FOOD WRITING AND COOKBOOKS – A LIFELONG LOVE
About seven years ago I got divorced. Of course the reasons given as the causes of a divorce are never the real ones. ‘He never puts the lid on the toothpaste ’ isn’t really about the toothpaste, or the lid, or even general untidiness. So cookbooks didn’t exactly cause my divorce, but books – and in particular cookbooks – were a contributing factor simply because they are so important to me.
At one point my ex husband and I stood on the landing of our home, the shelves of which housed about 4000 books, most of them cookbooks. ‘Really you have to get rid of some of them. There’s just too many,’ he said. I was amazed that somebody could ask me to do this. It was almost as if he’d said ‘Get rid of your past.’ Because to me these weren’t just books. They were loved and used, but they were also, in a way, a map of my life. They reminded me of particular phases and they also chronicled the previous 30 years through food styles and food photography. There were, admittedly, a few that I rarely opened, such as Anton Mosimann’s Cuisine à la Carte, his hymn to nouvelle cuisine. But as soon as I look at those pictures, food graphically arranged on hexagonal plates, I am back in the London I arrived in during the mid 80s. There’s a book called The China Moon Cookbook by Barbara Tropp that I don’t use much any more. But that reminds me of all the Asian/Californian dishes I cooked in my early 30s. There was no way any of these books were going anywhere. It would have been like throwing out chunks of my life.
I was given my first cookbook when I was about 6. It was the My Learn to Cook Book by Ursula Sedgwick, published by Hamlyn. I’d hate to lose this because the illustrations give me the same frisson of excitement now as they did then.
It looks fun, it’s colourful, but what I loved most were the illustrations for the instructions. I could see exactly what I had to do, and how my dishes were supposed to turn out. The tomatoes with eggs baked inside them seemed to me a genius idea, and the picture of the finished dish made me hungry. It was one of the first savoury meals I ever made.
After receiving this book I asked for cookbooks as presents and still have a small collection of books on making sweets and snacks, all aimed at children. That they had recipes that worked was the most important thing to me. Actually producing dishes was a big thrill, and still is.
On my mum’s shelf in the kitchen there were a few cookbooks that had to with fantasy as well as practicality. Books by Fanny Craddock were full of pictures of things I couldn’t imagine making and didn’t really want to eat. Meringue swans and ponds of aspic protecting pictures made out of bits of red pepper and angelica were never going to be on the menu, but they fascinated me nonetheless.
The first cookbook I bought with my own money was Prue Leith’s Cooking for Friends (and it took an enormous amount of pocket money to purchase it). It wasn’t just about the practicalities of cooking but about throwing a party. At 13 this really was a premature purchase, but I loved it. The book was split into sections – ‘the cheap’, ‘the not so cheap’ and ‘the simply extravagant’. This, my mum’s Cordon Bleu part work and her Hamlyn All Colour Cookbook, kept me going for years. Cookbooks were manuals, but manuals from which you could go places. The first thing I ever cooked from the Hamlyn book was lamb chops with ratatouille. It contained aubergines, something we had never heard of in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. The local green grocer ordered these purple coloured slippers for me specially. When I cooked them I thought they were the strangest and most wonderful things – like little velvet sponges – I’d ever tasted. There weren’t many cookbooks in the house but what was there took me a long way.
It wasn’t until I went to university that I started to discover writers who didn’t just give recipes but also wrote about food. I remember the day I stood in Blackwell’s in Oxford and spotted An Omelette and a Glass of Wine by someone called Elizabeth David. It wasn’t just the title that drew me – though I thought the title was brilliant because it summed up, in just one line, what can be so great about food, that it can be at its most wonderful when it’s simple – but also the cover picture. It was Eggs by Cedric Morris and its plainness was perfect. I duly bought this hardback in a bit of a fluster– I didn’t really have the money for hardbacks at that time but I just had to have that book. I read it from cover to cover. It’s sacrilegious to say this but I don’t love Elizabeth David. She has always seemed to me rather acid, rather snobbish. And I don’t like that. I won’t say she didn’t have a huge effect on our attitude to food – and she certainly wrote in elegant prose – but I don’t care for her tone. However she did show me that writing about food wasn’t just a matter of explaining how to cook dishes and that led me to Jane Grigson.
