“People were very strange about men cooking at this time,” explained Deighton in a Radio 4 interview for the Food Programme recently. He decided that he wanted to challenge the idea that men were always content to let women do the cooking at home and in Harry, Deighton created a man who not only enjoys cooking, but whose sex appeal is emphasised because of his prowess in the kitchen.
While the character of Harry Palmer was still germinating in his mind, Deighton, an illustrator and chef as well as a novelist, created the ‘cookstrips’ for The Observer. The cookstrips presented recipes from stock to osso buco in a diagrammatic form, rather like a short comic strip.
The strips were later collated in The Action Cookbook, a cooking manual aimed at the bachelor. By today’s standards the cover (which features a rather smarmy looking gent being pawed by a woman clad in a nighty) would be described at best as cheesy and at worst as downright sexist. But the strips themselves are surprisingly informative given their brevity, and they manage to present cooking as something both straightforward and quite masculine.
What is particularly striking about The Action Cookbook is its relevance to present day society. In an era where celebrity chefs like to bang on about the loss of our ability to cook from scratch, it seems to me that this book presents a potential solution. It covers all the basics from nutrition to cooking terms, before launching into the recipes. Admittedly some of these (like Lobster Newburg) are a little outlandish for everyday cooking, but it could provide an indispensable kitchen guide for male – and female – bachelors alike.
As Deighton explains in the book’s introduction, he has purposely “cut out the smoke-screen of mystique and witch-doctory” of cookery and made it accessible to people of all abilities. Perhaps he should consider teaming up with Jamie and Gordon for their next books.