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Best - who says?

"Best - "of the most excellent type or quality"; "giving most pleasure, happiest"; "most suitable or appropriate" Oxford Advanced Learners' Dictionary

The word 'best' in English comes from the Old English 'beste' meaning "of the highest quality or standing, first, in the best manner." Which I guess is much the same as the modern dictionary definitions. And no I didn't look at the wormhole of the Urban Dictionary today.

However, it does make me wonder at what point in the history of language did the concept of best come in? Was it always there? Possibly not in the sense of comparing things, because there would have been few things to compare - although ... I suppose if you were making some kind of hunting implement, however, basic, you would pick out the most effective one to use, and discard the others. And within a group of people there was probably a dominant male - it must have been male - who might not have been the best in so many ways, but he would have been the best at being dominant if nothing else.

When I was a primary school teacher in a very non-competitive school where we were not encouraged to point out, however subtly that somebody was better than somebody else at a particular skill, it always seemed to me that this was a somewhat pointless exercise, because the children always knew who was 'best' at whatever skill or quality was the current occupation. Well 'better' anyway. 'best' was probably an ever changing thing. And so very subjective anyway.

Probably the only time you can definitively say that someone is the best is in a sporting competition that somebody wins. And even then they might only be the best on the day.

Why am I talking about 'the best'?

Well I am trying to weed my cookbook collection very gradually, and this is my next candidate. I think it was a present from one of my daughters-in-law, so I feel a little bit bad about it, however, honestly it is not a great book.

I remember being pretty excited about it when I received it though. After all it was from a prestigious American magazine, and the editors in their introduction said:

"With hundreds of cookbooks published every year, it's an enormous task to find the most delicious and creative dishes. We spend a full 12 months reading, testing and retesting stacks and stacks of books to find the 25 absolute best. The work can be tedious sometimes (we made countless kale salads this year), but when we come across a discovery - something unique, tasty and easy - it's an incredible thrill."

And yet when I finished reading it I could not find much - well hardly anything - to excite me in there. And I stress 'me'. Others may have found much more. Even the inclusion of Ottolenghi's book Jerusalem written with his business partner Sami Tamimi - The Best of the Best edition was old - 2013 - did not excite. Well not quite true - there were four of his recipes - two for salads which are not really my thing and also Tomato and almond tart; which I think I have mentioned before and Roasted chicken with clementines and arak - a kind of traybake. I suspect, however, that if I checked out the book itself I would find much better things.

For the rest of the book, which admittedly did not have that many pictures of the dishes whose recipes had been selected, I have just two to possibly recommend after my most recent check: Chicken paillards with pancetta and sage from Ted Allen in his book In My Kitchen, although it has to be said that this is really a standard Italian recipe and Sausage stuffed onions from April Bloomfield whose book A Girl and a Pig did indeed appear on other people's lists for the year. I might look at the notion of stuffed onions some other time. In the meantime check out this one:

So all in all not at all the best of the best for me. But that, of course, is just me. Moreover it's me on one particular day. Me on another day might have picked something else. Also we all have our favourite chefs, so choosing from a whole lot of cooks/chefs who were completely unknown to me may have been partly the problem. I was already biased in favour of the cooks I knew, although I have to say that the three from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's book River Cottage Fish were pretty ordinary. He has plenty of better recipes, although I cannot check out the book as I don't have it.

So it seems to me that choosing the best recipes, or the best books of a particular year is basically impossible - in an irrefutable sense anyway. I actually checked out a few 'best' lists for 2022 - at least three different lists, and although there were some titles that appeared in all of them - well actually not any in all of them - there were a whole lot more that were particular to that individual list. You can almost see how some of them were chosen as well. I concentrated on Australian here so that I would at least recognise most of them, and I can see that a few were chosen because the cooks are the critics' darlings - Julie Busuttil Nishimura, Karen Martin being two of those. Some were cult - Chineseish being one of those. Some I guess might be 'politically correct' - The First Nations Food Companion for example. However, you could quite reasonably say that such a book is 'best' in that it opens ones eyes to a totally different cuisine and a culture too, even if the recipes are awful. Not that I am saying they are. I just haven't seen the book so couldn't possibly say. But I suspect it was not chosen because it had the best recipes of the year.