Jane Grigson simply startled me – I hadn’t thought of recipe books as places where you could also find poems, but in her books there were recipes (and recipes you wanted to cook, written in clear prose), bits of history, travel writing, always food in a context. And it was personal. And often unexpected.
This piece on strawberries, from her Fruit Book, is one of the first I read:
“Do you remember the kind and beautiful girl in Grimm’s fairy tales, who is driven out by her stepmother to find strawberries in the snow? How she comes to the dwarves’ house, and shares her crust of bread with them?
And how, as she sweeps the snow aside with their broom, she finds there – strawberries? That vivid image of delight, of fruit and snow against forest darkness, is never forgotten. It’s our northern winter longing for summer, a joy of the mind. And yet, in the sudden snow of winter a couple of years ago, I went to sweep our doorway – and found strawberries.”
Over the years I have bought everything Jane Grigson wrote. She is one of my food heroines. Unlike Elizabeth David I think she’s warm. If I asked Elizabeth David to lunch, I used to think, I’d be terrified. Nothing would be right for her. If I asked Jane Grigson, on the other hand, we could just have a banana sandwich, and she would see the merit in that, as long as it was a well-made sandwich.
The most profound book-buying experience, though (and it was something that really did effect the course of my life) was in north London in the autumn of 1986. I had moved to London to do post graduate studies in journalism. Moving there overwhelmed me. There wasn’t a food ingredient that I couldn’t find and there was a restaurant, somewhere in the city, for practically every cuisine you could think of. One day after college I was mooching around the bookshop near my flat and found a book called A New Book of Middle Eastern Food by Claudia Roden. I had never heard of her, but the food sounded good. And the writing in it took me to the Middle East, a place – since coming to London with the Edgware Road and all the Middle Eastern groceries near my flat – that didn’t feel so far away.
On a shelf nearby there was a book by a woman I had heard a little about – Alice Waters. Her book, The Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook, was actually marked down in price, but when I flicked through it I knew I would give almost anything to take it home with me.
It is difficult to explain now how very different Alice’s approach was to anything that had gone before. It was so simple. It showed a Mediterranean spirit applied to American ingredients. The menus went like this:
Goat’s cheese with baked garlic and sourdough
Chargrilled pork with roast peppers and griddled leeks
There were other menus – some more elaborate, some celebrating the garlic harvest, or the new season’s lamb. But all of them were about simplicity and purity and just valuing good food. The book and its menus actually sent a shiver down my spine. Nobody was cooking like this – we were in the middle of nouvelle cuisine – and it seemed so fresh. These two books – Roden’s and Water’s – are very different but they had a huge impact on me. I loved Claudia because her writing was so personal, because she put food into a cultural and historical context, because she painted vivid pictures and made me want to travel. I loved Alice, because her outlook was so fresh. It’s a common chant nowadays, but ‘simple and seasonal’ was a new mantra when Alice started to voice it. I had no intention of being a food writer then but these books were constant companions both in my kitchen and on my bedside table. Claudia Roden has the power to transport any reader, as well as make them hungry. I particularly love her on her life at home in Egypt. This extract is about visiting her father’s sisters:
“Their homes were intoxicating with frankincense which they used in every room – bakhoor el barr, benzoin or aloes-wood – with musk and ambergris, and the jasmine, orange blossom and rose petals which were left soaking in water in little china or crystal bowls. Candied orange peel, quince paste, coconut, fig, date, rose, tangerine and strawberry jams would be brought in as soon as we arrived, together with pyramids of little pastries, and accompanied by the tinkling of tiny silver spoons, trembling on their stands like drops on a chandelier. Delicately engraved and inlaid silver trays carried small crystal or silver bowls filled with the shiny jams: orange, brilliantly white, mauve, deep rose or sienna red. They were arranged around the spoon stand, next to which was placed a glass of water, ornate with white and gold arabesques”
After discovering Claudia I looked for cookbooks by people who really knew particular cultures very well. I bought everything she had written, her book of Mediterranean food, her book on Italian food, and then I started on the American writer Paula Wolfert. Paula also immersed herself in food cultures. The first book I bought by her was about Moroccan food. After that it was Marcella Hazan, the goddess of all things Italian.
