Action Cook Book, UK first edition, 1965
Action Cook Book - 1965
Eighty original recipes from the series Deighton produced for The Observer newspaper between 1962 and 1966 are reproduced in this, his most famous - and revolutionary - cookbook.
The strips cover a lot of English-sourced recipes that complement his later French recipe collection. Written in a simple step-by-step style, clearly aimed at an audience of men unskilled at knowing their way around the kitchen. Deighton demonstrates his knowledge as a gourmand; as well as being an accomplished chef, he grew up with a food background as his mother was a cook.
The design is clearly aimed to appeal to the sixties bachelor - the front cover features a pistol with a sprig of parsley in the barrel. It assumes little knowledge; it offers recipes but also gives advice (with illustrations) on such subjects as why a refrigerator is a good thing to have in a kitchen (really!) and how to get the most out of using a pressure cooking.
The quality of the advice is first class, and many of the recipes would not look out of place on the menu of a gourmet restaurant.
Why it's interesting
As well as being about great food, you can see Deighton’s skills as a draughtsman and designer displayed in the simple black and white stylised illustrations for each strip. In the staid world of sixties cookery writing, this unique approach was a revelation and made Deighton as famous for cooking as for his novels, in the sixties.
The recipes show a real level of sophistication and are testament to his status as a gourmand. Deighton leaves nothing uncovered; on the endpapers are traditional butcher's illustration showing the different cuts of meat possible from cows, calves, lamb and pork.
The Guardian's food writer recently voted Action Cookbook as one of the best cookbooks of the twentieth.
A recent Daily Telegraph interview noted: "Decades ahead of Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver, Deighton was an early example of what we might now call a gastrosexual, and his Len Deighton Action Cookbook...saved many a young man from starvation in the sixties".
'All meat contains moisture, and the retention of this moisture means the retention of flavour. When meat is heated it shrinks in bulk. This means that it can no longer hold the same moisture-content and the moisture escapes. The object of a cook must be to minimize this escape.
The simplest way of cooking meat is to put it in the oven, where radiant heat dries the moisture as it comes to the surface of the meat. Everyone appreciates and prefers the outside juice-encrusted slices. Similarly, grilling will bring moisture to the surface. Many cooks prefer to sprinkle the outside of meat with flour in order that these juices should dry rather than drip to the bottom of the pan.'
In the foreword to the 2009 edition of the book, Deighton describes it thus: "of all the books I have written none of them is dearer to me or more personal than this one." The many different recipes reflect Deighton's status as a traveller and researcher, always picking up new ideas wherever he goes: he learned to cook squid from a Portuguese fisherman; he watched a Viennese grandmother produce a cheesecake using a childhood recipe; while working as a waiter in Piccadilly, he learned to make strudel dough from a Hungarian chef.
A new selection of cook strips are to be run in The Observer food magazine each month in 2015. In this article by Robin Strummer from December 2014, Len Deighton recalls his background in food and explains the practical reasons why he started writing the cookstrips and the secret of their sustained popularity.