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Cookbooks have turned to home

"a book that you use all the time, not just read once and discard on the shelf. It is in a sense a spell book, a book of magical enchantments, to be consulted, used and altered as needed.” The Silver Elves, The Elf Folks' Book of Cookery: Recipes for a Delighted Tongue, a Healthy Body and a Magical Life

My opening quote's source is weird, but the quote itself is rather good I thought.

We can now go shopping, and books are what I like to shop for - specifically cookbooks I suppose. I have been promising myself the gift of a new cookbook as soon as I can get to the shops. Well not quite as soon as - I considered it not sensible to go shopping on the first couple of days they were open. After all, all of Melbourne will be there. Whilst waiting for the great reopening I have been checking on the latest offerings in the cookbook world. Above is Readings front page in their cookbook section, with some of the books I am considering. But there are so many to choose from, even if you eliminate the vegan, the vegetarian and the wellness genres. And let me say that those genres are actually the biggest sellers it seems, which as one writer says is ironic:

"The biggest seller is cookbooks and the second is diet books - how not to eat what you've just learned how to cook." Andy Rooney

It seems to me that almost every noted cookbook author has a new book out - they must have been using their lockdown time, writing books. And the other thing is that they are almost all about home cooking in one form or another. Which is sort of interesting, but probably not that surprising.

In a way Jamie Oliver started all of this back in the English lockdown period with his TV show Keep cooking and carry on. Ironically too, considering how many cookbooks Jamie Oliver churns out, this particular series is not available in book form. Here he is looking a bit under the weather in his pretend kitchen, at the back of his real kitchen I think. His wife filmed it on her phone and it was all very thrown together. And it was wonderful. One of the best things he has done I think. In this picture he is making quesadillas - here's the video:

Anyway I think it started a trend in what the cookbook authors decided to write about - very predominantly what they 'really' cook at home. Who knows whether they do or not, but that's the conceit. And along with the recipes that 'anyone' can cook, there are stories about their lives, their influences, the ingredients. and so on.

"what we’re seeing with increasingly personal cookbooks is “a continuation and intensification of an earlier trend” combined with broader fashions in the culinary sphere of emphasis on chefs as individuals, and in publishing of personal non-fiction narratives" Barbara Santich

COVID, I am sure has been a huge influence on the kind of cookbook we are now presented with. These chefs have not been able to work in their restaurants, and so it must have been a period of self-reflection for them. Many have reinvented themselves in many different ways. It also soon became obvious with all the panic buying that went on initially, that cooking today is more about what you have in the cupboard than intensive planning and shopping. We have all in one way or another retreated into nostalgia for mum's cooking for comfort, and so we are interested in what Nigel Slater's mum used to cook, for example, or what Gordon Ramsay cooks for his family.

The other main influence on the evolution of the cookbook is the internet.

"the trend of more personal cookbooks can also be attributed to the abundance of cooking resources available on the internet. Now, cookbooks must be able to offer something more than merely reliable recipes." Barbara Santich

'A cookbook doesn’t just compete against other cookbooks, it competes with a seemingly unlimited supply of free recipes online (type the names of two random ingredients into a search engine, and you’re bound to get a recipe that combines them). A cookbook needs to mean something or offer something people can’t get anywhere else." Blurb

And this is definitely true - I often do the typing of ingredients into Google thing myself. So what we need from cookbooks is more about what goes with what, what can be substituted for something else, what are the basic techniques to create a meal. Glossy photographs and stories about the food, the author, the country the food comes from are a bonus, particularly when they are well written. For being a chef doesn't necessarily make you a good writer. Reading a cookbook is a form of relaxation. Just a whole lot of recipes is not that interesting to read, though, of course, essential, for finding a good recipe as long as it has a good index.

Cookbooks are an indulgence though as they are never cheap.

“Cookbooks, it should be stressed, do not belong in the kitchen at all. We keep them there for the sake of appearances; occasionally, we smear their pages together with vibrant green glazes or crimson compotes, in order to delude ourselves, and any passing browsers, that we are practicing cooks; but in all honesty, a cookbook is something you read in the living room, or in the bathroom, or in bed.” Anthony Lane, Nobody's Perfect: Writings from The New Yorker

Sadly rather true, but I do take them into the kitchen every now and then. Not as much as I used to though, which is something I must change.

So here are some of the books I have to choose from - and this does reflect my own personal preferences, as well as the fashionable, because, as we all know, I'm a sucker for fashion. In no particular order:

I'm starting with this one because of its title, because this is what this year's crop is all about. Mind you I'm not sure that Stephanie's book is really about home cooking in a nostalgic sense. From the brief examples of pages that I have seen I would say the introductions to the recipes are more about the history of the dish, or something about the major ingredients. The blurb does say:

"Essays on people, places and experiences offer inspiration to readers looking to deepen their knowledge and appreciation of food."

But it all seems a bit teacherly to me. Gorgeous cover to the book though. Should we judge the contents by the cover? Maybe it's just that the title is not apt. It maybe should have been called something else.

Next is Nigel Slater. Well you know I love Nigel Slater, but I have come to realise that this is perhaps more for his writing than his actual recipes - which, I notice, are becoming increasingly vegetarian. Diana Henry of The Telegraph thinks it's his best book which is saying something. Amazon's blurb describes it as:

"A Cook’s Book is the story of Nigel Slater’s life in the kitchen. From the first jam tart Nigel made with his mum standing on a chair trying to reach the Aga, through to what he is cooking now, this is the ultimate Nigel Slater collection brimming with over 200 recipes."

Each recipe has a little story and a beautiful photograph. Yum. A very definite possibility.

