Food is Always Significant: Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook by Celia Rees
Years ago, when Celia Rees found a copy of The Radiation Cookery Book amongst her mother’s effects she knew it would impact her writing one day. “It was given away with Radiation ‘New World’ gas cookers and this particular edition is dated 1935,” she explains, “but it was not one of her cookery books. In fact, I’d never seen it before. It was falling apart, the spine secured with parcel tape and held together by a perished rubber band. The brown cloth cover was faded, crusted with ancient flour. When I opened it, I found recipes interleaved between the pages. Some had been clipped from newspapers and magazines and dated back to the Second World War. There were also handwritten recipes. Different writing on different paper. I recognised my mother’s writing and my aunt’s and what I took to be my grandmother’s. The book must have originally belonged to her and then my aunt. My mother must have kept it after her sister died. I found this connection between the women in my family, through recipes and cooking, very poignant, especially so because this represented the only surviving written communication between them. I’d found no letters. I kept the book.”
Rees, a highly regarded and successful author of young adult fiction, remembered the book years later, on a visit to the espionage gallery at London’s Imperial War Museum. The British Zone in post-war Germany was described as a hot bed of spying and Rees recalled that her aunt had been in Germany after the war. What if she had been a spy? “If she was,” Rees says, “she’d send coded messages. I knew exactly how she’d do it. I’d finally found a way to use the Radiation Cookery Book.”
With the cookery book and the Imperial War Museum as her inspiration, Rees began work on Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook (William Morrow, July 2020). Edith Graham, a character loosely based on Rees’ aunt, has an official role as Education Officer with Control Commission, Germany, the civilian administrators for the British Zone of Occupation (Northern Germany). Her job is to get the schools up and running. This, Rees explains, was “a daunting prospect. Much of the infrastructure had been destroyed, including schools, there was a shortage of teachers (anyone with Nazi associations barred), no textbooks (all tainted by Nazi propaganda), a shortage of paper and the most basic equipment. Added to this, most children had not attended school for years and many were poorly dressed and poorly fed. Edith was an experienced teacher, good with staff and children, level headed and resourceful. She took to her formidable task with a will, fuelled by her passionate belief in education and concern for the children in her care.”
But this is not Edith’s only job while in Germany. She is also a spy and, explains Rees, “her covert job was twofold. Firstly, she was tasked by her cousin, working for the Secret Intelligence Services, to look for Nazi war criminals who had slipped through the net and the Nazi sympathisers who were helping them to escape. She assumes that the point is to bring these people to justice but quickly learns this is not the case. She therefore starts to work for a different group, composed of ex SOE officers (women) who are also looking for war criminals but want to bring them to justice. She is spying on the spies, effectively.” It’s with this group of women, particularly Dori, a strong-willed female agent, that Edith puts the Radiation Cookbook to work. “Cookery belongs to the domestic realm, routinely overlooked by authority, so recipes passing between women would not arouse suspicion,” says Rees. “Food is always significant. In warfare, it has been routinely used as a weapon of conquest. Starvation, deliberate, or otherwise, is an extremely powerful means of oppression. In post war Germany, food, or lack of it, drove the Black Market and underscored the difference between the conquerors (who literally had all they could eat) and the conquered who subsisted on next to nothing. Food defines people: nationality, ethnicity, social class, the time in which they live. Tastes, flavours, different dishes trigger memories, bring back the past in vivid detail. All this added depth and texture to the mix.”
The importance of food in Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook is further emphasized with the inclusion of recipes and menus at the opening of many chapters. These, Rees explains, “foreshadow what the reader will encounter in the chapter. They also give quite literally a flavour of the time, place, people, where Edith is and what she is experiencing. They also contrast the food enjoyed by different groups and thus serve as a sharp commentary on pretension and hypocrisy and a poignant, sometimes harrowing, reminder of lack and deprivation. I am very interested in food,” she says. “I like cooking and eating, and I admire cookery writers like Elizabeth David and Julia Child, so sourcing and writing the recipes was fun. I wanted them to be there, not just for the reasons above but to keep the code and the communication to and from Dori central. The cookery bit was easy, the code more problematic!”
Yet while there may have been fun moments in the writing, in Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook Rees never takes the reader far away from the dark realities of life in post-war Germany. The villa Edith is housed in appears safe, but appearance can be deceptive. Rees based Edith’s billet directly on letters and diaries kept at the Imperial War Museum in London. She used contemporary accounts in her general research, and eyewitness reports from those who were in Germany in 1946 or who visited Germany immediately post war. Several sources described the gap on the wall where Hitler’s portrait would have been and Rees described Nazi china ornaments and knickknacks found in the houses requisitioned by the British, based on her reading of Stephen Spender’s, European Witness. Another key aspect of the novel is Edith’s prior relationship with Kurt von Stavenow, a doctor she knew before the war, but who, she learns, went on to become active in the SS.
“I decided to write about the Euthanasia Project,” says Rees, “because I needed a profession for Kurt von Stavenow. I remembered a photograph I’d seen, years before, in the Jewish Museum in Paris. It showed doctors and nurses posing outside a hospital. The caption explained that this was a mental institution where patients were routinely killed.” Add to this Harry, a character Edith becomes close to, who is scarred by his wartime experiences, particularly in Liepaja in 1941. Rees explains: “While I was gathering material for the novel, I remembered a documentary I’d seen about Nazi Einsatzgruppen activity in Latvia. The events in Riga and Liepaja shocked me, I knew so little about these atrocities. I wanted to write about Nazi crimes that were not so widely known.”
In a myriad of ways, Rees has succeeded in what she describes as her desire “to bear witness in a small way” to World War II and its aftermath. She adds, “I also wanted to write about a time of change, old allegiances dying, new enmities forming and the effect that had on what had passed for moral certainty and what that actually meant in the lives of men and women caught up in the shifting gears of history.”
About the contributor: Kate Braithwaite is the author of three historical novels, most recently The Girl Puzzle – a story of Nellie Bly (Crooked Cat Books, 2019).