Cooking thriftily isn’t to eat poorly. We used to appreciate that

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Book cover of Poor Cook
Make that souffle rise again: Thrift the 1970s way

The recent episode of Radio 4’s obituaries programme, Last Words, included a tribute to Susan Campbell, the artist, illustrator, author and authority on kitchen gardens, who has died aged 92.

Campbell was born in 1931 and trained as an artist at the Slade, where her contemporaries included Euan Uglow and Craigie Aitchison. In 1967 she was commissioned to provide the cover illustration for Nell Dunn’s novel Poor Cow, about a struggling single mother. This gave her the idea for a cookbook for people who wanted to eat well on slender means.

Poor Cook, written with Caroline Conran, was published in 1971 as household budgets were feeling the effects of austerity. The introduction presciently notes the insidious advance of convenience foods, which “[do] not save you anything but time”.

The book joined a long tradition of volumes on thrifty cooking, including Alexis Soyer’s 1845 A Shilling Cookery for the People, and Patience Gray and Primrose Boyd’s 1957 Plats du Jour (“A lack of means is … a familiar feature of our daily life here in England”). It is a tradition that continues to the present day, with cookbooks such as Jack Monroe’s Cooking on a Bootstrap and Miguel Barclay’s One Pound Meals, augmented by social-media accounts.

I bought my first copy of Poor Cook in the 1980s and was instantly captivated. Plenty of books told you how to make a passable meal on a shoestring; but Poor Cook combined instructions of astringent clarity with a bracing pragmatism: “If you have never skinned a rabbit, the sight of one … on the kitchen table with fur intact, is rather upsetting.”

Alongside its early scepticism about ready meals, Poor Cook’s eclectic selection of recipes championed the excellence of English food at a time when it was unfashionable. A recipe for Irish stew is followed by one for Persian lamb polo; Portuguese tripe succeeds the “very traditional English” tripe and onions.

Recipes for offal, along with seasonal or foraged veg (dandelion salad) and cheaper cuts of meat and varieties of fish (sprats, cockles), are prefaced with a warning that if customers stop buying such things, shops will no longer sell them. So it proved over the following decades – until the slow food movement partially reversed the trend, with the paradoxical consequence that once neglected ingredients now carry a hefty premium.

Fifty years since Poor Cook was first published, eating cheaply and well remains a pressing concern. There is no shortage of advice on the subject, but not all of it is appetising: a queasy combination of faddishness and guilt complicates our current relationship with what we eat. By contrast, Poor Cook combined sturdy good culinary sense with a certain rackety elegance.

Reviewing the book, the exigent gourmand Cyril Connolly (given to moaning “poor Cyril” if he felt his dinner wasn’t up to scratch) recognised its excellent qualities, noting that “Mrs Campbell sweetens our adversity”.

Reissued in 2013 by Clearwater Books, Poor Cook remains an indispensable vade mecum for the hungry pauper. In my 20s, it taught me how to make a cheese soufflé and skin a rabbit. Decades later, I still turn to it for inspiration. One day, perhaps, I will tackle the receipt for a raised pork pie, shaped around a jam jar. Meanwhile, Mrs Campbell continues to sweeten our adversity.

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