On Lee Miller and the curious and curative power of an interest in food
One of my favourite journalists, India Knight, recently wrote a piece in The Sunday Times commenting that “it’s hard to escape the sense that, state of the world-wise, someone is telling a bonkers joke that just goes on getting more disturbing and unfunny.” She admits that in her quest for comfort she actively seeks out the sorts of books “that work like a cashmere blanket, or like the Heinz tomato soup and bread and butter that my mum made when I was ill”.
The sorts of books she seeks out are cook books, and crime fiction, where, at their conclusion, “bad people are imprisoned or dead and everyone can sleep safely”.
I couldn’t agree with her more. So I’m hoping that this makes The Saucy Dressings blog not just an information resource, or a little light entertainment, but also a momentary salve for all the world’s ills. Obviously it’s a blog all about food (and drink) so it meets her cook book requirement. But there’s also a strong thread of the detective novel which runs through this blog, with posts inspired by sleuths ranging from commissario Montalbano through to Tintin; with an interview with Jason Goodwin, the creator of Ottoman foodie and detective, Yashim; and a commentary on the findings of Josephine Tey’s policeman, Alan Grant.
Josephine Tey was a favourite author of the subject of this year’s most fascinating cookbook, Lee Miller – a life with food, friends and recipes. And Miller, like Knight was also a fan of the soothingly resolved violence of the detective novel. As Lee Miller’s long-time friend, Bettina McNulty observes in one chapter,“Paperbacks with titles like: The Severed Head, The Strangled King, or The Blunt Instrument tumbled out when she was looking for something in the bottom of her handbag. Waves of these blood-drenched titles came into the house where they were promptly read with stunning speed, then handed over by Lee to anyone who showed even a smidgen of interest.”
In fact this book, put together by Lee Miller’s granddaughter, Ami Bouhassane, is more of a sort of visual biography, a scrapbook compilation with recipes, than a straightforward cook book. Leafing through it I found myself identifying increasingly with its fascinating protagonist: obsessive cookbook collector – tick; frenzied researcher – tick; bizarre experimenter – tick; competition-enterer – tick; keeper of legions of scrawled-over notebooks – tick; demented about details, lists, planning – oh yes, certainly, tick.
But Lee Miller brought all of these activities off with terrific élan. For example, she had over 2,000 recipe books – as well as she had a surrealist artist husband who even built her an extension in which to house them. She researched tirelessly, often consulting up to fifty tomes before settling on an eccentric culinary plan of action of her own – a tomato soup cake, dusted with icing sugar, for example (Sylvia Plath also liked tomato soup cake – for a recipe follow this link). She actually won most of the competitions she entered, set by the Norway Food Centre, the Spanish Press Office, and whatever body it is that represents Capri Canned Tomatoes. And she planned everything – even down to planting the seeds the previous January to produce some of the ingredients she knew she’d need for her 13 meal Christmas at the end of the year.
In fact, since it’s Christmas Eve today, it seems particularly appropriate to quote some of her very sensible advice regarding Christmas planning:
“In the interests of mass production, a thirteen meal marathon, and a happy holiday for all, this is the time to abandon the recherché gourmet rules of everything being freshly prepared and home-made. A vitamin more or less won’t hurt for these few days, and a sauce made at leisure, stored in a jar is exchangeable with a couple of hours with the family at a pantomine or a cocktail party.
The very slight depreciation in flavour will be compensated by the hostess-cook’s smug serenity as she delves into a larder stacked with bowls of mayonnaise, french dressing, sandwich spreads, spaghetti sauce, clarified broth, grated Parmesan, seasoned sausage meat, prepared nuts, washed parsley, mince-meat marinating in rum or brandy…..”
But reading through with more attention, I don’t begrudge her her success. Slowly it becomes clear that Lee Miller’s enthusiasm for cooking, together with her increasing reliance on alcohol, was a kind of self-medication to ease and make bearable a condition of truly crippling mental distress. Patsy Murray, her nanny-turned-housekeeper, comments in an interview that after an hour of so of deliberation as to how the chicken was going to be cooked, “sometimes she was so drunk that she couldn’t do it and you would have all these people waiting for dinner and so I’d have to get cracking in the kitchen”. ‘All these people’ might include Picasso, Magritte, Miró, and Max Ernst.
Miller’s search for relief was wholly understandable. She had her ghosts and demons in spades. As a child her father had an unhealthy passion, with it seems her mother’s compliance, for taking photographs of her naked. Then, when her mother had some sort of breakdown, she was sent away to stay with ‘friends’ and during this time, aged seven, she was raped. As a result, she contracted gonorrhoea, and had to endure painful and invasive treatment for it, administered by her mother, for years afterwards. Her relationship with her mother was to remain strained throughout her life.
Later, after stellar careers as both a model and a photographer (there’s an exhibition of her work currently on at The Hepworth gallery in Wakefield), she became a fearless war correspondent, being present and photographing the liberation of four concentration camps. She describes how General Patton had organised a trip to Buchenwald for locals who were denying knowledge of the existence of the camp. This account gives a good idea of the horrors she had had to view and record:
“Much had been cleared up by that time. That is there were no warm bodies lying around, and those likely to drop dead were in hospital…The six hundred bodies stacked in the courtyard of the crematorium because they had run out of coal the last five days had been carted away until only a hundred were left and the splotches of death from a wooden potato masher had been washed because the place had to be disinfected – and the bodies on the whipping stalls were dummies instead of almost dead men who could feel but not react.”
Small wonder then that Lee Miller sought comfort. And small wonder she seemed to find it hard to love, or at least demonstrate love, in spite of the fact that it’s clearly visible in many of the photographs. Her second marriage was an open one, but her husband eventually settled for a steady mistress, an arrangement which lasted thirty years until his death. And her relationship with her son, Antony Penrose, was also scarred. He writes, “She was never violent towards me. She did not need to be; she was so deadly with words….Lee was my enemy, sometimes to be treated with, but mostly to be covertly reviled and openly fought.”
As any mother will know, this broken relationship, must have been a tragedy for her. Thankfully with time, a wise daughter-in-law, and the escape afforded by her interest in food, the situation eased, and life in general became more bearable.
As therapy goes, interest in food must be one of the most constructive and least destructive – nourishment for the soul as well as the body; and fuel to feed friendships, the essential support of the tormented and distressed of mind. It’s a reliable source of succour, a salve, that we might do well to remember when we consider that about one in ten teenage girls in England were referred to mental health services in the past year, and that the rate of self-harming among teenage girls between 2011 and 2014 rose by a truly alarming 68%. Any weapon in the armoury required to reverse these alarming trends has to be worth considering.
Meanwhile, for my part, if glancing around Saucy Dressings gives comfort and joy to any reader, whether hale and hearty mentally or no, I will be glad!
To find out more about Lee Miller and see some of her stunning photography, follow this link to the official archive.
The Age of Light is a novel about Lee Miller’s life, written by Whitney Sharer.