All these writers brought different things. Paula Wolfert sounded like a greedy anthropologist, Claudia like someone yearning for home, Marcella like a no nonsense but helpful and supremely capable Italian lady who would show you better than anyone else how to make pasta or risotto or ciabatta. (Marcella is very clear. In the Classic Italian Cookbook she states with great certainty and clarity, ‘Rice and peas is not a risotto with peas. It is a soup’.)
I was developing a liking for American writers and this really blossomed and deepened when I went on honeymoon. The trip was spent in the States, and meticulously planned by me. 3 ½ weeks of traveling round the country eating in restaurants I’d been reading about for almost a decade. Arcadia in New York, K Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen in New Orleans, Greens, The Zuni Cafe and Chez Panisse in San Francisco. I discovered more great writers while I was there and had to buy an extra suitcase to carry my new books home.
I appreciate good recipes – in fact I really demand that recipes work and get very cross when they don’t – but recipes, as long as they are tested, are the easiest bit of a book to do and the bit I tend to take for granted. I realise now that I was, in cookbooks, looking for something more than instruction. I was looking for people who loved food as much as I did. I wasn’t going to be able to communicate directly with them – I was just reading their words, after all – but food was not talked about then as much as it is now and I needed someone who would talk to me.
In Kitchen Arts and Letters – a small but perfectly formed cookbook shop in New York – I discovered a young woman who was writing for The New York Times. Her name was Molly O’Neill and she was described as ‘the Damon Runyon of the New York food scene’. I completely fell in love with her. I think she is unsurpassed and have treasured her book, A Well-Seasoned Appetite, for the last 20 years. This is why. She is writing here about aubergines:
“Ohioans have definite ideas about summer dinner. And that summer we were more definite than usual. Watergate was everywhere. WCOL played Don McLean singing ‘American Pie’ so often that even the rednecks were starting to believe it and the rest of us were finding out that being right doesn’t necessarily feel right. Everyone cleaved to the familiar, which didn’t include eggplant. The only reason I bought one was that Paul Bennett seemed so sad looking at his undiminished supply…….
….I first cooked eggplant the night that Richard M. Nixon resigned. A bunch of us were grilling steaks over a hardwood fire in the backyard when WCOL interrupted its programming with the news bulletin. We tried to cheer, but our mouths were full so instead we chewed while the crickets screamed and WCOL played.
‘Oh my God the eggplant,’ said Juan Carlos Durante.
‘The eggplant,’ said Jude Ogsburg.
‘The eggplant,’ said Alice Merrill.
I’d dropped in on the grill and forgotten it, leaving it to blister and get soft and sweet as butter over dying coals. When we finally ate it, each spoonful hinted of a world beyond the obvious, something underneath the surface, under water, beyond our shores.”
What is special about Molly O’Neill?
Food is part of her life and she tells you how it fits into it. Food is never – for any of us – just something to eat. It is about time and place and memory and the imagination. Summer days aren’t, as Molly has shown, summer days without the smell of smoke and food being grilled. She understands the seasons, texture, smells, mood and light. And why food means so much to us. Here she is writing about the summer appetite:
“Heat breeds hyperbole in ingredients. But it begs the cook for finesse. Dog-day hunger is a complicated thing. I can be sated by a brash barbecue and left still wanting something gentler and cooler. It is no coincidence that the season’s tender berries become icy sorbets, a shale of violent, glassy crystals. The summer appetite summons extremes”
Molly has produced cookbooks only sporadically and no longer writes for The New York Times. She is fond of compendiums of other people’s recipes (she wrote the excellent New York Cookbook about 20 years ago, and last year a book on the recipes of home cooks from all over the States called One Big Table). I keep waiting for her to write another personal book on food, like A Well-Seasoned Appetite.
You might think I am keen only on women writers but there are several American men I love too – Calvin Trilling, Edward Behr and John Thorne, all very different.
