Barbara Cartland's recipe book: ‘A masterpiece of culinary kitsch’
Barbara Cartland's recipe book: ‘A masterpiece of culinary kitsch’ © Benjamin Swanson

“How many men have been beguiled and captivated by a soft voice offering them a meringue?” asks Barbara Cartland in her 1984 cookery book The Romance of Food. With recipes such as The Duc’s Fantasy, Gypsy Magic and Hero’s Reward, and dishes photographed with Cartland’s extensive collection of neoclassical knick-knacks, The Romance of Food is a masterpiece of culinary kitsch.

Though it is arguably the most outlandish, The Romance of Food is just one book in a crowded field of amorous cookery. Others include Food as Foreplay (1996), Romancing the Stove (2012), The Playboy Gourmet (1961), To Love and Nourish (1971), Fork Me, Spoon Me (2010), 50 Ways to Feed Your Lover (1999) and The New InterCourses (2007).

Capitalising on the connection between dining and desire has been a publishing strategy since the 1960s. With Valentine’s Day approaching, what better time to pay homage to Cartland’s lurid sensibility and reflect on the sometimes toe-curling history of recipes and romance?

Ever since recipes were first written down — and no doubt long before — food, love and sex have been constant but often uncomfortable bedfellows. Broadly speaking, romance and recipes get tangled up in two ways.

First are the concoctions that promise to increase libido, incite passion and ensure love. Hippocrates and Aristotle advocated lentils for virility, while Plutarch set store by bean soup and artichokes. In his Generall Historie of Plantes (1597), John Gerard claimed that the nettle “stirreth up lust”, while Felix Platter, a Swiss physician writing in 1664, believed oysters would cure a “Defect of Want of Copulation” when “there is none or small pleasure in the act”.

Recipes include ‘Spanish Rhapsody’, ‘Hero's Reward’ and ‘The Duc's Fantasy’
Recipes include ‘Spanish Rhapsody’, ‘Hero's Reward’ and ‘The Duc's Fantasy’ © Benjamin Swanson

Then there is writing where sexual, emotional and physical appetites are entwined. At the top of this pile is the American food writer MFK Fisher (1908-1992). For Fisher, food is always about desire and hunger. “Our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others,” she wrote in 1943 in the forward to The Gastronomical Me.

Fisher’s description of the first time she ate an oyster — “Olmsted put her thin hand on my shoulder blades, I swallowed once, and felt light and attractive and daring, to know what I had done” — sets the benchmark for writing about food sensuality.

In the wrong hands, however, food, sex and romance can be nausea-inducing — which brings us back to Cartland. With a sharp tongue, strong views and a wardrobe that would make a drag queen weep, she was one of Britain’s best-known personalities until her death in 2000.

Born in Edgbaston near Birmingham in 1901, Dame Mary Barbara Hamilton Cartland was the only daughter and eldest child of Major James Bertram Falkner Cartland and Mary Hamilton Scobell. When Cartland’s father was killed in the first world war, her enterprising mother opened a dress shop to keep the family afloat. Cartland attended private girls’ schools and her first job was as a gossip columnist for the Daily Express.

Food is extravagantly carved, frilled or piped with lurid icing
Food is extravagantly carved, frilled or piped with lurid icing © Benjamin Swanson

Allegedly proposed to six times, she finally married Alexander “Sachie” McCorquodale, son of the chairman of the largest printing company in Britain, in 1927. The marriage lasted only five years but produced a daughter, Raine — who would go on to be Princess Diana’s stepmother — and secured Cartland a house in Mayfair with staff.

Glorious and grotesque in equal measure, she favoured ostrich feathers, pink ball gowns, sparkling jewels and pancake make-up. In a 1991 interview for the radio programme In the Psychiatrist’s Chair with Dr Anthony Clare, she made clear her hostility to feminism: “Women’s lib has messed things up . . . it’s the women who are behaving badly, not the men.”

