November 1, 2013 6:39 pm

The history cook: The Joy of Slimming

While very 1970s, this owes more to a Victorian ‘Letter on Corpulence’ than a rather famous sex manual
Image of book Joy of Slimming from British Library Collection©Nina Mangalanayagam/FT

Allan’s book helped readers lose weight – 'but also the will to live'

The Joy of Slimming, by Margaret Allan, 1974 (second edition)

Dieting can be fun – at least that’s the impression conveyed by the cover of Margaret Allan’s The Joy of Slimming. There’s a cartoon of a seaside-postcard fat couple (presumably there as a humorous warning), photographs of appetising-looking food, line drawings of ladies pole-vaulting topless and leapfrogging in their underwear, and promises of “tasty recipes”, exercises and food plans inside. “By showing what you may eat instead of what you must avoid,” explains the introductory blurb, “this handsome book does indeed bring joy and excitement into slimming.” If only.

According to The Joy of Slimming Margaret Allan is the pseudonym of a 27-year-old weight scientist and member of the Clinical Research Centre of the Medical Research Council. Allan “experienced fatness in her teens – and she has successfully stayed slim ever since”. Her writing contains the distinct whiff of the formerly large person’s disdain for the fat. Remarking on different cultural body ideals, she describes the 19th-century discovery of an African tribe where the women were “so fat they had to grovel around like seals on the floors of the huts”, while elsewhere she warns that babies should be “firm, pink and active” not “gurgling passively like an overgrown marrow in a pram”.

The Joy of Slimming was first published in 1972 and advocates calorie reduction and carbohydrate (CH) avoidance. Calorie counting was first propagated by Lulu Hunt Peters in her 1918 book Diet and Health, the low-carb approach by William Banting’s 1863 booklet Letter on Corpulence: both have remained in vogue. The early 2000s saw a craze for the carb-free Atkins diet, while the slimming sensation of the moment, the 5:2 diet, relies on calorie reduction two days a week.

Like all successful dieters, Allan understands that slimming requires resolve: convincing yourself of “the advantages of being slim and disadvantages of being fat” is “vital”. Women, she notes, want to stay slim to be attractive, while men are motivated by health and self-improvement. Moreover, “fat people move around more slowly than slim people and so are more likely to have accidents at home or work.” If this doesn’t convince, then rely on friends: “Some will whisper in a friendly fashion that you should lose some weight; some less kindly.”

Despite Allan’s early promise of a fun-filled ride, it’s hard to imagine anyone getting excited by The Joy of Slimming regime. Embarking on this diet involves wading through pages of nutritional advice, weight graphs, calorie and carbohydrate tables and meal planners. Worst of all, the book’s recipes make the heart sink. A Basic Meat Casserole made from beef, onions, a stock cube, water and carrots, for example, is used as the basis for a series of other dishes. For Curried Beef, add a spoonful of curry powder; for Sweet and Sour Pork replace beef with pork fillet and the carrots with pineapple in syrup. Eggs on a Bed of Spinach are just that – two eggs sitting in a pile of cooked frozen spinach. This regime would certainly help you to lose weight, but also the will to live.

Allan’s title explicitly alludes to Alex Comfort’s 1972 bestseller The Joy of Sex. Perhaps Allan and her editors hoped people would intuit a subconscious connection between sex and dieting – arguably both entail a certain degree of abstinence and exercise in both is encouraged. But that’s where the comparisons end. Anyone who has ever dieted knows that the words “slimming” and “joy” are oxymoronic. Dieting is mean, boring and repetitive, however it’s marketed.

Towards the end of the book Allan offers a “final word of warning for mothers”: never be tempted to eat family leftovers. “The food may be delicious and it may have taken a long time to prepare but it is still better to throw it away or give it to the cat.” Talk about depressing. Allan’s book is not malign – it’s the work of a knowledgeable weight scientist and is sensible, practical and detailed. But the best diets are written not by people who understand the science of food but by people who understand the joyful pleasure of eating – like sex.

. . .

Basic Chicken Casserole (for two)

Calories, CH Units

1oz butter: 225, 0

2 chicken pieces about 6oz each: 420, 0

1 onion, sliced: 15, ¾

1 clove garlic, crushed: 2, 0

1 chicken stock cube: 15, ½

¾ pint water: 0, 0

4oz mushrooms, sliced: 8, 0

Seasoning

Total: 685, 1¼

● Melt butter in frying pan and brown chicken pieces evenly

● Transfer chicken to ovenproof dish

● Fry onion and garlic in remaining fat

● Add onion, garlic and herbs to chicken

● Make up the chicken stock using cube and water. Pour over rest of ingredients. Season to taste

● Cover dish and cook in a moderate oven (177C) for 1 ¼ hours. Add mushrooms and continue cooking for another ¼ hour

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Polly Russell is a curator at the British Library; ‘The Joy of Slimming’ by kind permission from the British Library collection. To comment, please email magazineletters@ft.com

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