John Thorne lives in Vermont and publishes a thin periodical every so often called Simple Cooking. His prose isn’t as rich as Molly’s – he is an altogether more straightforward chap – but he is a great communicator. He doesn’t like pretension or bullshit, and he invites you into his world. He also writes – often – about the most ordinary things and helps you to see them differently.
“Olives. If there is a single flavor whose presence gives shape to the eating of all the Mediterranean, it is theirs. Street markets reek of their acescent aroma, brine-soaked tubs proclaim their gaudy multitude: bruise-purple, glaucous, pure emerald green; some plump to bursting, others withered as any prune. In Provence alone, there are dozens of varieties and hundreds of cures, touching every note in a register of bitter, pungent complexity.
How can we understand this appetite? Olives, their olives, are so hard to like except one by one – the piquant touch on the hors d’oeuvres tray, some tiny slivers scattered over the salad, pasta, or pizza. And even then, we prefer them at their most suave – nicoise, Kalamata, Ponentine – sleek miniatures of what is in truth a coarse and gargantuan hunger.”
People sometimes ask me what good food writing is. They ask for advice about how they should start. I have always said ‘Have something to say’. But as well as this a food writer needs to be able to pin down particulars.
An excellent writer herself, the Australian restaurateur Gay Bilson has been very specific (if a little harsh) on what she thinks makes good food writing. Her book, Plenty, is peppered with recipes but really it is a book about life – everything is covered in it; there are digressions on tofu, architecture, music, restaurant design and birds nests.
This is what she has to say about food writing:
“The best writing about food depends on the writer’s qualifications as a writer. Dismissing this as the ‘bleeding obvious’ is to continue to settle for the status quo of gush, advertisement and self-advertisement that dominates the ‘delicious’ market and depends on its readers praising the emperor’s new clothes. It is why, give or take an Alan Davidson or two, the best is to be found sheltering by accident in works about other things altogether. As well, the best writing about food might be defined, as John Banville defined a different kind of writing, as ‘evocative exactitude’. When Hilary Mantel, reassessing Sybille Bedford with the reissue of her novels in 2001, wrote about the meal in A Legacy (which I find so perfect in tone and suggestion) she points to a concrete style, ‘rich detailed and particular….her eye is exact, and she brings to her perception of the landscape a solid concern for its utility; what grows here, how it is watered, what living does it provide?’ This attention to utility is the privilege of gastronomic writing, which food historian Barbara Santich suggests is the result of the confluence of the intellect and the senses. Bedford’s fictional meal evokes not only the meal as a legitimate part of the landscape but the light of that landscape captured in olive oil….”
Throughout my life I haven’t just loved cookbooks, I’ve also loved literature in general, and I’ve especially loved literature that has food as a kind of bass note. I don’t go looking for novels or poetry that are about food but I am fascinated when food is used to set a scene, or to tell you something about a character, or about the author. (Good writers who are, inadvertently, wonderful on food are Katherine Mansfield and Sybille Bedford). This writing can be bucolic, the kind you find in Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie, or Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books about life in the American mid west (in the Little House books) - all of these were favourite books of my childhood – but it can also show you that food is complicated, even upsetting.
When I first read Seamus Heaney’s ‘Blackberry Picking’ (I was about 11 years old) I was astonished that someone – and someone who wrote with an Irish voice – saw blackberries the way I did. Every year you were overwhelmed and excited by the abundance. Every year you picked too many, and then they rotted. Food is not always wonderful. Like other things in life blackberries are beautiful and then they make you sad.
Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
Picking. Then red ones inked up and that hunger
Sent us out with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots
Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots.
Round hayfields, cornfields and potato-drills
We trekked and picked until the cans were full
Until the tinkling bottom had been covered
With green ones, and on top big dark blobs burned
Like a plate of eyes. Our hands were peppered
With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre.
But when the bath was filled we found a fur,
A rat-grey fungus, glutting on our cache.
The juice was stinking too. Once off the bush
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.
