look into this further …
Yet as she travels across England, reads the letters being sent to her from all over, and delves into her mother’s journal Stella begins to get an image of what she’s aiming for and what isn’t “her.” She has to face up to what she’s (almost) done, decide how to move forward, and rethink the company she’s been keeping. Reading her mother’s words and recipes takes Stella back to her happy childhood as well as gives Stella a glimpse of why her mother pushed her to stand up for herself, to follow her dreams.
I enjoyed all of this as well as Stella’s “voice.” She’s an intelligent woman but still dealing with the attitudes of the day. She also felt twinges of her decisions “not being right” but with the family and personal issues she was facing, I could see how she lost her way. When the chips are down, Stella bucks up and realizes what she has to do and then does it. Where I wanted to shake her and someone else was because of her refusal to see a relationship that had always been right in front of her. That’s right, Stella, ignore the advice of two people you trust and keep sticking your head in the sand. This part gets resolved a little too easily but the end of the book is happy and hopeful and I enjoyed learning more about How the English Eat. B