For Christmas one of the (many) books I received was Jans Ondaatje Rolls’ The Bloomsbury Cookbook: Recipes for Life, Love and Art. I have to admit that I’m not a particularly keen cook, but this is much more than a recipe book and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The rationale behind the book is that the Bloomsbury group, with their friendships and enthusiasm for communal living and intense talk, often did so over food. Virginia Woolf wrote in ‘A Room of One’s Own’ that ‘A good dinner is of great importance to good talk. One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.’ If their food was inspirational to their conversation, their work and their lives, this is the book to demonstrate that. From tea and biscuits to game, there is a Bloomsbury recipe for every occasion you might imagine, and some you couldn’t.
I’d never really noticed before how much talk of food there is in the novels of Woolf and E. M. Forster, among others, though I had noticed Vanessa Bell’s proclivity for painting still life fruit, eggs etc. Forster commented on the food which appears in Woolf’s novels, pointing out her sensuous awareness of taste, creating a kind of epicurean realism for literary ends; given Woolf’s concern with women’s lives (and after all, food preparation was primarily the concern of women), this sets aspects of her novels in a slightly different light. Most of the figures who appear in the cookbook had domestic staff, of course, so if they cooked themselves it was for pleasure, perhaps even an affectation, but Woolf’s enthusiasm for baking bread and Bell’s desire to feed and care for her family, Carrington’s nourishing of Lytton Strachey, demonstrate aspects of their lives which are perhaps less radical than they might have wished.
This is quite an odd book: not academic, not really biographical, it is more of an assortment – like an old recipe book, perhaps, full of titbits, of gossip, anecdotes and suggestions as well as recipes. A consistent narrative of the lives of the Bloomsberries is constructed through the chronological development of the book, divided into chapters based on time periods, and as such it is remarkably wide-ranging. There is plenty here which doesn’t relate at all to cookery, and some of the links are rather tenuous, but it is written with such joy in food and conversation, and such good humour (there are some very funny anecdotes I hadn’t come across before) that it is a great read. One of the greatest pleasures of this book is the illustrations: it is lavishly full of full-page colour reproductions of paintings, especially by Bell and Duncan Grant, as well as photographs, book covers, pages of recipe books etc.
The recipes come from various sources, as Rolls points out in her introduction; some from original cookery books belonging to relevant figures, others from contemporary recipes, while a few are of her own devising. I might even try a few, especially the cakes. Rolls points out the appeal of recreating these recipes:
The intimacy of handling the same ingredients, sharing the same smells, textures and tastes as they did, is the closest one can come to dinner tete-a-tete with Bloomsbury.
Using food and cookery as a central domestic theme provides a new way of looking at these well-researched figures, then. The recent ‘Life in Squares’ indicates that there is still a great deal of interest in the personal lives of the Bloomsbury group, and what is more personal than cooking, eating and sharing food? It might make them seem more ordinary, growing vegetables, preparing them, cooking, eating; but it was all done with such panache and relish, according to Rolls, that it only continues the appeal of the group.