Basic is a word with many different nuances. Most of them I am happy to see applied to what I regard as truly vegetarian cookery. For a while I was worried that using the word basic in this way might be misleading. Wasn’t there a risk of making it sound as though I was setting out to recreate the kind of extreme plainness or simplicity associated with war-time austerity?
I decided there was, but that it didn’t matter, and interestingly so. For although my own cooking is very much in line with modern vegetarianism and therefore hardly austere, it is still often in touch with some of the fundamental principles that informed both the theory and practice of war-time cookery. Apart from advocating the use of vegetables and pulses rather than meat and fish, it encouraged a DIY policy in the kitchen, and was against (as nouvelle cuisine was to be many years later, though from very different motives) flamboyant, extravagant cookery that denied the natural value and goodness of vegetables, notably by covering them with heavy cream and flour-based sauces. I had no argument with any of that.
As I discuss more fully in Vegetarian Cookery How and Why, I am so largely self-taught, a product of trial and error rather than any particular school of cookery, or indeed of any school at all, that it would be totally implausible for me to describe my cooking as anything but basic. My transformation from unquestioning carnivore to a questing vegetarian, eager to come to terms with an entirely different kind of cuisine, meant re-starting from scratch, a return to basics, and an appreciation of plainer cooking of a very special kind.
Because it’s my own experiences of vegetarian cooking that I most want to communicate here, basic will do for me personally. And not just for me. The staple foodstuffs of vegetarianism (vegetables, beans, grains, lentils, nuts, herbs and spices) are very often described as basic in the sense of being essential, necessary to sustain life, an assumption often carrying with it the additional pejorative belief that such food is homely, restricted, unsophisticated, something fit only to start or move on from. Yet it is precisely the essential, life-sustaining nature of this food that makes it truly extraordinary, varied and variable in ways that are insufficiently understood, something to return to, reconsider, and stay with.
The articles to follow will explore certain key (basic again!) areas of vegetarian cookery. Each is to focus on one particular dish, vegetable or type of food, provide a few recipes, and occasionally give something of the historical or cultural background. It is inevitable that a historian who is also a vegetarian cook should be drawn constantly to connections between the two activities.
First and foremost, though, I’m concerned with vegetarian cookery not as something removed and distant, or as something rendered needlessly over-complicated as nowadays it so often is, but as a regular part of everyday experience, something familiar, ordinary, accepted, lived with, fundamental.