Monday, November 4, 2013

Doctor Who Retrospective: The Doctor Who Cookbook

Allons-y! Into the world of cooking with Doctor Who. That's right, cooking.

When I graduated from high school in the early 90s, I asked for one thing as my graduation present: plane tickets to Great Britain. That summer I toured much of England, including a day trip to the Longleat Estate, which at the time housed a well-loved Doctor Who exhibit. After passing through the rooms of models, costumes, and monsters, we arrived at a modest gift shop window, and I considered what to add to my collection that would not break the bank, and asked the matronly shop clerk for advice. "Well, it may seem a bit unusual, but this is really my favorite," she said, holding up a paperback featuring a Cyber-maitre d', Dalek waiter, and Yeti chef on the cover. Its title? The Doctor Who Cookbook. Sold. As both a longtime Whovian and collector of recipes, to date it is one of my favorite possessions, let alone Doctor Who collectibles

I know, after promising a look over Classic and New Who in its evolution talking about a cookbook seems strange. But given my erratic and distant updates, let's have some fun. (I had another update discussing the evolution of the Cybermen, but that seems to have been lost in Cyberspace. You and your retrospectives belong to us. They shall be deleted. I blame Mercury retrograde.) To the meat of the matter:

The Doctor Who Cookbook was published in 1985 by Gary Downie, at the time the production manager for the show. He apparently wrote to every person that he knew somehow was connected to Doctor Who since the beginning and asked them for recipes. What resulted was a phenomenal collection of recipes submitted by actors, producers, directors, and crew members who all at some point in the last 22 years had worked on Doctor Who. Every contributor has their own bio, making it valuable to any Whovian, even a non-foodie, for the nice blurbs on the lives of those connected to the show, and nearly every page is adorned with glorious hand-drawn cartoons by a woman named Gail Bennett of the Doctor, his companions, and his foes. Marvel at Leela swinging down on a vine to throw some veggies into the stew simmering below, Lexa serving Meglos's head on a platter, or Tegan seething at Adric for eating all of the tasty hors d'oeuvres she'd just made. They really are very charming. There's an insert of full color photos of the some of the current cast of Doctor Who testing recipes. By "current" I mean of course "current" in 1985: Colin Baker, Nicola Bryant, and special guest Fraser Hines, who had reprised his role of Jamie in "The Two Doctors" serial that had aired relatively recently. Director Fiona Cumming oversaw taste-testing of cake.

A lot of the recipes were granted some Whovian flare where possible. Many recipes were named punnishly, incorporating in character and creature names, such as Maureen O'Brien's "Vickissoise," Nerys Hughes "Todd in the Hole," and Patrick Troughton's "Vegetable Soup with Dalek Krotons." (The latter might be a bit obscure to suss out: garlic croutons.) Others played on titles in other ways--the first Romana submitted "Time Lady Tzatziki" and the second "Extra-Terrestrial Terrine." Some played no games--Janet Fielding wanted full personal credit for "Fielding's Favorite Souffle" (but I have to wonder how Oswald's compares?). Others went full tilt, suggesting alien ingredients, like longtime Doctor Who writer Terrance Dicks informing the reader to only substitute in prime rib of beef if a proper Gallifreyan banjixx cannot be procured and butchered. The best recipe of course is producer Barry Letts' recipe, titled only "?"

I hope the Downie estate will forgive me if I reproduce part of ? here. This recipe follows a description from Barry Letts, who claims to have learned the recipe from an obliging Venusian caterer (adding that sulphuric acid rain was terrible on the location crew's equipment):


from Barry Letts, published in the Doctor Who Cookbook, copyright 1985 Gary Downie

3 oz/85 g per head of blim tree worms
4 oz/113 g per head of runcle grease
1 oz/28 g per head of nossy bulbs
Grated snadge, to taste.

Boil the worms al dente (15-20 minutes). Crush the nossy bulbs and fry lightly in the melted runcle grease. Stir in the worms, season to taste, and serve with a sprinkling of grated snadge.

The book suggests substitution with more easily available terran ingredients but I'll let you figure out for yourself what they might be. I will note however that at least when I have boiled blim tree worms or their equivalent, they seldom take as long as 15-20 minutes to get to the point of being al dente. I would follow the instructions on the packaging. The cookbook also contains a recipe called Mena's Tachyonic Sauce which would be excellent with this fine example of Venusian cuisine.

