The Prospect Behind Us
Part 1, page 1


Alan Davidson

Part 1 of a two-part essay: WHAT and HOW. First, a brief history of Prospect books, its birth and what it did up to 1993. Part 2, to follow, will be about how the operation was carried out.

Readers will already be aware that the book publication part of Prospect Books passed into the hands of Tom Jaine in June of last year, just over 12 years after the publication of our first book. I feel a certain impulse to say something about the history of those 12 1/2 years and to put on record some of our experiences.

Prospect Books was born when PPC was born, and the twin birth was a haphazard affair. One could have demonstrated by logical argument the desirability of creating some sort of journal on food history; but what precipitated the birth was not a rational discussion but a freakish conjunction of circumstances.

Let me first sketch in the background. In 1975 my wife (hereafter Jane) and I returned to London from Laos, simultaneously shedding our past diplomatic career (we needed only a day or so to wriggle out of that carapace) and preparing to be writers instead - indeed two partly written books were in our baggage when we landed at Heathrow. At that time it was still seafood, seafood, seafood for me and translating Alexandre Dumas� Grand Dictionnnaire de Cuisine for Jane. A kindly warning given to us that activities of this sort were unlikely to bring more than slight financial rewards proved to be true. Jane Grigson, who gave the warning, also provided a partial remedy. She helped tide us over by propelling me into the arms of Time/Life Books, whose huge 'Good Cook' series of 30 or more volumes was just starting, with Richard Olney as mastermind. I was embraced as a 'consultant', first on seafood and then on just about everything else.

It was brilliant of Time/Life to have Richard set the stamp of his creative mind on the series (and to have his artist's hands photographed in volume after volume as he did the hands-on work in their kitchen). But they didn't want him to go (as we would now say) over the top; so they ensured that there was a counterweight, in the form of the massive bureaucracy at their headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia, and the equally massive rule book which they had compiled for the project. In requiring slavish conformity to these rules they drove Richard, not infrequently, to a state of enraged frustration. This frustration was especially acute over the rule that no recipe could be reproduced in the books unless it had first been published elsewhere. It emerged almost at the outset that there were certain recipes which, as Richard saw it and as any sensible person would agree, just had to be in, but which could not be found in a satisfactory form in any existing publication.

When we visited him one day and heard him enveighing against this petty rule and describing its dire consequences, a solution mysteriously took shape, like a piece of ectoplasm, over the lunch table. It seemed that Richard could only be rescued from his impasse by the creation of a new journal to serve as the vehicle for rapid publication of a few recipes which could then be transferred to Good Cook volumes.

The shape and substance of the new journal was then largely determined by the views which Elizabeth David had already formed about what the world needed in this particular field of endeavour. We were all willing listeners. We were as enthusiastic as she was for helping the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. So the first issue of the journal was to benefit that good cause. I and Jane, backed by Elizabeth and Richard and Jill Norman and our family, were to be its editors and publishers. And it all happened, swiftly and successfully; and Richard had his recipe sources available in time; see the second and last items in the extract below from the Table of Contents.

Elizabeth David, Hunt the Ice Cream --- 8

Nathan D'Aulnay, Aubergine Gratin --- 14

Sheila Thompson, Leaves from a Lowland Scots Recipe Book --- 15

Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz, Coriander --- 18

Caroline Cookson, The Technology of Cooking in the British Isles, 1600 to 1950 - Part I: Before the Use of Gas --- 23

Jeremiah Tower, Pear and Watercress Soup --- 42

Elizabeth David, A True Gentlewoman�s Delight --- 43

Maria Kaneva-Johnson, In Praise of Simplicity --- 54

Tante Ursule, Crayfish a la Bordelaise --- 60

The Prospect Behind Us - Part 1, page 2
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