Hot on the heels of the announcement that she'll the new Great British Bake Off judge when it starts on channel 4 later this summer. Talking to her nephew, Sam Leith, they cover everything from food to business,
family and the perils social media.
Food for thought
Sam Leith: My generation has access to the most delicious food from around the world, thanks in part to cooking pioneers like you. What was it like when you were growing up?
Prue Leith: I grew up in South Africa, but we used to have heavy, deadly unsuitable British food designed for northern climes – pies, roasts and stews – in the middle of blazing summer. And nobody ever thought a white girl should learn to cook: tremendously racist. It wasn’t until I went to Paris to learn French that I suddenly realised it was something I could do too.
Sam: I still remember in my teenage years going to visit Peggy [Prue’s mother] and her signature dish being ‘a little bit of a slooge-up’.
Prue: It meant taking everything she had in the fridge, chopping it up and putting it in a frying pan. It was like children painting: you get out a paint box, they’ll use every colour and you end up with something brown.
Sam: Peggy would ‘improve’ a Marks & Spencer ready meal, which would be perfectly edible, with another ready meal, making it completely horrible!
Prue: She was the worst cook in the world. But my very first book, Leith’s All-Party Cookbook, had the dedication, ‘For my mother, who can’t cook for toffee, but gave marvellous parties anyway’. I wanted to make the point that food isn’t the only thing that goes into a party – your friends have not come to judge you.
Prue and nephew Sam stiring up good conversation in the kitchen.
© Andrew Hayes-Watkins
Sam: We’re here cooking pasta and pesto. I have no idea how people in the past fed children on anything else.
Prue: I remember when I first ever heard of pesto, it was so exotic and grown-up. For some reason children love it – I think it’s the garlic. Pasta has become such a staple food for children that some of them eat nothing else.
Sam: I grew up with a vegetarian mother and healthy home cooking. We ate out occasionally but never junk food. And yet, at the age of 43, I find it impossible to walk past a KFC without going in…
Prue: Sam! How could you?
Sam: We ought to talk about money, since you’re about to get a big GBBO pay cheque…
Prue: That’ll be good! There’s nothing wrong with money. One of the reasons I’ve always loved business is that if you look at a profit-and-loss account and the bottom line is the right colour – not red – you get the sort of buzz you have when you’ve made the perfect wedding buffet. ‘We did that!’ I got huge satisfaction that our restaurant had 32 waiters with families who were all living off our venture.
What I don’t like in business, though, is this obsession with year-on-year growth. Everything has to be more than last year or it’s a failure. If inflation is very low, you should be perfectly happy if your takings are enough to pay all your workers and produce a decent profit.
Sam: It’s how politicians think. Growth is the only thing that economies are supposed to do. Couldn’t they just stay the same?
Prue: It’s dangerous to think that economies must always grow, because if we’re endlessly consuming, everyone is spending and using more and more of the earth’s resources.
The whole world is now so in debt that we’re bankrupt. It shouldn’t work. Everything should have imploded.
Sam: I’m quite Micawberish about money. Provided there’s just more coming in than going out… But my generation is fuelled by debt! Saving up for a house in London now, even the deposit, is impossible for most.
Prue: I remember telling your cousins, ‘Don’t take a student loan – having a loan is desperate. If you need money come to the bank of mum and dad.’ So, of course, they both went straight off and got student loans.
Special recipe: You have to try Prue Leith's wonderfully rich Cheese Soufflé
The definition of success?
Prue: I think that it’s important to be doing something or creating something. There must have been a time, I think, when some women were content with not having a career and being the stable force in the family. But I think today there is a lack of satisfaction in being subservient all the time to other people – your children or your husband or whoever.
Success is about being happy in your skin too. That you haven’t been screwing your employees – or your employer.
I’m not sure Philip Green minds very much if he’s doing the right thing. But the things that make him happy probably wouldn’t make you or me happy.
Sam: Having a clear conscience would certainly be better than having a yacht.
That and good friends. Was it Yeats who wrote, ‘My glory was I had such friends’? That would certainly be a nice epitaph.
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The trouble with your generation
Prue: The worst thing about your age group is that you are unable to commit to anything until it happens. Your mum and dad and John [Prue’s new husband] and I complain bitterly that we never know if Daniel and Emma [Prue’s son and daughter-in-law] are going to be down for the weekend until they’re there. That inability to make plans is pretty irritating. I think it’s a symptom of slightly having lost control of one’s life.
Sam: Is it partly to do with the way in which the technology has changed?
Prue: Yes. The ease of… you can always blow somebody out. To your detriment. Because if you have a little planning, you can have big family fiestas and that sort of stuff.
