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Cookbooks Aren’t What They Used To Be

August 30, 2015

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‘Fings ain’t wot they used t’be’ goes the old Lionel Bart song for the hit London stage show of the same name in the 1960s about East London Cockney characters. According to that doyenne of cookery writing Prue Leith, cookbooks aren’t what they used to be either. ‘In my day you could still buy a good cookbook in paperback with no pictures at all. I doubt if they would sell today. But those books were much used’ she told the Radio Times recently. She seems to think that nowadays people only buy cookbooks for show, rather than use, and that they are merely coffee-table books and represent lifestyle aspirations. It’s caused a bit of a rumpus over the media with people agreeing or disagreeing. What about you? What do you think?

Amidst this social media controversy I was interested to listen to Andrew Graham-Dixon extol the virtues of Elizabeth David’s Italian Food in a re-run the other night of Sicily Unpacked while Giorgio Locatelli made one of Sicily’s most famous dishes: Caponata. Andrew talked of how brilliantly David managed to convey the atmosphere and taste of Sicily through her writing.

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Being an art historian, Graham-Dixon was also very excited by the cover and line illustrations inside the book by artist Renato Guttuso. Of course, David was writing at a time when travel abroad – even to the now relatively close destination of Italy – was a privilege and few people in UK had experienced Mediterranean cooking or even seen the Mediterranean Sea. It was thus very exciting for people to experience it in some way through books of this kind. And it was well before the time of heavily illustrated books. Even in the late 1970s when I was working as a cookery book editor, we didn’t include many photos and often just line drawings, all of which I would source from somewhere like the Mary Evans Picture Library. This was before the days of the Internet and I literally would go to the library and look through hundreds of photos on old-fashioned slides to find appropriate illustrations for the book I was working on. Usually the cover photo would be specially shot and I had to choose a recipe from the book, a home economist would be hired to cook it, and then we’d all meet at a food photographer’s studio to do the shoot. There were heavily illustrated cookbooks available from publishers like Hamlyn, but the real quality books by good writers were largely not – or minimally – illustrated.

That’s all changed, of course, and people expect their cookbooks to be glossy affairs that have a photo of most of the recipes as well as gorgeous locations. But what has also changed is that most cookbooks now are written by famous TV chefs whereas people like Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson and Claudia Roden were writers – they were food writers. They weren’t chefs, they were good home cooks who knew a lot of food. And that meant they were books to read not just to cook from. They were the kind of books you’d read in bed or on a train in the same way as a novel. But they also contained great recipes that worked.

But were they any better than the best of today’s cookbooks? And did people use them more? Do we really only buy glossy cookbooks to show off on our coffee tables or remind us of our holidays? I don’t think so. Firstly, you can still read a good cookbook today. Read Ottonlenghi’s introduction to Jerusalem, for instance. Or, as I am now, Rick Stein’s Venice to Istanbul. I bought Stein’s book because I’m enjoying the TV series so much but reading his words about the places he visits and the story behind some of the recipes is great too. The man can write (well, he did read English at Oxford!).

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And yes, the book is beautifully illustrated so I love looking at the photos too. They only enhance the experience not detract from the seriousness of the food. Cookery writers like Stein have had to move with the times too. Books have become more glossy; people expect more from the books because technology has made it easier to give us more. One of the few really old books on my shelves (part of my cookbook collection is in the photo at the top!), is Claudia Roden’s A Book of Middle Eastern Food. This was first published in 1968 (even I was still at school!).

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It’s a bit worn as you can see, but I always use Claudia’s Moussaka recipe. It’s brilliant, it always works well and it’s authentic. At 79, Claudia is still writing cookbooks. Her last one, published in 2011, The Food of Spain, was excitedly greeted by foodies. It’s a much more glossy affair than her early books but still has the great writing and well-researched recipes. Claudia has moved with the times and what I’ve found with many of my old cookbooks is that they are out of date. They represent a time when more exotic ingredients were hard to come by and people didn’t cook in such a global way as they do now. People rarely cook ‘English food’: we cook curries and risottos, stir fries and pasta dishes. Families no longer eat meat and two veg every day. We tend to use fresher ingredients now and are more health conscious – not pouring double cream into every sauce, for instance! More of us go abroad for holidays and if we come home wanting to recreate some great dish we ate while away, isn’t that a good thing?

So … do we cook? Do we use these cookbooks – be they old or glossy new? I think we do and I think we use them as much as we used to. I may still use Elizabeth David’s Food of Italy and Claudia Roden’s middle east book, but even after so many years of them being on my shelves, I’ve only used a handful of recipes from each book. Did we ever do anything more than that? So, when I buy a new, beautifully illustrated cookbook today, I’ll probably still only use a handful of recipes from it. I’m not going to try every one. And the most important thing for me is the food. I’m not interested in a pretty book with terrible recipes; I want a beautiful book with fantastic recipes that I can cook at home and will work.

Prue Leith thinks we use the Internet more now rather than cookbooks. And yes there’s no doubt that if you are searching for a particular recipe then the Internet is great and I will always do a search on my computer. But I don’t always use the Internet recipe; I’m looking for an idea of how a recipe should be done; maybe what’s authentic; what fits with my kind of cooking. And many times I still go back to my cookbooks. But I buy the cookbooks for ideas. I buy them because in most cases I respect what the chef/writer does, know I will like their food, and want to try some new things. So I guess I in large part buy the cookbooks for inspiration. And yes, it has to be said, I really do love looking through the wonderful illustrations too! So, cookbooks may not be what they used to be, but isn’t that great? You can still get quality but something beautiful too.

12 Comments
  1. I have many cookbooks and just like you I only use a few recipes from each book. Some of my old ones are precious .

  2. rule #1 – never throw a cookbook away
    rule #2 – never buy an ecookbook
    great post, as always!

  3. Really interesting post Kay. I always think that if I get three recipes out of a book then I’ve got my money’s worth. That said I just love owning a copy of ED’s Italian Food with the Guttoso cover but am hard pressed to think of one recipe out of that that I use – I just love the idea that I could be associated with such a cooking titan merely by owning her book -very sad !

    • Thank you, Christine 🙂 And not sad at all. I like to own, have a copy of, books that are important to me for any reason. Some I’ve really enjoyed or were a gift from someone important to me that I could never throw away. I been cooking ED’s Piemonte Peppers before Delia made them fashionable! The book opens at that page!

  4. I know the internet is the quickest way…but a ‘hold in your hands’ cookbook for me is so much better!! When I read a recipe I can taste it – and I know right off the bat if it works or if it needs something! But I have to admit I do love the beautiful photos as well! 🙂 🙂

    • The Internet is so useful and I’ll always use it to check for particular recipes but like you I prefer a book. And photos are lovely. It’s just a sign of the times I think that illustrated books can be produced more cheaply not that there’s less quality to the writing and recipes or that we use them less.

  5. Paul Zeidan permalink

    I love reading your blog, that mixture of food and travel. I’m new to cooking and generally enjoy most of the cookbooks and travel shows such as rick’s recent journey, but honestly the new Ottolenghi cookbook was just an ad for their restaurant.

    • Thank you. Good to hear you enjoy the blog. I haven’t got the new Ottolenghi but I love my others. Not always easy recipes! I like it if recipes for food in the restaurant are in the books. Moro is the same – if you enjoy something in the restaurant it’s probably in one of their books.

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