When I was a child my parents had a copy of this book. It always fascinated me. The image on the cover was like no other cookbook. Why was there a gun on a nail with parsley coming out of the barrel? No other cookbook that my parents owned had such an image. Delia Smith with pudding basin haircut¹ and Laura Ashley dress looked very tame. Even the books published by the ‘Australian Women’s Weekly’, a publication celebrating it’s 50th anniversary in 1983 by attempting to break into the UK market by selling books through M&S, were tame. Just pictures of food.
I asked my father why there was a gun on a cookbook. He explained that Len Deighton also wrote books about spys. This only served to make the book more exciting and alluring. This was then the cookbook that James Bond would have.
The other thing that made the book more interesting was that Deighton had trained as a graphic artist, so the book is littered with small comic strips of how to do certain things. One of these in the section on dinner parties seems to show an exploding dessert.
I assumed that this was guide for the budding spy to learn how to assassinate an adversary at the dinner table. I did not realize that in the 1970s flaming alcohol laced deserts were ‘the’ thing to have. In fact your guests would look poorly on you if there were no flames with the pudding. But to me this added to the mystery.
There is also a section on making cocktails. Most of them containing drinks which at that age I had never heard off. I assumed that they were poisons and this was a guide for the wannabe spy to learn how to poison a foe while at the same time mixing themselves a nice G&T.
Looking at the book now, it isn’t the poison in the cocktails that seems to be the danger. Rather it is the quantities of alcohol that Deighton suggests. I would not be surprised if a newly published version of the book were to carry a warning about cirrhosis of the liver. At one point Deighton suggests that for a dinner party of twelve people 36 bottles of wine will be required, and that isn’t counting the pre dinner cocktails and post dinner brandies.
While it is never a good idea to judge a book by it’s cover, this book always stays in my mind because of the cover. Deighton has of course written other cookbooks as well as many novels and history books. His breakthrough novel ‘The IPCRESS File’ was made into a film starring Michael Caine, indeed the cover image of the book that so fascinated me is a play on the poster for this film.
As in the novel of the same name Deighton’s hero Harry Palmer is a keen cook. In the film all of the close ups of Palmer’s hands preparing food are actually Deighton himself. So insistent was he that the food preparation be depicted accurately.
‘Len Deighton’s Action Cookbook’ is far from being the only cookbook by an author, but it is a unique slice of a now vanished world. A world of dinner parties that did their bit to deplete the EEC Wine Lake and always finished with a flaming desert. A world where a gun could be used on the cover of a cookbook. In these days when you cannot enter a bookshop without a gallery of celebrity chef’s gurning out at you it would be nice to see some variety.
¹before becoming a cook Smith had been a hairdresser.