HUNTING ELEPHANTS IN CURZON STREET / Fire & Knives No.

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Like me, you’ll doubtless have a curious personal relationship with the book spines that followed you as you leap-frogged from house to house. Each bookshelf a mosaic of unchanging columns and colours: senseless patterns in a wooden frame that seem suddenly wrong if ever rearranged. Or am I just in denial about the severity of my OCD?

In our living room shelf, there was a tattered 1974 Jaws paperback (“Soon to be a major motion picture!”), which when teased from its place accorded the four year old me a brief glimpse of a shark’s mouth that I could only brave for three seconds before pressing it quickly back. The bright red “Horror Movies” by Dennis Gifford – a rectangular bloodstain amongst the stately, leather encyclopaedia spines – stayed resolutely where it was until I finally found the courage to open it, aged seven. Others promised simply too much for such a young, simpleton mind. I didn’t even touch The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris. Such was the brain-exploding naughtiness suggested falsely by the title that I felt my little soul would be forfeit if I so much as tilted it out of the third shelf up.

Nothing offered as much intrigue though, as the jet-black, anonymous spine amongst my mother’s cook book collection. Like one of Kubrick’s monoliths, it stood upright between the Delias and Robert Carriers, attracting my monkeyish attention in three successive kitchens. It came out occasionally, shown off to visiting guests like a prize: The White Elephant Cook Book. I recall being young enough to assume that this was a collection of elephant recipes, and curious enough to wonder where mum might have

purchased such an ingredient. Kwik Save? It was Mum’s go-to cook book for dinner parties. One look at it and I can still hear Rumours by Fleetwood Mac or Catch Bull at Four by Cat Stevens along with the muffled laughter from below, as my brother and I pretended to sleep upstairs. From the 35 year-old sauce-splashes that still make the pages stick, I can identify Frederic Raphael’s Meatballs à la Salvadora recipe as a popular choice.

Flash forward through my monosyllabic teen years, the calculated disinterest and the innumerable tuna pasta bakes, and the coffee-table sized White Elephant Cook Book was finally passed down to me at the tender age of 24. I had a proper girlfriend to impress so Mum gave me the WECB, along with my beloved Floyd on France and The Len Deighton Action Cook Book (French Cookery by Julia Child rewritten by Andy McNabb).

To open the slate-like cover of The White Elephant Cook Book is to spin the dial on a time machine. Published in 1973, it is possibly the most 1973 thing ever created, pace David Cassidy’s hairdo. It is a compilation of personal recipes donated by some of the biggest stars of the time, and a few people I have sadly never heard of – I wish I knew who Dimitri Tiomkin was, simply so that I could say his name more often.

These were guests, one and all of the celebrated White Elephant Club in Curzon Street, London. The club was a side-project of television producer Stella Richman and her

husband Victor Brusa, the kind of side-project that tends to get a little out of hand, in the best way.

By the time Warren Beatty was spotted leaving The White Elephant with three leggy blondes en route to Michael Caine’s pied à terre, the club had become the place to both move and shake with the stars. Real stars like Oliver Reed, Peter Finch, John Lennon, Peter Sellers and Sean Connery etc etc etc. Here you could rub shoulders with movie stars, rock stars, literary titans and royalty (this was the time when Princess Margaret was hobnobbing with East End gangsters like John Bindon, God bless her). The White Elephant held its own amongst exclusive midnight destinations like Churchill’s, Tramp and The Stork.

Richman details the travails of club ownership in the preface. A “nervous, but fortunately very handsome young Italian waiter drops some highly coloured sauce into a most elegant lap. He tries to improve the situation by rubbing the deep purple sauce into the expensive dress in a most vulnerable place. Almost the entire staff are watching not knowing whether to laugh or cry.” She also speaks movingly about her husband, Borsa who died in 1965 and to whom the book is dedicated.

A passionate benefactor of children’s charities, Richman press-ganged her illustrious clientele into providing their favourite recipes, in order to create a cook book like no other, which would raise valuable funds for the NSPCC.

And ‘Like No Other’ is a apposite description. The vintage of the stars in question, many of them caught at late middle-age and semi-retired (and looking like they did when I first encountered them), betrays the specific period. Harry Secombe still had dark hair then and had yet to don Kissinger spectacles; Vincent Price would have been in his Theatre of Blood phase, at his most recognisable in retrospect, hair backswept into two peaks, high eyebrows and teeth barely visible beneath a joker’s grin. Roger Moore, abstracted by Lou Klein’s illustration, is clearly in his pre-Bond, Persuader mode.