As a fan of all food everywhere, I just love the cookbook for its variety. While it contains fairly simple recipes like ? and what is apparently an "exotic" American specialty, corned beef hash, there are also some fairly elaborate or exotic dishes, like the above mentioned E.T. Terrine and Fielding's Ocker Balls, which involve pastry and a filling involving oysters, roe, and other rich things. It's also nice as a British cookbook, as while we sometimes like to make fun of British food, it includes useful, easy versions of British dishes that really are quite tasty and worth trying, like Toad in the Hole (well, Todd) and Sticky Toffee Pudding. Of course there's also Russian, Polish, Greek and other largely European cuisines, a few Indian-inspired dishes as well, and some homebrewed concoctions. One of my favorites is Louise Jameson's "Leela's Savage Savoury," which is sauteed red cabbage, zucchini, and bell peppers, seasoned with ginger and chili, and doused with cream--yum.

So why discuss this, beyond sharing with you the contents of a likely very hard to find Doctor Who collectible? Besides the fact that my second favorite topic of discussion is food.

First, this book came out at an interesting time in Doctor Who's history. I don't think Downie knew it when he first solicited recipes, but it ended up getting published around the time the show went on its first hiatus. I have no idea how well it sold, but its publication and presence showed that people were interested in Doctor Who at a time when the BBC was seriously considering letting it go (this first hiatus ended, fortunately, not too long after. The second in 1989, however, kept the show off the air for 16 years). It is as I say a treasure trove of many of the personalities who contributed to the show over the years, and in its own unique way helped celebrate the show's history at a time when some very much undervalued it.

Secondly, recipes are often rather personal, even if they do not reveal what is necessarily private (and thank goodness!). Recipes frequently come with stories attached (some of which are included in the book), and the recipe a person chooses to submit helps reflect their personality, their lives. The food we love is often attached to memories of family and friends. And not only does the book feature a vast array of Doctor Who cast and crew, it features submissions from many people who now have passed away. (Sadly, Richard Hurndall, who played One in "The Five Doctors" died only four days after he had sent his recipe to Gary Downie.) How lovely to have a record of what is a little piece of them, even if it's just a nice dessert recipe someone served to their kids on Saturday nights.Or at least amusing to learn things like the apparent fact that Mark Strickson at that point in his life needed recipes gentle enough to prepare when hung over.

Finally, it is the utter bizarreness of this book--a cookbook--that is what makes it awesome as a collectible. We can have buckets of action figures and series encyclopedias, but this really is something a bit different.

I admit, my friends, there is a part of me that unfortunately has a bit of a old-fogey-meets-hipster attitude about Doctor Who fandom. I liked Doctor Who before it was cool, and you young nuWhovians can get off my lawn. I walked into Barnes and Noble yesterday and front and center there was a great big Doctor Who display, featuring encyclopedias, novels, DVDs, plushies, toy sonic screwdrivers, and so on. Truly, part of me was excited--how cool to see something I loved be displayed front and center! But another part of me felt disappointed. It largely looked like a pile of cookie cutter merchandise, identical except in branding to the Twilight or Marvel's Avengers or Harry Potter stuff before. When I was a young Whovian in the 80s and 90s, I would scour store shelves for anything Doctor Who I could find. It really took a lot of looking and work, but finding this Peter Haining retrospective or that Target novel felt really special because of how much time it took. There was enough of a Doctor Who fandom in my area, thanks to my local PBS station at the time, that you could find stuff, but it did take some dedication and whatever you found really felt like a treasure. To have it in mass abundance is at one hand, a well-deserved acknowledgement of just how great this show is, how long it has lasted. But it also kind of means that's been massively commercialized, and there's not a lot of room for individuality, for the really weird niche doodads like the Doctor Who Cookbook.

Or... maybe I'm wrong. Honestly, I think an idea like this is long overdue for revisitation. How does Oswald's souffle compare to Fielding's? Is it high time we got an official recipe for fish fingers and custard in print? Anyway, folks, let's get creative.

And if you want some fun recipe ideas for a 50th Anniversary Party.... drop me a line.