Cooking a PhD, 1997 style

I’ve just discovered in an old file a jeu d’esprit I wrote for the British Council Family’s Association (BCFA) Magazine in 1997 while I was a PhD student studying in London and living in Warsaw. While it reads as quaintly old-fashioned now – the universe was very different 20 years ago – I know some colleagues will appreciate its mix of cooking and academic research. It even has a few footnotes. So…

mrs beeton dessertsPART-TIME PuDding; or, advice from the kitschen

a confection written over the Christmas festivities,

 over-indulgence in which may go some way to explaining it

To follow up the controversial article that appeared some months ago on representational cooking, the following may be of interest to readers of the BCFA Magazine.

Life is often difficult for a BC spouse who has had to give up career, family, friends and the local Sainsbury’s for the greater benefit of the Beloved Company, or even for the company of the beloved. One of the many ways this deprivation has been made bearable for me has been retraining in the rather drastic form of a PhD – pronounced “PuD” by some of those who know my culinary pretensions.

Since 1994 I’ve been collecting ingredients and stirring them all up in the hope that a further degree will emerge towards the end of 1997. In other words I’ve been PuDding. I’ve had to do this part-time and by distance, living in Warsaw and studying in Birkbeck College, London. I can’t say my PuD has been an easy dish to cook so far, even with BC financial help with the fees. It’s not a Delia cooking-by-numbers, more a Jane Grigson where the quantities and ingredients have been blanked out, but the arcane references left in. Goodness knows the pleasures I have already savoured though – profoundly intellectual of course you understand.

My research concerns popular Victorian culture. I’ve been reading best-sellers from the 1840s to 1880s, pouring over fashion illustrations from the 1860s, licking my lips at accounts of the Great Exhibition and Crimean War, and suddenly, after long, fruitless, and always cakeless, searching in libraries that smell like old dry toast, serendipitously lighting on the element that binds the sauce and gives unity to the dish…

Mrs Beeton cold entrees
Mrs Beeton cold entrees

Mrs Beeton’s menus and my material may occasionally be on the heavy side but each has its own particular delights. Believe me. I’ve tried both. Sometimes simultaneously. But my research is actually more typical of post-modern present-day “New British” cooking than Mrs B’s huge repasts based mainly on local food-stuffs. Today we want freshly imported lemon-grass and star-fruit, not half a pig from the friendly farmer down the hill and a churn of cream from the dairy maid. Just as in Warsaw it’s impossible to get fresh lemon grass when most you need it [1], so it is impossible to get the materials for my research. My supervisor at Birkbeck seemed to realise this only too well at our first interview. In order to prove my commitment she demanded I return to London every 3 weeks to see her and collect fresh ingredients (or was it materials?). It took some persuading to cut this down to three times a year and the promise of written work twice as often. To effect this I went to the registrar and explained my situation. It was only by his being – shall we say – “sympathetic” that I was enabled to begin at all. Let this be a lesson to us. Go through admin. if you have problems enrolling in a course. These days university administrators want your money. Use their greed for your own reasons, just we cooks play on the greed of our guests for representational purposes!

The London Journal Christmas issue 1858 - lots to eat and drink here
The London Journal Christmas issue 1858 – lots to eat and drink here

As for my materials, well, just as you can take dried lemon grass (a pallid simulacrum of the real thing) from Chiswick Sainsbury’s to Warsaw, so you can spend a fortune on blotchy photocopies (of non-copyright works) and on books. If you find that you need cardamom and not lemon-grass after all, you’ve got problems until you come to the UK next time. Of course, you can order that special ingredient from specialist firms[2], but it will almost certainly arrive after that particular dinner for the vice-rector. It’s not the predictable that catches you out but the inspired pinch of spice for that extraordinarily rich footnote you just know will make all the difference to the course (I seem to be getting a little mixed up between cooking and research here…).