But then again, I suppose that the term 'cookbook' covers a much larger field that a collection of recipes, which again complicates the task of choosing the best. Is it the best for beginners, for kids, for vegetarians and vegans, for the writing and insight into life, the universe and everything, for the study of a personality, for introducing an entire culture, for travel ... ? There are so many categories.

Really I am saying that the choice of books is not just down to the person doing the choosing, it's also down to the potential audience and also to what is available to look at. When those editors of The Best of the Best book say 'we' - who do they mean? The editor and the assistant editor who are named - or a whole team? And those people may not have access to all books anyway. I doubt if they looked at many Australian books for example, or South African, maybe even Canadian. If I was to try and produce a ten best cookbooks list, for example, it would come from a very limited selection. Let's face it there are at least hundreds, possibly thousands of cookbooks published every year. There are after all entire bookshops dedicated to cookbooks.

Sometimes you will find that a newspaper or journal will ask a selected group of food critics, or chefs, or just well-known people to pick their best cookbooks. And obviously a chef in a high-end restaurant is not going to be choosing the same ones that a novice or reluctant cook would pick. If you're a vegan you are not going to pick a cookbook like A Girl and Her Pig are you? Which is where that definition of best as 'suitable and appropriate' comes in.

Best, doesn't necessarily mean best-selling either. And maybe best-selling is the publishing equivalent of the first over the line in a race. I think last year's best-seller here in Australia was Nagi Maehashi of Recipe Tin Eats ' Dinner. I think I saw it mentioned just once in those best lists that I looked at. Why is it not on more of them? I bought it for my granddaughter who loves it, and one day if it's on a special somewhere I might buy it for myself. Her recipes are beautifully and thoughtfully presented, and they are pretty tasty as well. Possibly not amazingly original, but always incredibly helpful in the way they take you through the whole process. But not a foodie favourite it seems.

And I still haven't worked out how a cook/chef becomes a foodie favourite. Or a restaurant. I cannot quite believe that there aren't a huge number of excellent restaurants in real suburbia. At least as good as many that are recommended in trendy lists such as Cheap Eats, Broadsheet or Urban List, etc. - other places that are so trendy that I don't know about them.

So sadly my Best of the Best book is going to find its way to the street library where it may well languish for some time. You would think would you not that a book with a title like that, from a reputable magazine would indeed be a best seller. It purports to have done all the research for you, so that in one place you will have all the best dishes devised in that year. Not so. It's just one team's opinions. Everyone of the billions of individuals on this planet would have a different opinion.


Whilst trawling through the 'best' lists - some of all time - I came across a quote from Edouard de Pomiane who published a book called French Cooking in 10 Minutes, published in 1939. He was a favourite of Elizabeth David's and much admired by many. In this case his book was chosen as best cookbook ever by the English/French chef Raymond Blanc - so an individual choice:

"Pomiane is my hero. He was not a chef but a renowned scientist at the Institut Pasteur in Paris, an expert in nutrition and the medical values of food. A man of real knowledge."

Anyway the quote is not really anything to do with the notion of 'best', which is why it is here in a postscript, but I did like it. And so' today' even though written in 1939 - just before WW2 maybe or right at the start - troubled times.

‘Modern life spoils so much that is pleasant. Let us see that it does not make us spoil our steak or our omelette. Ten minutes are sufficient – one minute more and all would be lost.’ Edouard de Pomiane/French Cooking in 10 Minutes (1939)

There's probably a modern cookbook with that title around somewhere. After all time is of the essence these days is it not?


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