Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Len Deighton: The Spy Who Came In From the Kitchen

Those familiar with the writer Len Deighton most likely know him as a spy novelist. His debut in 1962, The IPCRESS File, was a big hit and many other spy works followed as evidenced by his lengthy bibliography: Spy Story (1975), Yesterday's Spy (1976), Twinkle, Twinkle Little Spy (1977), Spy Hook (1988), Spy Line (1989), Spy Sinker (1990) and more.

But while a large part of Len Deighton's success came from his novels, he was also a highly regarded food writer with a column in the London Observer and two cookbooks under his belt: The Action Cookbook and  est le garlic, both published in 1965 between the releases of Funeral in Berlin (1964) and Billion-Dollar Brain (1966).

Deighton was by no means a dabbler when it came to cooking. While studying commercial art at the Royal College of Art, he worked as a kitchen porter to make money. Deighton learned from chefs and spent time honing his culinary craft. In later interviews, Deighton said he bought cookbooks for his apartment but instead of taking the books into the kitchen with him, he drew comic strips of the recipes and posted them to his kitchen wall.* Clive Irving, an editor of the Daily Express, saw the strips and suggested featuring them in that paper, but they didn't take off. When Irving moved to the London Observer, he brought Deighton's strips with him to much success. 

 Profiteroles from The Cook Strip Cookbook -- click to enlarge

The first cook strip appeared in the Observer on March 18, 1962 with the headline "Cook-strip Starts with the Rudiments" and was "devised to show, in the simplest way, the basic rules of cooking." Deighton, as creator, was described as "one of the foremost young British illustrators and a cook of catholic experience." Those strips continued to run in the Observer and formed the basis for the Action Cookbook, which was republished in 1966 as the Cook Strip Cookbook, and which was re-released last year in honor of Deighton's 80th birthday.

Deighton's work in both the Cook Strip Cookbook and  est le garlic is unique, not only for the clear passion for food and technique displayed in Deighton's writing, but also in the graphically arresting typefaces and illustrations he drew for each recipe. The panels are beautifully done and provide a bit of levity to the serious art of gastronomy.

Borscht from the Cook Strip Cookbook -- click to enlarge

In addition to the recipes in the Cook Strip Cookbook, Deighton also dishes out helpful information to the potential newbie (read: bachelor) in the kitchen, such as the proper food combinations for a successful sandwich, which food items to buy on a weekly basis, and why the blender is a cook's secret weapon ("a whirling set of knives in a heat-proof glass goblet").

A sandwich chart from Cook Strip Cookbook -- click to enlarge

est le garlic, on the other hand, contains traditional French recipes and a comprehensive glossary of French cooking terms for new and eager cooks. Later, in 1989 and in 1990, Deighton wrote two more French cookbooks, including a more traditional text called The ABC of French Food, which provides, as Deighton calls it, "an edited version of my loose-leaf notebook" including notes from the "brains of professionals: chefs, waiters and restaurateurs, greengrocers, gardeners...."

 A fish sauce chart from est le garlic  -- click to enlarge

So while Anthony Bourdain might have his food-themed Get Jiro! coming out in a few years by DC Comics, and others may delve into cookbook cook strips (the linear storytelling format does lend itself very well to step-by-step cooking), there are few that do it better then Len Deighton, as he was able to infuse both a love for the art of illustration and a deep-rooted passion for food in every line he drew.

Chicken Paprika from Cook Strip Cookbook -- click to enlarge

Quenelles from est le garlic -- click to enlarge

* In the film adaptation of the IPCRESS File, Harry Palmer, played by Michael Caine, has one of Deighton's Observer strips pasted to his kitchen wall. You can briefly see it here at about the 1:40 mark.


The Rowdy Chowgirl said...

Fascinating! I'm going to have to look around for one of Deighton's books!

Grade "A" Karen said...

C'est bon! We were lucky to score the books at a stall in front of a vintage shop in Glasgow a few years back. Have you tried any of the recipes? I'm sorry to say I have not.

Beth said...

I'm a huge fan of Len Deighton's, especially his cookstrips and other gastronomically oriented works. Well, really, all of his works, whether they're explicit about it or not, are gastronomically oriented. Harry Palmer made a mean omelet.

Jon said...

Two great books from one of my all time favorite authors! One thing I love is his nothing-fancy, just-the-facts prose. Unusual for a cookbook, a kind of hyper-male attitude designed to appeal to his male audience. He worked for Playboy a lot before the novels took off, and it shows.