Mary Berry is without doubt an English National Treasure. She’s been on the scene for donkey’s years, she’s written more than 75 cookbooks and now she’s the doyenne of UK cookery shows. “Mary Berry’s Everyday,” “Mary Berry’s Absolute Favorites,” “Mary Berry’s Country House Secrets,” “Mary Berry’s Foolproof Cooking,” “Classic Mary Berry” … Goodness sake, a girl can hardly keep up with her. Her role as judge on “The Great British Bakeoff” rocketed her into National Treasure status, where she’ll no doubt remain until she’s no longer with us. At 80+ she’s still going strong, starting a new TV series this year, “Britain’s Best Home Cook.” She’s unstoppable, like a force of nature.
There are different tracks for TV cooks, of course, and for most of them it’s a matter of staking out a niche market. It also depends on what side of the Atlantic you’re on, since things in the USA operate on a different footing from things in the UK. The surprising thing about Mary Berry is that she combines the best of both worlds even though she operates only in one. To my mind she’s the only celebrity cook who pulls that off. She’s the perfect combination of British Grande Dame and Betty Crocker. No wonder she’s a National Treasure.
She’s squarely in my Pantheon of Culinary Greats along with Julia Child. I’ll be the first to admit that my Pantheon is rather sparsely populated — is it any wonder when you look at the available candidates? The list on the UK side runs as thin on the ground as in the USA. Gordon Ramsay doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting in. His momma did not raise him right, not with a mouth like that on him, Lord have mercy. Nigella Lawson communicates along with her concoctions a lascivious unctuousness that leads one to believe she retooled from a previous career as a Playboy bunny. Just what’s the point, the bazooms under the tight sweater or what’s on the cooktop? It’s anybody’s guess. And if you make the Daily Mail headlines because your elderly husband chokes you half to death at a posh restaurant in Mayfair, you’re out of the running when it comes to Pantheon membership. Sorry, babes — game over. To say nothing of the interesting twist of using smack as a pick-me-up instead of French-pressed coffee. Paul Hollywood doesn’t have the range, of course, and having your extramarital affairs splashed across the headlines of the Mirror — “Paul Hollywood’s flaky love life explained as furious wife vows to reveal ‘adultery’ and name his new lover” — means you’re hopelessly outside the Pantheon league. Jamie Oliver jumps on too many bandwagons, putting his nose where it doesn’t belong — for example: breastfeeding among UK mothers. I don’t think that’s on the curriculum at catering school, so what got him off on that tangent? And that’s only one of his causes — for a full list you can consult Tiffany Do’s article in Food Republic (here) entitled, “A Brief History Of Jamie Oliver Pissing People Off.” Not Pantheon material, that’s as plain as the nose on your face.
In the USA we’ve had one celebrity chef crash-and-burn after another. Martha Stewart’s fall from grace is old news by now. I always had my suspicions (the hairdo!) so when the insider trading thing came out I just thought, “Well, what did you expect?” Rachel Ray? I let the hand of discretion fall across my mouth (and find the mute button on the remote). As Mom used to say, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Okey dokey, Mom, copy that. Paula Deen blew it, too, big time. Jeez, they’re dropping like flies over here … Alton Brown’s scientific approach has its charms, but I know if he ever stepped into my kitchen I’d get a dressing down I’d never forget because that boy wants things done right, dadgummit. My equipment would be judged substandard and my techniques inexact. Thank God he doesn’t do restaurant makeovers like Gordon Ramsay. It would suddenly get very quiet and then people would start disappearing, never to be heard from again.
The Barefoot Contessa comes closest to Pantheon eligibility, but there’s the class thing, which always sets my teeth on edge. She’s plopped out in the Hamptons poshing it up, using ingredients for one meal that cost more than most of us make in a week. Then she trundles off to get a few extra goodies at some specialty shop that would likely require a deposit from somebody like me just to get through the door. Americans never do the class thing subtly, probably because we all started out as proletariat trash running away from some other place. If the bucks roll in we can’t resist doing the noveau riche thing and splashing it out. American culinary competitions modeled after smackdowns staged by the Worldwide Wrestling Federation also go way overboard on the posho raw materials. If I could have diverted the food budget for one month from “Iron Chef” into my savings account, I’d soon afterward have been comfortably ensconced in a handsome condo in St. Tropez, going out to take the air of a morning in my midnight blue sportscar with the top down. Yes indeedy. Mary Berry would never think of doing such a thing, of course — she has far too much taste.