Sam: I think my generation’s complaint about yours is that the boomers stole all the money.
Prue: That’s absolutely true. We were unbelievably lucky. Not only did we make a lot of cash but we had things like pension holidays, when companies thought they didn’t have to pay in because there was so much money in the pot.
Then your generation comes along and there’s nothing. You’ve been swindled by your parents’ generation. It means that if you can help your children, you do – but there’s an awful lot of people who can’t.
Special recipe: A super easy recipe from Prue Leith for vegetarian Spinach Roulade
Bringing up baby
Prue: This is going to get me into deep trouble with my son, but then I know your mother feels the same way. You are both making a rod for your own backs because you are so wonderfully tolerant of anything your children want to do.
Sam: I certainly had the sense, growing up, that you had a quite Victorian arrangement at home. There was this grand house and your children were put down for a nap after lunch, and fearsome nannies who’d say, ‘No! you can’t see them now’.
Prue: Well, yes. I am very in favour of children having a nap after lunch because then they’re not whiney and grizzly by six o’clock. But I don’t think it really matters a toss how you bring children up – as long as they’re loved, they’ll be fine.
It’s just hell for the parents. Rayne [Prue’s first husband] and I had the children in bed by seven so we could have a drink! Our priority was to have a life – not just be running after children all the time.
Sam: Having said that, our families grew up as part of an extended unit – my cousins felt more like extra siblings. Ceremony mattered: festivals and feast days and so on, with made-up traditions and Games Night [when the families played charades].
Prue: I’ve always loved that year after year your father would do Christmas or I’d do Christmas and we’d have 25 people in his house or 25 people in my house. It’s impossible now, because you all have other in-laws to worry about.
Affairs of the heart
Sam: Do you agree that my generation is more prudish than yours?
Prue: Yes, I do, and it’s probably a good thing too.
I came to London, aged around 20, in the 1960s and everybody did what they wanted to do – including free love.
Sam: I wonder if there’s a sort of pivot. The generation before yours weren’t expected to have much sex before they were married, then have all their life’s sex after they were married – quite often with someone they weren’t married to. Your generation didn’t buy into such social structures, and now my generation is so much into the idea of serial monogamy, you tend to have all your sex before you’re married and then give up.
Prue: My generation disapproved of adultery too, though. I disapproved of adultery. I would hear of friends whose husbands were betraying them and I’d want to kill them. But then I was Rayne’s mistress for years before we married.
Not good. I wasn’t proud of that.
Sam: The heart wants what the heart wants…
Prue: One of my most important possessions is my house in Oxfordshire. I’ve lived there for more than 40 years and I’m so glad I didn’t sell it when Rayne died. His ashes were scattered in the pond. After he was gone, I became obsessed with gardening. It’s the most wonderful thing to do if you’re unhappy and grief-stricken.
Sam: I think I feel more sentimental about your home than I do about my own. It has more memories. I haven’t yet got that gardening thing, though.
Prue: Oh, you will. When my children were small I wasn’t interested, beyond whether the garden was safe for them. The lawn was a cricket pitch and the flowerbed was a sandpit.
But once the children got older, I just loved gardening.
Sam: I wonder if it’s to do with timescale. The older you get [Prue is 77], the more you see the point of something that works over two or three years.
Prue: There is something really lovely about building your own nest in a home too. You must have felt this when you got your first place in Brixton – and then your current one.
Sam: I think my wife thinks more strongly about this than I do. One of my main memories of my Brixton flat was the time when the only source of running water in my flat was coming through the light socket in the living room. I’m sort of hopeless.
When I move into somewhere I’ll make sure that my books are on a shelf but, much to my wife’s chagrin, once we’ve been living there for about four months I cease to notice how it’s decorated. I just sit in chaos. As long as I’ve got a screen, or a page, or something to write, I’m pretty happy.
The importance of optimism
Prue: John says that people are radiators or drains – and you don’t want to spend time with the latter because they absolutely take the energy out of you. What makes me cross is people who are generally pessimistic with a fall-back condition of moaning about something. It’s always other people’s fault.
Sam: I’d like to think I’m not a drain, but I probably am a bit pessimistic about things. I try to turn negativity into something to be funny about, though. Being Eeyore-ish and jokey is my default position.
Prue: You’re a radiator. What is amazing is how you can do that very intellectual stuff and you can also do the lowest slang or street talk, neither of which I understand. I’m very much in the middle-class middle. I only understand that bit.
Bake Off moves to Channel 4 later this year with Prue, Paul Hollywood, Sandi Toksvig and Noel Fielding. Sam Leith is an acclaimed columnist and literary editor of The Spectator.