The book benefits from a gentle flick through to emphasise the contrast between the stark black and white pages and the suddenly, shockingly colourful ones. The recipes are illustrated with marvellous glossy snaps by such celebrated photographers as Donald Silverstein, Julian Cottrell, (predictably) David Bailey and, rather wonderfully, Dt. Sgt. J. A. Talbot of New Scotland Yard, who provided a photo-fit of Shaw Taylor for his Braised Oxtails recipe.

Then there are the illustrations. Oliver Reed’s charicature by Jean Mulatier, a jowly, brooding scowl under a jolly chef’s hat, is a joy. He supplies a recipe for Prawns Mergerated in Sherry: ‘Serve, preferably with at least another bottle of sherry for each person, so that if it’s a disaster you’ll be too drunk to notice.’ New Yorker illustrator Edward Sorel sketched a beautiful, simple but haunting sketch of Peter Finch for his Georgian Lamb Casserole.

There’s genuine artwork here, dazzling and innovative. Lester Bookbinder shot the famous Duck À L’Orange photo featuring a duck and an orange sharing a box with a spoon (you know it, you just haven’t seen it much since Athena shut down). His offering is Cyril Ornadel’s vibrantly purple Borsch being parted in the bowl like the Red Sea by a Pythonesque finger. There’s even a genuine Peter Blake, Scrabble-tiles and all, for Shelley Winters’ Caesar Salad, based on her admission that ‘I first tasted this in Mexico when I was attending a bullfight with Tony Quinn.”

The New York surrealist Nancy Fouts contributed a brilliantly simple photo for John Mortimer’s fish pie: a pyrex pie dish with a crust over the top and a goldfish swimming inside. Mortimer suggests that one cooks “to the accompaniment of a private bottle of Sancerre and Any Questions on the radio. This programme provides the element of frustrated loathing and rage which is missing in the dish itself.” In addition, Anthony Blake’s shot of Julian Bond in a butterscotch polo neck sweater, gazing up at himself sat upon an oversized onion and metal spring (‘Spring Onion Quiche’) is the most 1973 thing in the most 1973 thing ever made.

Many of the recipes have become staples in my kitchen. Len Deighton’s Croque Monsieur was the last word in toasted ham sarnies until Rachel Khoo tempted me out of my habit this year with her Croque Madame reinvention. M*A*S*H scribe Larry Gelbart’s crab omelette (Crab Foo Yong) has been foisted upon many a hungry guest. I have yet to try, though, Spike Milligan’s Spaghettini Dolce – “Whip the double cream,

add the caster sugar and brandy. Pour the sauce over the spaghettini while still hot. Serve as a sweet.”

I cannot easily identify what it is that so appeals to me about this period. There’s a ‘Cinzano, Monte Carlo and white suits’ feel to the 1970s idea of luxury dining that I find oddly irresistible. Perhaps it was the premiere screenings of mid-seventies movies that I saw when I was young and impressionable? Rich gentlemen in wide-collared suits with shirts so frilly they looked like Vienetta ice creams, would strut through gangs of ladies with long, Abba hair, in purple clubs with wallpaper so thick that to lean against it would leave an impression like a memory mattress. This is how I assumed adult life would turn out and I was rather looking forward to it. As redress to my anguish, a dish of Cat Stevens’ Stuffed Vine Leaves is as good a way to mourn as any.

I would have thought that The White Elephant Cook Book, bearing in mind all that I have described, was a celebrated milestone in 70s cookery literature, yet no gourmand I know has heard of it. A swift Googling reveals nothing but a brief list of available copies on ebay (£44.99, mark you). The White Elephant Club itself concluded its business before the Seventies were up and Stella Richman herself passed away in 2002. It is now Aspinall’s, an exclusive club with a fine reputation for after-hours gambling. The book deserves a far shinier reputation than this.

As such, I offer this article as a challenge: search your parents’ bookshelves, tear through the second-hand book shops and acquaint yourself with this extraordinary tome. And as

for the dining clubs of the 21st century, might not one of you rise to the challenge of a belated sequel? It’s for the children after all.

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