Everybody loves Julia Child, dear old wacky Julia. She was light years ahead of her UK contemporary, the redoubtable Fanny Cradock (info here), who no more belongs in my Pantheon than does Lucrezia Borgia. Fanny’s TV programs could easily be retitled, “In the Kitchen with Cruella DeVille.” Julia, on the other hand, is mild as a dove and ever so helpful. Although I must say that if I carried on in the kitchen as Julia did, my mom would intervene in short order with another favorite saying: “don’t make a mess if you don’t want to clean it up.” We can’t all carry on in quite as cavalier a fashion as our dear Julia …
But even Julia pales compared to Mary Berry. Julia was a bit off the beaten path. She worked for the Office of Special Services during the war developing (of all things) a shark repellent (article here). Mary worked for the Dutch Dairy Bureau after training as a home economist/caterer. And of course Julia’s a niche product, doing all that fancy French food with names nobody knows how to pronounce. Mary Berry by contrast is the Swiss Army knife of culinary celebrities. She cooks, she bakes, she gardens, she does it all. She’s a Supermom and a Supergran. She’s Salt Of The Earth but lives in a gorgeous country pile. She’s got the whole package sewn up tight. If only I could be Mary Berry …
You might be wondering why, since I’m American, I don’t instead aspire to be Betty Crocker. Well, there’s one main reason: Betty’s a fake. Always has been, always will be. She’s a figment of somebody’s corporate imagination. If you think I’m telling tall tales you can get the skinny here. Yes, Bridget, our Betty is a fake. She’s never really been anything but an artist’s rendition:
Betty clearly needs help in the fashion department. She looks like the Head of Human Resources (and a woman not shy about terminations) rather than everybody’s favorite gal in the kitchen. Here’s Mary, appropriately accessorized, with proof that she actually knows how to operate an oven:
I grew up with Betty Crocker, my mom got the cookbook before I was born and it was with me throughout my early life. To be honest the only image I remember of Betty is the red spoon LOL. She used to have her face on the cake mix boxes but that’s long gone. She was always necessarily a shadowy figure, which makes sense since she’s a fake. How could she be anything but shadowy?
Then look at Mary standing there with the fruits of her labors. Nothing shadowy about her, is there. She’s the real deal. And these days she’s all over the place, but interestingly not in the States. That’s for the likes of Paul Hollywood and Jamie Oliver. We get the second tier, not the National Treasure. Harumph. As an American I feel jipped. Some figment of the imagination hijacked the Queen of the Kitchen role in the United States. Where’s the American Mary Berry? Out of a population of 350 million we can’t manage to produce even one reasonable facsimile of Mary? Are you serious?
So it’s no wonder Mary Berry is in my Pantheon and Betty is not. Betty’s a bloodless specter, a business-suited ghost. We can’t be doing with that in a Pantheon, now, can we. But if we set aside her corporate provenance and her ghostliness, Betty had some good things going for her. She was made for the middle class, for the Salt Of The Earth housewife who needed to get grub on the table and do a fancy birthday cake once in a while. There was no running to specialty shops for sun-dried tomato puree or herbed goat cheese. If a gal needed herbs or spices — and she didn’t very often — she got them from the supermarket, thank you very much. The recipes in Betty’s cookbook were simple and the directions easy to follow. Betty’s cookbook is for the masses, not for poshos in Manhattan who have groceries delivered from specialty shops to their penthouse.
Mary Berry is cut of the same middle-class cloth. I believe she’s a National Treasure precisely for that reason. It’s interesting to me how she manages to maintain her Regular Jane persona while being decidedly on the posh end of things now. For some reason it doesn’t matter that the house she recently downsized from, a Grade II-listed estate called Watercroft near Penn in Buckinghamshire, the asking price of which was a cool £4 million ($5.2 million), puts her well up into the upper crust. It never went to her head, she’s always been Salt Of The Earth. The titles of her TV series make that plain: “Mary Berry’s Foolproof Cooking.” That’s not the sort of thing you’d get from Nigella Lawson, nor from Ina Garten. Mary’s cooking has style and a pinch of panache but remains quite solidly outside haute cuisine or anything too ethnic. She sometimes mentions in her TV shows that she likes to do things in this or that way because it’s less expensive. As wholesome and sensible as the day is long, that’s our Mary.