Several options face you when the empty space on the shelf catches in your throat. Firstly, suicide, like Vatel when the fish didn’t arrive. When you have been weaned off that by the thought of the smiling eyes and delicious lips of your beloved, as ready to consume your blanquette as comment on your latest chapter, you are left with less operatic possibilities: 2) make an entirely different dish/ chapter; 3) experiment with what you do have and hope you cook up something that will pass mustard; 4) substitute caraway for cardamom, George Eliot for George Lewes, and pray that everyone will have a cold and be unable to notice anything anyway.

Option 4) is not advised. You may be able to count on the cold in Poland and the UK this winter, but not on colds. After all, guests / supervisors may have been in training before and for your offering, intent on bringing to your creation their critical faculties at the acutest pitch. Whether they have done this to catch you out, thinking you a rookie cookie, or because your reputation as a culinary Vivienne Westwood precedes you, is quite irrelevant. Option 4) remains a high-risk strategy. It is only advised when the subtly altered confection has been approved in advance by your most critical tester/taster, who should ideally be your beloved. S/he will no doubt recommend additions and subtractions, as is the duty of beloveds. In which case you will be following Option 3) anyway, not Option 4), and you should copyright your invention before someone else does. Remember the golden rule of culinary and academic hygiene: throw out what you are unsure of then copyright the rest!

Probably the most effective cause of indigestion I have found though is not scarcity of ingredients, but the difference in tastes each culture has. Thai influence may have been a sign of a Refined Tongue amongst the London chattering classes two years ago, but it may still be a wally taste in Walbzych. What if everyone who comes to dinner from Krakow hates coconut milk – but you know you’re only practising on them for a slightly out-of-date supervisor who lives in Camden Square?

There is only one answer. Bilocationism. You have to do what medieval saints found easy. You have to be in two places at once, the place of your research and the place where you live. You daren’t go positively Polish as the Taster/Tester who controls your life in London won’t like it; you can’t cut yourself off from your local culture and refuse to deride Derrida, as you risk isolation and alienation. You have to do the impossible: you have to become something of a cow, with two stomachs. But since you have to be a saint too, so you become a Holy Cow.mrs beeton cuts of beef

This is the only way of dealing with the indigestion caused by PuDding.

Not everyone finds sacred cowishness entirely to their liking. My beloved endures my beastly metamorphoses by perpetually looking forward to the new frock she will buy to wear at the presentation of my PuD to the world. And then dinner at the River Cafe in Hammersmith[3]. Poor dear! She deserves them after years of being force-fed Victorian best-sellers and spinach timbales. But will she still fit into a size 8?

We mustn’t think of things like that or allow such thoughts to occur to our beloveds. Instead we must keep dangling the carrot (or preferably tarte tatin aux poires or papaya and vanilla bavarois rubané) in front of those sensory organs we ourselves have delicately attuned, whenever they demand the real PuDding before it’s done.

After all, as I tell her, who cares about triple-decker doctorates at a time when edible chocolate body-paint has been the best-selling product on the British Christmas market? The proof of the PuDding must lie in the eating.

Bon appetit for 1997!

[1] Doesn’t Delia drive you nuts with her assumption that a super-Sainsbury’s is just down the road? For that reason the post-war books by Elizabeth David are more useful, as they give you alternatives if basil isn’t in the market when it’s colder there than in your freezer.

[2] Dillon’s, Blackwell’s, or if you need out-of-print arts material, the London Library.

[3] Recently voted the best Italian restaurant in the world.

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Andrew King

Andrew King is Professor of English Literature and Literary Studies at the University of Greenwich. He has always been interested in how and why certain texts are kept for posterity and others disappear. His first degree was in classical and medieval Latin, and he has MAs in Medieval Studies and English. He completed his PhD in English at Birkbeck, supervised by Laurel Brake. He taught for many years at Universities overseas, though immediately before he came to Greenwich in May 2012, taught at Canterbury Christ Church University. His official profile can be found at

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