Here’s a post I originally wrote for The Dabbler back in 2013, from a series of features on “Food in the Sixties”:
Colonel Ross: Champignons? You’re paying ten pence more for a fancy French label. If you want button mushrooms they’re better value on the next shelf.
Harry Palmer: It’s not just the label sir, these do have better flavour.
Colonel Ross (sarcastically): Of course, you’re quite the gourmet, aren’t you Palmer?
The Ipcress File (1965)
I want you to go back in time if you will, to the mid 1960’s. To the years when olive oil, famously, could only be tracked down at the local chemist, and Crêpes Suzette was a dish of mystery, savoured only by the likes of the Fab Four and those lucky diners who could afford to splash out at the more desirable restaurants; where at your table, a fawning waiter in a maroon coloured monkey jacket would flambé a steak au poivre.
Into this culinary desert, strides an egg whisk bearing Harry Palmer, the working class protagonist in Len Deighton’s thriller, The Ipcress File, first published in 1962. Palmer is the perfect anti-hero: vice-versa, a flawed Mister Bond. While Bond holds Her Majesty’s commission in the Senior Service, Palmer scrapes the rank of Sergeant in the Intelligence Corps. Bond wears a Walther PPK, Harry Palmer wears National Health Specs. And if fussy old Bond requires his housekeeper to boil the speckled brown egg of a Maran hen for three and a half minutes precisely, Harry Palmer slips Mozart’s Prague onto his trusty record player and whips up an armagnac soufflé.
Len Deighton was- is- a man of many talents. He studied at Saint Martin’s before winning a scholarship to the Royal College of Art. Ou Est Le Garlic? (his first cookery book, based on his weekly cookery strip for The Observer) was published in 1965. His column appealed to the simplistic and mechanical brains of men: technical, cartoon-like DIY manuals on the fine arts of French and Italian Cuisine. Wannabe sophisticates learnt how to order from an A La Carte Menu (the correct pro-nunc-iation spelt out phonetically), how to stuff a Chou with Tomates, how to deglaze a copper pan, prepare Caneton à l’Orange, cut a cigar correctly (paper band on or off?) and ring up a fancy fishmonger to order smoked eel.
“You’re not the tearaway you think you are” purrs sexy Sue Lloyd during the kitchen scene in The Ipcress File, “You also like books…music…cooking.”
“I like birds best” says Harry- an unsubtle reminder to a Sixties audience that although Sergeant Palmer appreciates the finer things in life, he reassuringly bats for the home side. At the time, Michael Caine’s character must have seemed remarkably novel, a prototypical yuppy before that depressing acronym had been invented, making it quite clear that it was okay for Real Men to cook, and quite possibly not just okay, but a desirable aid in persuading that voluptuous dollybird in the office (the one you’ve had your eye on for several weeks) to enjoy the delights of your home cooked Rôti de Porc aux Navets, and to climb in between your shiny black nylon sheets after the event.
International Men of Mystery please take note: The Action Cook Book is still available to buy, albeit via the sinister Kindle. The art of seduction aside, it’s a brilliantly entertaining introduction to decent food, and in our Brave New World of Marks & Spencer microwaved mushroom risotto, this can be no bad thing. Even if Harry Palmer buys tinned Indian Prawn Curry from the supermarket.