So long Brenda -- and thanks for the 40 delicious years
Brenda Costigan, who retires this week, was a ground-breaker for a generation of women, writes Emily Hourican
Brenda Costigan was always 'someone' in our house. Tales of her glamour were as legendary as her neck of lamb casserole.
My mother had been at UCD a few years behind Brenda and was great friends with her younger sister, Mary. Stories of Brenda's beauty, charm, confidence and accomplishments abounded. She was a Golden Girl, who nevertheless produced practical, friendly recipes for ordinary people.
I interviewed Brenda a couple of years ago for LIFE Magazine, when her book From Brenda's Kitchen was published (incidentally, the book is still a household staple in my house, in constant use, along with Nigella's How To Eat, Domini Kemp's Itsa Cookbook and Nigel Slater's Real Cooking), and found her to be all of those things still. But over coffee and delicious biscuits at her house, I also got a sense of how remarkably ahead of her time Brenda was. A ground-breaker for a whole generation of women, mothers and what would later be called Domestic Goddesses.
First, she kept her name after she got married (to Richard McDonald) even though she wasn't yet the household name she would later become, so it was a matter of principle rather than branding. Then, her consistency of approach to food -- relatively simple dishes, using good-quality everyday ingredients -- has meant that over the years she has been at the forefront of fashion, then behind it, then in its vanguard again, all by doing nothing different.
As Georgina Campbell, creator of the Ireland Guides and a woman who herself has done much service to the Irish food and hospitality industries, says, "Brenda Costigan genuinely has the interests of the home cook at heart and her recipes have always been a refreshingly fashion-free zone.
"Renowned for her skill as a cookery demonstrator, she brought that 'how to' approach to all her recipes, making them very easy for home cooks to follow successfully -- and with success comes confidence, so she has done the nation a great service by encouraging countless people to cook wholesome, well-balanced meals for family and friends. No wonder her cookery books have been such a runaway success."
Brenda was the eldest of six. "I grew up fast; the eldest always has this sense of responsibility," she told me. Her father was the Garda Commissioner, formerly assistant secretary of the Department of Justice -- and by the age of 12, Brenda knew exactly what she wanted to do.
She studied home economics, became a secondary school teacher and then a home baking adviser for Odlums flour. She travelled the country, the face of Odlums, giving baking demonstrations to ICA groups, until she married.
Soon after Brenda's marriage, Mary Francis Keating, food writer for the Sunday Independent, died. Displaying her usual self-confidence and decisiveness, Brenda wrote to the editor, saying she would very much like to take over the recipe page, and enclosed a sample article.
It was a perfect marriage of ingredients.
For 40-odd years, she wrote a weekly column, beginning at a time when health and nutrition had no link in the popular mind, and when many families across the country, even the well-off ones, regularly sat down to 'tea' that consisted of crisps and a banana. Each week, Brenda produced wholesome recipes, carefully explained, and presented with a cheerful accessibility. My mother particularly loved one that began, "I think there is nothing more comforting than an upside-down cake ... "
It wasn't just women who loved Brenda Costigan. One devoted follower, a male architect, says, "I always went straight to the recipe pages every week to see what Brenda was doing, and have kept several of her recipes over the years. Her coq au vin in particular has become a staple Saturday dinner in our house."
Christmas was nothing of the sort to half the country until Brenda's cake had been made -- generally following instructions from a yellowed newspaper cutting -- and the dinner party circuit benefited greatly from her suggestions.
However, Brenda's real strength was the way in which she took the fear out of cooking for women struggling with time, families and budgets. Her emphasis was always on low-cost, and can-do.
"She was so encouraging," recalls TV presenter Mary Kennedy, who worked with Brenda in RTE. "I was really in awe of her. I didn't know how to cook, I was still at the stage of mashing up food for babies. But Brenda gave me a copy of her first book, which were the kind of recipes your mother used to make, but with a twist, and assured me I could do it.
"These days, everyone talks about quality and provenance of food, but Brenda did it in the days when it was neither fashionable nor profitable. She is a lady -- elegant, glamorous, hard-working and lovely. We need more like her!"
Brenda did a weekly slot on RTE's Live At Three for 16 years, demonstrating hearty family fare -- soups, quiches, tarts, puddings at a time when food in this country had been stripped of its context and unnecessarily mystified.
The week she did meatloaf, RTE got 3,000 letters asking for the recipe. She also published, with husband Richard, a series of books including Anything I Can Do and Easy Does It. Produced on a budget, they were low on glossy photos, but high on reassuring, practical advice.
Brenda Costigan, Golden Girl, wife, mother of three (including Oscar-nominated actor/director Peter McDonald), author, TV star and Sunday Independent food writer for 40 years , retires this week. But it's not really retirement -- she's in the process of setting up a website and there will be more books. On behalf of a grateful generation, we say thank you, Brenda, and good luck with the future!
See Sunday Independent LIFE Magazine for a selection of treats from Brenda Costigan over the past 40 years.