Buying Cookery Books

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It’s over twenty years since I started editing cookery books and in that time quite a few have passed through my hands. I’ve seen the birth of the TV tie-in, professional cookery writers supplanted by celebrities and chefs, and photos take over from text. Cookery books used to fill a shelf or two in the average bookshop, usually down in the basement. Now they are stacked high on tables strategically placed near the door and the choice is so overwhelming, and yet often so limited in content, that it tends to make me want to walk straight out again. When I do buy cookbooks, my strategy is to steer clear of ones written by the following:

• Celebrities
It’s not impossible that they know how to cook, but is it really likely that they can cook as well as a trained chef or a professional food writer? Granted, the photos will be glossier and more attractive, but how many of them will be of the food?

• Supermodels
Ditto the above. When it comes to models cooking – and eating, by extension – it’s as someone once said about dancing dogs: of interest not because they do it well but because they do it at all.

• Winners of television competitions
Yes, even Masterchef. They are generally at the beginning of their cookery career. Why are they writing a book now, rather than after they have accumulated some knowledge and experience worth passing on? Because publishers want to strike while the iron is hot and exploit the contestants’ five minutes of fame, that’s why, but really, wouldn’t they produce a better book if they waited a bit?

• Chefs who have just opened their first restaurant
As above. In their eagerness to snap up the next big thing – or more specifically the next Jamie Oliver – publishers are beating a path to the door of any remotely promising young chef. Competition is so intense that they aim to get in there before the TV crews. That means that sometimes they are taking a punt on the basis of a chef’s face as much as their food.

• Chefs’ wives
Cookery skills are not something you absorb by osmosis. Just because you are married to a chef, you do not automatically become an expert on how to feed the family – the favoured subject for chefs’ wives because they are, almost invariably, at home with the children while their husband spends silly hours in the kitchen or, more likely, promoting his own book or TV show.

• Minor members-by-marriage of the royal family
I think you know of whom I speak. Remind me – what’s her cookery background again?

• Chefs with multiple Michelin stars
Unless you are a very dedicated home cook or a professional – in which case, get stuck in and enjoy it; your cooking will soar to unexpected heights. For most of us, though, chefs at this level are to home cooking what Bradley Wiggins is to a school kid on a bike. They’re not only not in the same kitchen, they’re barely on the same planet.

• Charity cookbooks
Sounds mean, I know, but if you want a cookbook that will deepen your knowledge of food and improve what you eat, a ragbag of ill-assorted recipes from a random collection of celebrities is not what you need. Find some good recipes online and give money to charity instead.

• And finally:
Avoid anything with more pictures of the author than of the food. Definitely avoid anything with more pictures of the author’s children than of the food.

So what should you buy?
If this all seems a little harsh, then consider this: there are people who have spent years cooking and learning about food, who can write well, who have something original to offer. Forty-odd years ago, they were Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson, Arabella Boxer, Margaret Costa, Claudia Roden. Oh look! They were all women, until male chefs got in on the act, elbowing them aside in their eagerness for royalties. Unfortunately, today’s equivalent of these literate, hugely knowledgeable writers can find it hard to get a book contract. And if they do succeed, the chances are you won’t have heard of them, since publishers don’t want to allocate their precious marketing budget to them. They don’t have a TV series to promote and aren’t married to someone famous. They probably don’t have an agent, and if a picture of them appeared on the cover of a book, then no matter how airbrushed and immaculate they looked, you wouldn’t recognise them because they wouldn’t have been on telly. But you might find that you like their thoughtful, well-informed approach to food. You might discover that it is rooted in reality – a reality that you share.

There is a certain amount of crossover these days between cookery writers and celebrities, thanks to television exposure. Nigel Slater and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, both household names, are two brilliant and inspirational cooks whose books I would happily cook from for a lifetime. The Ottolenghi cookbook is both commendably practical and utterly original – and, for its author, fame followed publication rather than the other way round, so it is the exact opposite of a celebrity cash-in. But there are books by other, lesser-known authors that I turn to just as readily as these. In no particular order, here are some of the unsung (and mostly unillustrated), heroes on my cookery shelves:

• Marcella Hazan – a big name in the States, but not so well known here. Her books are all you will ever need if you want to cook Italian food.

• Sybil Kapoor, Trish Hilferty, Tom Norrington-Davies – Sybil Kapoor is a food writer, the other two trained chefs, but they all combine a pitch-perfect approach to flavour with a sound understanding of what is achievable for cooks at home.

• Paul Gayler – an immensely talented chef, who virtually invented fusion food before the term even came into existence, he is equally comfortable writing recipes for potatoes and cheese (the topics of two of his books) as producing the classic French cuisine in which he was trained.

• Theodora Fitzgibbon – best known for her book A Taste of Ireland but, while you’re at it, read her autobiography too. This girl posed for Picasso. She was probably the original model-cum-food-writer, but a writer first and foremost.

• Fay Maschler – well known, of course, as the London Evening Standard’s restaurant critic but also the author of two cookery books: Eating In and, with the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, Howard and Maschler on Food, a sparkling book, divided up by occasion, including cooking for Dull People, Greedy People and Abandoned Men.

And finally a handful of books I would hate to be without:

Hot and Spicy: Marlena Spieler
The Riverford Cookbook: Guy Watson and Jane Baxter
The Olive Tree Cookbook: Stephen Ross
The Independent Cook: Jeremy Round
Decorating Cakes and Cookies: Gerhard Jenne
The Penguin Freezer Cookbook: Helge Rubinstein and Sheila Bush
Mediterranean Vegetable Cookery: Rena Salaman
International Jewish Cookbook: Faye Levy



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4 Comments

  1. Jen Barber says:

    So much of what you say is true and there are many books I wouldn’t touch with a bargepole! I tend to borrow from the library, read and then buy. I have fallen into the competition winner book and been both disappointed and delighted. I want books with recipes I like are not too complicated and work! I often refer to my Delia complete cookery course.

  2. Angela says:

    I think cookbooks are more like aspirational picture books, hence their place on the coffee table often rather than the kitchen. Apparently the average person only cooks three recipes, at the most, from any one book. I love cookery books for their instruction, but also to be taken on a journey without leaving my own home….the beat ones do that, whether its a to a time in the past or a place I haven’t been to, I wouldn’t even worry about the celebrity ones, they won’t be around for long….

  3. I find it amazing how some recipes from cookery books “work” for me and I can not get on with others. Agree with you about books from wives of chefs and other celebs and I have one that requires veal stock- I’ll just get that out of the freezer then.

  4. kerstin says:

    I’ve been writing about this subject for a while now. It’s very frustrating. I was surprised that the Guardian/Observer carried a version of this article in that they condone this kind of thing in terms of who they give publicity to.
    After Hugh FW’s column for them was ghosted.
    Their recent cover for the ofm on the new Queens of Greens featured only young, slim women. Not me of course, because I’m neither of those things even though my book V is for Vegan, ACTUALLY written and cooked and tested by me, had just come out.
    I’ve also bemoaned several times that if a Martian came down to earth and watched TV, they’d have the impression that only men cooked and major the odd supermodel. In reality women do 99.9 % of the worlds cooking.