In 1963, the Irish television audience, still dazzled by the new technology, were treated to a live cookery show presented by Monica Sheridan.
Monica's Kitchen was a milestone in Irish television but also, according to those who can remember, a milestone in Irish food. Like Nigella Lawson, she licked her fingers. But not in quite the same way. The finger-licking caused a good deal of outrage, and there were unconfirmed reports that shocked domestic-science teachers were considering presenting a mass petition to RTÉ.
Perhaps she licked her fingers once too often on Telefis Éireann as Monica's Kitchen did not go into a second series. However, she published a book to accompany her TV debut: Monica's Kitchen in 1963. Opening it at random, I read: ‘When I was a girl learning school-French, I thought that 'oeufs à la coq' were special eggs laid by perverted French roosters. It was a great disappointment to discover that they were just ordinary boiled eggs. 'Oeufs cocotte' didn't sound very respectable either but they are, alas, nothing you couldn't write home about.’
She is fascinating about garlic. ‘Thirty years ago garlic was in daily use in kitchens all over Ireland... In our house in the country, they put it into the food – and into the whiskey. Toothache, tonsils, stomach-ache, and all other internal complaints were doctored with the same medicine – two or three cloves of garlic crushed, and wet with half a glass of whiskey. This was poured down the patient's throat without a by-your-leave. It was a nauseating brew, enough to put anyone off whiskey for life.’ But not garlic.
She goes on: "To me, the smell of raw garlic is the nicest of all, but, if you come into your house on a cold evening, and smell a stew that has a few cloves of garlic in it, it will remind you of the little bistros in Paris, and Gauloise cigarettes, and strolling down the Champs Élysées."
Despite her affluent life in Killiney with maid and au pair (with whom she once cooked some garden snails, the subject of her funniest writing), Monica Sheridan had grown up as one of fourteen children on a farm in rural Ireland. She loved classic cooking but never lost her down-to- earth common sense.
"There's nothing to cooking except ordinary common sense," she says in Monica's Kitchen. "You need a keen nose to smell burning, strong hands that can stand heat, and an occasional sense of wild extravagance coupled with a passion for economy... Cooking has little to do with recipes, which are dead things and all read like a doctor's prescription. Unless you are a complete dud, you need never worry about them. But if you've a real interest in food, a love of experiment, and the courage to try anything once – you can forget about caution and calories."
There was a delightful lack of reverence about Monica Sheridan, best exemplified by some of her comments on beef.
"Passing through a fair," she says, "in, say, Mullingar, you will see four-year-old Irish bullocks in the very pink of condition. They have the roving eyes and debonair looks of first-year medical students. A little gauche, perhaps, but nonetheless proud sons of bovine fathers. Give them a few more years and they could become a danger to the parish; but now is the time to kill them and eat them, when they are in their youthful prime."
She was a true original and died in 1998. True to her agricultural upbringing, to the traditional cooking skills she learned from her great-grandmother (who had lived through the Famine) and true to the essence of good food. Equally at home with a 'coq au vin' or corned beef and cabbage, she might have done a great deal of good if her television career had not been cut short – not least in persuading us of how good Irish food can be. Finger-lickin' good.
WEBSITE OF THE WEEK: www.abebooks.co.uk
A great site for secondhand books. There are four copies of Monica’s Kitchen for sale there.