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You Can Never Have Too Many Cookbooks

May 16, 2019

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Guilty cookbook addicts often say they really mustn’t buy another cookbook; they don’t need another cookbook. As shelves strain under the weight of heavy cookery tomes it’s easy to feel you must have enough. But of course you can never have enough. Not if you love cooking; love finding out about food and its history; love trying out new recipes. Not if you’re Travel Gourmet.

When I wrote about Food Writing recently, I was surprised that some people never use cookery books. Maybe it’s a generational thing; though I know my son and daughter (in their 30s) have lots of cookbooks too; cookbooks that are well used, for they are both great cooks. I certainly google recipes sometimes; I use the Internet a lot to research things I’m writing on the blog. But I use my books too. I love my books.

A couple of years ago when I thought I was moving, I decided I really had to do a cull of my cookbooks. I had well over 300. And that’s a lot of shelf space. I thought it would be difficult but in fact it proved easy. Well easy to shed about a third of them. I couldn’t part with over 200 and they are still on my shelves (photo above)!

The culling was easy because cookbooks do date (a major reason – aka excuse – for needing more!). Back in the late 1970s when I was getting married, having regular dinner parties, commissioning and editing cookbooks at work, the food one ate at home was very different to what people prepare now. The positive side was that things were still very seasonal. It’s hard to imagine but you couldn’t buy courgettes, parsnips, strawberries, and a whole load of other foods out of season. We’re so used to being able to buy anything we fancy now at any time of year and very few foods are truly seasonal – maybe asparagus in May and June, large marrows ripe for stuffing in August and September. But I think the positive side of seasonal is that the foods always seem so gloriously special when they’re only available for a limited time each year. The negative side of 70s cooking was the heaviness and richness of the food with large amounts of cream; lashings of wine and brandy. Well, I do still add wine rather a lot, it has to be admitted, but rarely cream. In fact, I’m even no longer very keen on rich, creamy desserts (except for gelato!).

Food in UK has come a long way in recent decades in terms of quality and knowledge. People travel so much more and discover the delights of other cuisines. It’s made us more fussy about what we eat at home but also more adventurous; it’s made us more aware of what’s authentic, what’s good quality.

I’ve heard it said that most people only use a handful of recipes from a cookbook; maybe only two or three. But for me cookbooks aren’t just about recipes; they’re about inspiration. What shall I cook, I think, for friendsfamilyor just to please me! I usually have something in mind … maybe I bought some special food, like the white asparagus recently, or want to cook a French meal, or a Greek meal, or an Italian meal for guests (I do prefer to keep to a theme; I’m not a fan of fusion). Or roast some lamb or a chicken but want to do something a bit special with it. I find cookbooks much more inspirational than the Internet. I’ll often gather ideas from different books and recipes (marking them with those colourful post-its)and create something myself, taking a little from this book and something else from another. Of course this comes from the confidence of many years of cooking. But I also like the information and personal notes that come with recipes in books; the author’s story. I like reading the books as well as following the recipes. And I think one finds particular cookery writers who appeal; who like the same kind of things as you; who do things in a way that resonates with you.

When I did my cull, I didn’t just throw out books because they were old; some were classics – the Elizabeth David books, Jane Grigson’s and Claudia Roden’s – and still relevant and much used. But the wonderful recipes you find in Ottolenghi, Skye Gyngell and Diana Henry books, weren’t around when I was first cooking seriously. And then there are the books full of travelling: being taken from Venice to Istanbul by Rick Stein; being transported to Morocco with Ghillie Basan.

I really can’t do without cookbooks; and I’m always wanting to buy more! Maybe it’s because I just love books. As a child I read voraciously; my mother even told me off for reading too much! But I grew up and became a book editor (I am still a book editor!). I started collecting cookbooks when I was still at school, commissioned and edited cookbooks in my 20s and now I write a food and travel blog; one day I hope to write a book. And I’ll never have too many cookbooks!

22 Comments
  1. I have many cookbooks but not nearly as many as you. My cooking has changed a lot and I think for the better. I only use what is in season now. Sometimes I love to curl up on the sofa with a cup of tea or a glass of wine and surrounded with my cookbooks. So relaxing and so inspiring

  2. Looks like my bookcase!

  3. I couldn’t agree more. My cookbooks are my treasured possessions. I love to read them and plan menus and learn. I could lose myself in them for hours! I have all the ‘modern books’ you’ve mentioned but not many of the older books. Although I do love Diana Kennedy. I’m sure I could ever have a cull, maybe one day, when I’m running out of space. Really enjoyed reading your words here, thankyou 🙂

  4. I rarely bake these days so I only have a handful of cookbooks. But there’s a marvellous bookshop Called Books for Cooks and I love browsing there with my daughter in law who has an enormous collection and never seems to have enough.

  5. Couldn’t agree more. Am in rush otherwise I would chime in with a bit more of a comment – but yes, I share your outlook completely !

  6. I keep saying ‘no more, no more’ but even though I still use many of my trusted ‘old’ friends – Jane Grigson, Margaret Costa, Patience Grey etc., etc. there’s always a new kid on the block full of great new ideas waiting to be encouraged. I say – just get a bigger bookshelf!

  7. As yourself, I started collecting cookbooks, even simply for inspiration, without necessarily preparing recipes from them. With time my cooking has become more creative and adaptive to my diet and space issues have limited the amount of books I buy, now to a very minimal number of travel guides and cookbooks. All the rest is in electronic format and I can carry that with me wherever I am. Perhaps a sign of times! Enjoy your weekend!

    • I find some travel guides useful on my phone or tablet to carry away with me, but I do still like ‘real’ books! Despite writing the blog and editing books onscreen … I’m a real book person. But certainly storage becomes an issue and every so often I have to do a cull of cookbooks and other books.

      • I think I have reached saturation limit for book storage in my flat in London. I’m waiting to move out for a new approach on physical books. I’m somehow surprised you have not been tempted yet by the idea of writing a book. By now you must have enough written material to constitute a good base for a book. I would certainly buy it, in physical format!

      • Thank you. That’s very kind of you. I have some ideas but my blog is so eclectic that there’s not a clear direction to head … but things are formulating in my mind so watch this space!! 🙂

      • Fantastic! I look forward to it!

  8. I definitely think technology plays a role. Though I have cookbooks, unfortunately, when I make something new, I tend to just google it and pick what looks best to me. But the recipes that I have gained from families or friends, are always my favorite ones. I think I will start pulling out my cookbooks instead.

    • The Internet is great in many ways but I like looking through cookbooks for ideas and inspiration. I guess we’re lucky to have both now!

  9. This resonates so much with me. I absolutely love my cookbooks and I can’t stop myself from buying more (my creaking bookshelf will be sorry to hear that, I’m sure!).
    There’s something weirdly comforting about sitting and flicking through a cookbook. I used to sit and go through my mum’s cookbook collection as a child. The internet is great for the research and information for sure, but I much prefer working from cookbooks.
    And just as you said, there’s the personal notes as well that make them a good read too. I’m glad I’m not the only cookbook addict out there!

  10. Wow, you are so passionate about cooking and these cookbooks, its a delight to meet someone who is passionate about what they do. I can understand, they are your treasured possessions 🙂

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