I belong to a wonderful book group that meets weekly in The Roebuck pub at the top of Richmond Hill. They kindly save us a table in a quiet corner with a window looking out across the glorious and famous view which has been painted by JMW Turner and others, down Richmond Hill to Petersham Meadows and across the River Thames.
The ‘weekly’ nature of our meetings invariably surprises people who imagine a heavy load of required reading. In fact, we read only one novel (or substantial book) a month and other weeks are poetry, short stories and a theme. The occasional 5th Tuesday in a month is a meal out together.
Last night’s theme was ‘Food Writing’ (not chosen by me but obviously one I was excited about). I must confess to initially taking a rather narrow and prejudiced view of the theme, seeing ‘food writing’ as being books by authors like Elizabeth David, Claudia Roden and Jane Grigson rather than ‘cookbooks’ with photos accompanying each recipe by mostly TV chefs. David, Roden and Grigson were essentially home cooks who shared recipes they’d perfected, many of them classics, and often dishes they’d found on their travels. They knew their subject well and offered background descriptions that served as wonderful illustrations in an age where most cookbooks weren’t accompanied by photos or even drawings. They were brilliant writers who happened to write about food. Theirs were books you might read in bed, take with you on a train. They weren’t just about cooking, they were about food and living.
I fell into a trap that thought modern-day cookbooks full of photos and illustrations by ‘big names’ weren’t about ‘writing’. That even their cooking wasn’t always about dishes that the average person is likely to cook in their kitchen. But when I started looking through my more recent cookbook buys, I realised how wrong I was – there was some fine writing there too and some wonderful and accessible recipes.
And what do we mean by ‘food writing’? Do we mean a trip to Provence, à la Elizabeth David, with evocative descriptions of places like Marseille and an authentic bouillabaisse recipe? Do we mean a cookbook with easy-to-use recipes that are fail-safe? Do we mean food history? Do we mean a guide to buying food and understanding uses and preparation? Or food in literature, perhaps (as many of my book group friends shared last night)? Do we include restaurant critics? we also asked ourselves last night.
I asked The Guild of Food Writers forum on Facebook what they thought? Which food writer had most inspired them? I got a fantastic response and was introduced to writers I’d never heard of and others I knew of but hadn’t read. Popular was the late Laurie Colwin who wrote in her famous book Home Cooking about the ‘sharing of food (being) the basis of social life’.
Another American writer MFK Fisher’s book The Gastronomical Me was first published in 1943 and reissued in 2017. WH Auden wrote of her, ‘I do not know of anyone in the States who writes better prose’, and this, unusually at the time, of a food writer. More recently Simon Schama has described her as ‘the greatest food writer who has ever lived’. Fisher wrote: ‘People ask me: Why do you write about food, and eating and drinking … The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry. But there is more than that. It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others.’
Other writers recommended by the Guild included Anthony Bourdain, Michael Pollan (whose brilliant Cooked series on Netflix I continue to watch over and over again), Edouard de Pomiane and Rachel Roddy. Particularly popular were Nigel Slater and Diana Henry and these proved popular with my book group too.
There was a wonderful mix of ideas about food writing in The Roebuck last night. Louise had brought along Fay Maschler’s Eating In. Well known for her restaurant reviews in the Standard, Maschler has written recipes and food books too. Meanwhile, Tim entertained us by reading aloud some wonderful quotes about food in literature from Elizabeth Kent’s Picnic Basket. There were scenes from Wind in the Willows and Three Men in a Boat and it was a delight to be reminded of how food has sometimes featured so brilliantly in fiction. Christine too offered an entertaining – and rather alarming – glimpse of food in literature, as found in John Lanchester’s The Debt to Pleasure. Doreen had brought We’ll Eat Again by Marguerite Patten, a collection of recipes from the war years. Full of fighting spirit in the way the recipes were written, it was fascinating to hear what people lived on and how they made the most of the limited rations available to them. Margaret, who had suggested the theme, read from Nigel Slater’s Real Food. Both the Guild and the book group loved Nigel. One of the Guild wrote: ‘His description of making a chicken stock is like reading poetry.’
So what did I take along last night? With 200+ cookbooks sitting on my shelves, I struggled to narrow my choice down.
For me, pleasure from cookbooks comes in many ways. Food writing has been a life theme for me, from teaching myself to cook more exotic things than my mother (who was a good British food cook) in my teens through books, to commissioning and editing cookbooks in my twenties, growing a large cookbook collection over many years (which only occasionally gets culled) and now writing a food blog. My favourite books are ones with favourite recipes, happy memories, inspiration and beautiful writing. Last night I read excerpts from Rick Stein and Antonio Carluccio to show how good they are at conveying setting (and I find their recipes reliable too). Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking was a true inspiration back in the 1970s when I was first married and used this book endlessly – a kind of cooking bible. Some cookbooks grow tired and old and out of date but never David’s, nor Claudia Roden’s. My copy of her A Book of Middle Eastern Food (first published in 1968) is falling apart from age and much use. I always use her recipe for Moussaka. I love Diana Henry’s books, particularly her award-winning Crazy Water Pickled Lemons, which I’ve had for a few years and contains one of my favourite ice cream recipes – Basil & Lemon. Nigel Slater was a must for his poetic, wonderfully descriptive writing that I enjoy not only in his books, but his weekly column in the Observer, which is a Sunday reading highlight and often leads to some cooking in the kitchen. For mega sentimental reasons I had to quote from a Robin Howe book. She was a prolific and much respected cookery writer when I commissioned her to write Middle Eastern Cookery back in the late 1970s. She was already about 70 and she and her husband had retired to Liguria, in Italy. I stayed with them a couple of times and her food was wonderful; I learnt so much from her. I wrote a while ago about her way of dressing salads – click here.
I’ve left out so many … Anna del Conte, Margaret Costa, Alan Davidson … the list is truly endless. But food writing at its best is as wonderful as any other kind of writing. And when you love food as I do, when you travel to experience other cuisines and traditions; when you spend many hours of each day considering what you’ll have for your next meal … well good food writing is a joy and one of life’s great pleasures.
Do please comment and let me know who your favourite food writer is.