In her current corporate incarnation Betty has unfortunately succumbed to Food, Inc. There wasn’t any of that nonsense in the good old days, of course — you used standard ingredients off the shelf, not prepared foods made by a particular company. A look at the chicken recipes from Betty’s website screams Church Basement Hotdish gone off the rails. As a case in point let’s examine “Chicken Gloria Casserole” (webpage here):
Goodness sake. Canned mushroom soup … if that isn’t Church Basement cooking I don’t know what is. And the foodie fad has creeped in with the “cream sherry wine.” It reminds me of the cooking sherry that used to be sold in supermarkets, which any chef worth their salt warned you off with grave reports about its nastiness. There’s no cream sherry sitting about in the kitchens of Regular Janes — one hopes — so many people in the States making this recipe would probably just leave it out. What else can a girl do? Gotta get dinner on the table, can’t be running down to the liquor store (of all places, what would the Women’s Bible Study Group think?!) just to get a casserole into the oven. Betty’s gone off the rails — probably from hanging out with the wrong crowd at Food Network. Back in the day she’d never in a million years have suggested lacing your chicken casserole with booze. Jeez meknees.
Well, you won’t find Mary Berry opening cans of mushroom soup to make dinner, no siree. This recipe from her website (here, YouTube video here) is home cooking without the Church Basement spin:
“If you’re making this dish for young children, you can replace the wine with stock, if you prefer.” Now that’s a Supermom talking, making Betty look like she’s on Skid Row or at a convenience store buying something to drink on the sidewalk with only the bottle mouth poking out of the paper bag. Mary’s recipe is easy peasey, uses fresh ingredients, has some FLAVOR (chopped fresh thyme with oven-roasted potatoes yum yum) and there are no tins anywhere on the counter. So it was also with Betty in the good old days before she sold out to Food, Inc. and took to the bottle. I wouldn’t even think about letting her into the Pantheon until she comes out of The Betty Ford Center.
Betty and I have both aged and any good memories I have of her are bound up with the past. As I go through the cookbook I’ve put together for myself over the years, I come across old standbys from Betty that I can’t imagine doing without. When the fruit season comes on in the summer and there are fresh berries to be had, it’s time to kick into coffee cake production. There’s nothing better for breakfast with a good cup of coffee than Betty’s old coffee cake recipe:
It doesn’t get any easier than that. Mind you, Betty doesn’t tip you off that you need to douse the berries in flour before folding them into the batter — I don’t remember where I came across that handy tip, but it’s the bee’s knees for holding the berries in suspension throughout the batter so they don’t sink into a layer at the bottom. Maybe Betty knew that, maybe she didn’t, I can’t say. She didn’t spill the beans on it in any case, I had to get it elsewhere. Mary would give you that tip as a matter of course from her wealth of kitchen know-how and in such a way that it doesn’t make you feel like an idiot for not knowing it. The last thing I made before leaving the United States in 2017 to live abroad was a blueberry coffee cake. As Mary would say after plating something up on camera and taking a bite, “It’s sheer perfection!”
Mary’s not in everyone’s Pantheon, believe it or not. Oh no, far from it. She takes heat for being the Grande Dame of British cookery, as we discover all too readily when looking at reviews by some of her compatriots. Nobody here in the States would dare say anything against her, it would be like insulting Her Majesty the Queen. In England, however, the fur doth fly. In a review of “Mary Berry’s Country House Secrets” Lucy Mangan in The Guardian (article here) expresses an opinion of Mary that’s enough to take a girl’s nail polish off without benefit of remover:
Much as I imagine vicars stand immobile in the shadow of the cloister all week until it is time to glide noiselessly up to the pulpit to deliver the Sunday sermon, I have always envisioned Mary Berry being laid gently away in a velvet case – or possibly popped on a plinth under a small glass dome – between programmes. And now, after a nice long rest since the end of her Bake Off time, she has been taken out, primped, buffed with a little lavender-scented polish and set before us again. This time it is in a four-part series called Mary Berry’s Country House Secrets (BBC One). It is technically a documentary, I suppose, but what it much more closely resembles is a sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-sub par Victoria Wood sketch.
Last night she spent a week being shown round Highclere Castle – or, to give it its formal title, the Real Downton Abbey – by the eighth Earl and Countess of Carnarvon and seven spaniels. “A breed,” Mary intoned gravely in voiceover, “which originally came from Spain. Hence the name ‘spaniels’.” Up and down the land, there are nativity plays being prepared that will contain more natural dialogue.