Apart from the public library system (gotta love it), I have two main collections that I can raid for cookboooks.
The first is my own, steadily growing, collection.
Both of those collections will be listed and linked and whatnot, but I wanted to do a bit of a post about cookbooks in general. What I like about them, what annoys me, the history of, that kind of thing …
Anyone can tell you that the earliest surviving cookbook was written in the 4th or 5th century AD and is attributed to Caelius Apicius entitled “De re coquinaria” (On The Subject of Cooking).
Whilst reading about it I had to chuckle a little as it contains a recipe for flamingo, which reminded me that I once found a recipe for stuffed camel hump (stuffed with ostrich, among other things). Not something that I clamoured to try …
But I found a rather interesting article that appeared in The Economist in December 2008, author unknown. If you wish to read it in its entirety its located here. The sub-title to the article is “What cookbooks really teach us”, but the article seems to be a little more concerned with the difference between US and UK attitudes to cookbooks than much of anything else.
A few choice selections …
If the only purpose of cookbooks were to teach people how to create decent meals, they would take up no more space in the average home than do baby books. Instead, the shelves bend under the weight of Delia, Jamie and Nigella (or, in America, Julia, Martha and Rachael). Even a medium-sized bookshop contains many more recipes than one person could hope to cook in a lifetime. The cookbook section in the Los Angeles Public Library uses 1,200 feet (366 metres) of space.
That’s a lot of recipes, and an amazing array of authors …
There are Lutheran cookbooks, Wiccan cookbooks, feminist vegetarian cookbooks (“The Political Palate”) and satirical cookbooks. There are instructions on cooking the food that Jane Austen, Sherlock Holmes and Thomas Jefferson might have eaten. Cookbooks have been written by French prisoners, the pop singer Tom Jones, the astrologer Nostradamus and the winners of the Miss America competition.
Overall, however, I have to admit that I love flicking through a cookbook, and there’s a world of difference, I feel, between a tome written by a chef and one written by a cook. Take Nigella, for example. I am the lucky owner of a couple of her books and I enjoy reading about her ramblings and musings on ingredients and how she takes inspiration from here, there and everywhere. Even her much lambasted Nigellisima series had a point – they were recipes inspired by her travels in, and love of, Italy and were not trying to be authentically Italian. A point, I feel, that was missed by many of the main reviewers for some reason.
And I think that its this desire to inspire people to cook that should be at the heart of a good cookbook. Yes, glossy pictures of the method and the finished dish all help to identify the ballpark that we’re aiming for, but it should be realised that all the pictures are staged by professional stylists and all those perfect dishes that are turned out on cookery shows are the result of teams of interns frantically baking cake after cake after cake in secret ovens to get one that isn’t a bit too brown on that side or isn’t too wonky on the top so the star can take it out of their oven and it be ‘oh gosh darn, its just too perfect’.
Anyway. That’s a rant and a half with nothing to break it up.
So what do I look for in a cookbook? When I’m walking those 1,200 feet of cookbook shelving, what makes me pick one up and go “ooh”? Sometimes it’ll be the name. Someone I’ve seen with their own show (not that having your own show means that I’ll go out and get your book – I’ve watched Tyler Florence more than once, but he doesn’t feature on my list – although looking at them I can’t give you a real reason as to why not…) or perhaps cooking on somebody else’s show. Something has to give you that ‘in’. It might be the suggestive sauce of Nigella, the cheeky chappy of Jamie (although he gets right on my tits, it has to be said), or the way Nigel Slater has those oh-so-trendy bowls (another one who gets on my wick).
Or it’ll be something I’ve seen about a particular country and what to find more about that cuisine.
Or it might have a bright purple spine that makes it stick out.
Or be on offer.
You get the point. And you also know what I’m trying to say.
A cookbook, above all else, apart from the bells and whistles, must contain recipes that I am likely to actually cook. No camel humps. No flamingo. No crazily expensive use-them-once ingredients. Something I can turn my hand to easily.
Which is why I own Lorraine and Nigella and can read them as literary works that make my imagination pop and swirl and fizz with ideas.
And because I feel that I’ve been a bit unfair …