Aligning herself with old-fashioned notions of romance and chivalry, Cartland was nevertheless a divorcee and working mother. Although her background was stolidly middle-class, she affiliated herself with the aristocracy and was a tremendous snob. Asked by an interviewer if she felt class barriers had disappeared, she retorted that they obviously had or she would not be conversing with a person like him.

An avid self-publicist, Cartland tells readers that she is a lecturer, political speaker, television personality and historian. By the time The Romance of Food was published, Cartland was established as the 20th century’s most prolific author of romantic fiction, with an estimated 725 titles to her name. As an authority on ardour, Cartland assures the reader “how seductive a gorgeous dish can be” and laments that “fast food, TV dinners and takeaways of every description have stolen the heart of mealtimes”.

Published in 1984, ‘The Romance of Food’ promised to ‘revive even the most jaded lover’
Published in 1984, ‘The Romance of Food’ promised to ‘revive even the most jaded lover’ © Benjamin Swanson
The author appears on the back of the book in trademark pink ball gown and pancake make-up
The author appears on the back of the book in trademark pink ball gown and pancake make-up © Benjamin Swanson

With a bubblegum pink cover, The Romance of Food comprises 13 chapters spread over 172 glossy pages, with recipes written by Nigel Gordon, Cartland’s private chef. Each one promises to “revive even the most jaded lover and put a song in the heart of the most enraptured”. According to Cartland, “Every Frenchman chooses his food with the same care, and same concentration, as when he chooses a woman to love,” so it follows that the book’s recipes are French in inspiration, with plenty of butter, cream and champagne.

A chapter headed “One of My Special Dinner Menus” features recipes for Sole Dorothea (Dover sole with lemon cream sauce), Duck with Orange and Grand Marnier Sauce, and Fleur de Lis d’Amour (apple, orange and strawberry sorbet served with a Melba sauce). The menu finishes with smoked salmon pâté, which Cartland promises makes every man “relaxed and very amenable after eating it”.

Each recipe is followed by a footnote from the Dame — a mixture of historical fact, personal anecdote and plenty of name-dropping. “This is an easy but delicious dish,” she muses below a salmon recipe called Golden Baskets. “I was given it by Lady Mariota Napier, the lovely sister of the Earl of Mansfield.”

Some of the amorous cookery books that have proliferated since the 1960s: ‘Fork Me, Spoon Me’, ‘InterCourses’ and ‘Food as Foreplay’
Some of the amorous cookery books that have proliferated since the 1960s: ‘Fork Me, Spoon Me’, ‘InterCourses’ and ‘Food as Foreplay’ © Benjamin Swanson

The book is illustrated with line drawings of flowers and fruits, as well as the odd maiden depicted in various states of rapture. It is the 32 pages of photographs, however, that are the book’s true triumph.

Nothing, apparently, can be faffed with too much when it comes to food presentation — fiddly slices of tomato skin are formed into tiny rosettes, cakes are piped thick and frilly with lurid icing, and melons are carved into baskets holding melon balls and a sparse smattering of prawns. Spanish Rhapsody (veal escalopes with velouté sauce) is served on a plate with pineapple triangles garnished with diamonds of green pepper, framed by two flamenco dancer dolls and a china ornament of a serving wench, alongside a scattering of green and red chillies.

Pink Chicken, aside from sounding like a salmonella risk, comprises breast meat arranged in petal formation on a gold-rimmed plate, swimming in a sauce of cream and tomato purée. Around the rim are five pink sweet peas and, flanking the plate, pink quartz Chinese figurines of mythical beasts. Liberace, eat your heart out.

From the distance of three decades, the culinary fantasy peddled by Cartland looks dated and ridiculous. Today we have Instagram food porn and Tinder to satisfy our appetites but, minus the trinkets, sickly sauces and sexist chivalry, perhaps Cartland was on to something. After all, a commitment to cooking for love rather than self-congratulation and egocentric pleasure is not something to be sniffed at.

Polly Russell is a curator at the British Library; @PollyRussell1; Instagram: the_history_cook

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