Peter Robb writes about countries though I wouldn’t quite call him a travel writer as he goes much, much deeper than that. He has written about the mafia in Sicily, corruption in Naples, a history of India and the life of Caravaggio. If you get someone with that breadth of knowledge and intelligence writing on food you are onto a winner. I frankly wish he would visit every country on the planet and write about its food. This is one of my favourite bits in his book Midnight in Sicily:
“The swordfish and tuna were flanked by many smaller fish, striped mackerel and fat sardines, and squid and prawns and octopus and cuttlefish… I remember how the diffused red light of the market enhanced the translucent red of the big fishes’ flesh and the silver glitter of the smaller ones’ skins.”
In the last five years or so, I have stopped buying as many books as I used to. This is because I don’t need as much instruction any more. It’s also because I am running out of space. A cookbook needs to be truly special to get a place on my overcrowded shelves.
As a cookbook buyer I started off purchasing books that didn’t have pictures in them. For a long time I thought this was less important. I needed recipes that worked and a writer who could write but, in the same way as you don’t want illustrations in a novel, I thought pictures would get in the way. Then I started to write my own books and discovered that I wanted to communicate through photographs too. A book that has pictures in it has a world. You go somewhere with that kind of book. The photography and the styling tell you something about the author’s approach to food, about his or her take on things. And so now I judge the photography and the book’s ability to take me somewheren not just with words but with pictures too.
In this area two books influenced me. The first, simply called PIZZA, was published by my own publishers, Mitchell Beazley, and came out just when I was writing my first book, Crazy Water Pickled Lemons. The photographs are cross-processed – this technique wasn’t much used at the time – and I realized that the saturated colours made real life look more real, more intense. If anyone has captured better the explosive feeling that is Naples and pizza I haven’t found it. This is big, bold, captivating book and, so far, it hasn’t dated.
A few years ago another book came out that struck me as fresh and authentic. A lot of books are just written by the author – someone else does the cooking for the photographs, and another person, often someone who is not even on the shoots, brings in all the props and plates. When I opened David Tannis’ first book, A Platter of Figs I knew that it was entirely his vision. Other people might have helped him – books are massive team efforts – but the food and the photography and the plates came together in such a seamless whole I knew this was completely his book. David worked at Chez Panisse so is from the Alice Water’s school of cookery. Which means that you don’t think about food as just dishes – everything is part of a whole.
People often ask me to list my favourite cookbooks. It’s hard. You get different things from different books and, as I’ve explained, they can also represent particular periods of your life. But here are the ones I wouldn’t be without, which move me as much as an album of family photographs.
My Favourite Cookbooks
If I could choose just one book that is good about a country and its food – but doesn’t include recipes – it would be Peter Robb’s Midnight in Sicily. If you want recommendations for books about food that don’t contain recipes, you’ll have to keep checking this website. I’ll cover the best ones, over time.
I am going to give the last word not to an American but to a Brit. She is not necessarily intentionally funny but she makes me howl. When you think that this was written in 1922 you can see how food writing has changed. This is Agnes Jekyll, a woman who has very definite opinions:
“God made the first Christmas, and man has ever since been busy spoiling it. Year by year the propaganda of the shops grown increasingly active; and their suggestions for the keeping of that high feast, including such secular items as dozens of brandy, whisky and champagne, appear annually more elaborate and incongruous……
Country friends flock eagerly to town, armed with lists of things they are resolute to buy and bestow, and the offer of a house of rest, an hour of respite from their bewildering preoccupations, and an agreeable luncheon, will be an act of hospitality gratefully welcomed. It will be the more appreciated if we take the trouble to order such fare as is not readily procurable in the country, for the charm of novelty is a potent one. ‘What is that delicious little cake?’ her late Majesty Queen Victoria is said to have inquired with interest, on being confronted for the first time with a penny bun. For a first course, then, choose a dish of oysters, rarely procurable at their best either at the seaside or in the country…..”
Agnes goes on to suggest a luncheon of oysters au gratin followed by roast veal, French cheeses and salad, with gauffrettes for pudding. No simple, local and seasonal for her then. What a long way we’ve come.
(A version of this was given as a talk at the Toast Festival in the summer of 2013)