U F O Cake

We eat on shiny yellow seats secured to the floor in the National Milk Bar. Peaky meringues tower on the counters, and hams keep their parsley hats on as they slide through the slicers.

This scene is like those in the recipe books that are sticky from decades of cooking and dog hairs, and have moved from my grandmother's kitchen and vintage into my own. The Sainsbury's Book of Party Cooking by Norma McMillan, a technicolour hardcover boasting One Hundred Tested Recipes. Its photographs proudly prove so, presented upon Le Creuset and Habitat, with tablecloths and lighting to match each theme (Laura Ashley farmhouse, exotic barbecue, urban cocktails).

There's African Curried Lamb, vague in origin but not in flavour, and U.F.O Cake, sandwiched between recipes for Caramel Dreams and Ice Lollies. The illustration is of a frosted semi-circle studded with wine-gums and silver balls spelling J O H N. This must be for that ‘riotous child’s birthday party’ (John’s) that Norma mentions in her Introduction.

The Contents page reads like the Milk Bar’s menu:

Prawn cocktail with Marie-rose sauce on a bed of lettuce
– Avocado pears stuffed with Crabmeat and Tunny fish
– Duck à l'Orange
– Black Forest Gâteau
– Raspberry Pavlova
– Profiteroles with Hot Chocolate Sauce
– Toffee Lumpy Bumpy 
– Sherry Trifle
– Strawberry Cheesecake

My friend spills tea from a defective stainless steel pot. I dither between Rombouts coffee, Horlicks and Bovril. Across the aisle a septuagenarian couple eats bowls of something lumpy under custard.

It’s funny, this hotchpotch diet of muddled cuisines, which wedged itself between Elizabeth David and Buckingham Palace, bravely looking abroad yet armed with symmetrical doilies. It’s an oxymoron of homely exoticism. And today, amidst the Olivers and Ottolenghis, we savour it, prissy, contradicting, gelatinous and synthetically coloured though it is.