I am going to cook you the best meal you’ve ever eaten: Why the CookWithNoName?

If you’re wondering about the name of this blog…

It’s an allusion to one of the great inspirations for Englishmen to cook – Len Deighton. He is most famous as a thriller writer and, in particular, for the 1960s spy stories he wrote that were turned into films with Michael Caine as the central character, Harry Palmer. But in the books the character was never named; hence they’re often referred to as the “Spy with No Name” series.

Beyond his literary abilities, Deighton was, unusually for his time and background, an accomplished cook. He had had a rather more varied early life than the typical British man in his twenties or thirties post-war: he had worked in professional kitchens in Paris and London to earn money whilst an art student and he had travelled around the world as a steward on BOAC (the forerunner of British Airways). Combined with his passion for self-education, that made him a very serious cook who was at the centre of the slowly-emerging British food scene in the late 1950s and 1960s.

He trained early on as an illustrator and, while working as a book designer by day, turned his drafting skills to making sketched notes on his cooking hobby. When his friend, Raymond Hawkey saw them on Deighton’s kitchen wall the potential for publishing them as “cook-strips” in the Observer newspaper of which he was design director was clear. Those cook-strips established Deighton as a key figure in British food-writing.

You’re quite the gourmet aren’t you Palmer?
Deighton’s books and the film adaptations took off in the early 1960s with his nameless spy figure as portrayed by Caine seen as a working class hero and as a kind of anti-Bond. Compared to James Bond, the Harry Palmer films were much less glamorous, emphasisng the quasi-bureaucratic nature of the espionage word but they retained a cool and entertaining tone with Caine as an attractively chippy hero railing against his Establishment bosses in a way that sat very well in the UK with the spirit of the increasingly meritocratic 1960s.

Both Bond and Palmer are food-lovers but Bond’s tastes, although often expensive, are much less refined. He has his scrambled eggs cooked by his Scottish housekeeper (in the books at least – I’m not sure we ever see any home cooking in the Bond films). Palmer on the other hand is seen not only cooking but shopping in supermarkets- admittedly the one-off supermarkets in London’s Soho which sold more exotic ingredients than my local Tesco did in the 1960s.

And, if I can use the language of the time, Palmer deploys his culinary skills to pull birds. “I am going to cook you the best meal you have ever eaten” he says to the lovely Sue Lloyd in the film of The Ipcress File (see the YouTube clip above) – at last a role model for blokes who liked cooking. You could be a cool, tough spy and get birds with your skills in the kitchen!

I’ll write more another time about the books that were produced from Deighton’s cook-strips and the style of cooking they embodied.

In the meantime, if you want to know more about Deighton, the best starting point is the wonderful website, the Deighton Dossier which is a repository of all kinds of material.

If you want to read the books, then Amazon has pretty much all of them including Kindle editions of most of the spy novels and some of the cooking titles. But be warned, the spy novels are notoriously hard to follow – read them for the style and the atmosphere rather than to comprehend the plot.