Rick Stein is a chef, none of whose books are on my shelves. I have seen a couple of short bits from some of his shows, and was not all that impressed, but he is certainly a big name, both here and in his native England. And his food comes from a wide range of different cultures. But here we go again - 'at home' and this does seem to be a more talkative book on the whole. So maybe I should at least check it out.

"Rick explores family classics that evoke childhood memories and newer dishes that have marked more recent personal milestones - along with unforgettable stories that celebrate his favourite ingredients, food memories, family cooking moments and more." says the blurb

Well what can you say about this next one? Ottolenghi has a good commercial head on his shoulders. It's nearly Christmas and so we have a new book. The food is always interesting. But this one is another inspired by COVID.

"the Ottolenghi Test Kitchen team do what we all do - they raid their kitchens. But then, they turn whatever they find into approachable creations with an 'Ottolenghi' twist. This instinct is in perfect sync with recent times, when we've all been standing in front of our kitchen shelves, our cupboards and our fridges, wondering what to cook with what we've got; how to put a can of chickpeas or a bag of frozen peas to good use, instead of taking an extra trip to the shops."

There are bits of text - mostly in the introductions to each section, but the introductions to the recipes are brief. Still there is at least an introduction, and a space for you to fill in your variation. I'm never sure how much credit should actually go to Ottolenghi, and how much to his team. I guess he at least has the final say. I was disappointed by Flavour, so I'm not sure about this one, although the concept is tempting. And whatever else you can say about him, his food is always different. I'll certainly check it out.

Donna Hay always brings out a book for Christmas and this is the offering for this year. I get sucked into her books because of their sheer gorgeousness. But there's not a lot of text. Just recipes. Which is fine I guess, and apparently this one has QR codes to link you to videos, and there are lots of tips and tricks, but I'm betting there is not a lot of personal stuff.

She follows the trend of simple, fast, and no washing up though, which is not to be mocked. However, I don't think this will be near the top of my list.

I don't have any of Adam Liaw's cookbooks and I have only seen short snippets of his current TV program The Cook Up, on which this book is based. He is an amiable soul and the food on show on that program is indeed pretty simple on the whole, but a little bit different - like Delia. I guess he built his reputation on introducing various Asian cuisines, but here we have food from everywhere. Each recipe seems to have a short introduction, sometimes personal, sometimes about the food, and also a tip or trick of some kind. Practical and appealing.

"the key to good home cooking is to just do good home cooking." Publisher's notes

Mmm, maybe.

Well it's Jamie - another prolific writer of cookbooks. Indeed it's probably his main source of income these days, after his restaurant chain collapse. This one is arranged around menus for family meals. The blurb says:

"Jamie's aim - whether following the full meal or picking individual recipes - is to keep you out of the kitchen to enjoy eating with your guests."

Which is a bit ambitious. And the photo on the cover is interesting. He's big into family of course, but it looks like the two oldest girls have left home.

I have a few of his books but not all, and I don't think I'll go for this one.

Neil Perry is another cook whose books I do not have. In fact I know very little about him, other than that he runs Rockpool restaurants and is a consultant to Qantas - well he used to be. An haute cuisine chef anyway, and so I have never explored his work. Each recipe appears to have a short introduction with tips and variations and according to the blurb there is also information on techniques and methods. Somehow, though it doesn't appeal. And I have no idea why that is. I mean just look at those potatoes. My favourite, favourite thing, and you would have to say that that is home cooking.

"I could not love this book more. A palpable instant classic, infused with wisdom, generosity and achievable deliciousness. Every page feels like a blessing." Nigella Lawson

"Claudia Roden is the queen of all cookbook writers. Med is a beautiful book brimming with wisdom and exquisite good taste." Jay Rayner

High praise indeed and she has been one of my gurus, since her A Book of Middle-Eastern Food, in it's tatty old Penguin edition. Sometimes she is a bit over scholarly but her recipes never fail, and, it seems, she too has turned to HOME for inspiration for this collection of simple recipes that she now cooks for herself, for family and friends. The good ones just keep on delivering. This is a prime candidate for my treat.

Another of my favourite cooks who has not actually produced many books. Thanks to my op shop shopping friend I was recently presented with her collected recipes collection. She is also a very home based cook - in this case somewhere in regional Australia. If one was being slightly unkind one could say she epitomises the Country Women's Association kind of food. But that would be to do her injustice as her food is actually quite adventurous and inspired by the whole world. Apparently every Sunday she posts on Instagram something she has cooked at home, and I think this is a collection of some those posts. Maybe.

Christine Manfield is another restaurateur whose books I have never collected, in spite of visiting one of her restaurants here in Melbourne, years ago, and loving the food. The blurb says it is a 'handbook of skills to encourage creativity' which is a big claim. One never feels confident enough to be creative with Indian food. Much better to follow a recipe or go for the down and dirty and just use a bottled curry paste from Patak's or Sharwood. So maybe this would be a useful book to have on the shelf. Not now though I think. A potential Christmas present for someone perhaps.

Yes Gordon Ramsay - he of the famously bad temper and bullying persona seems to have been reinventing himself of late into a kinder, more approachable cook. Cook rather than chef. As you can see the cover features happy family photographs. The concept here is meals that can be made in 10 minutes and comes from a YouTube series. But unlike Jamie and his Keep Cooking and Carry On series, this one has been parlayed into a book. I really know nothing about Gordon Ramsay as a cook, but he does have Michelin stars and people seem to think that he is indeed a good cook. I should have a look anyway.

There are actually lots of other books from chefs and cooks of varying degrees of fame - Anna Jones, David Cheng of Momofuku, Annie Smithers, Gary Mehigan, not to mention all the Vegan and Vegetarian gurus. But nothing from Nigella - as yet. I suppose it's a bit early to be thinking of Christmas although the word seems to be that there will be shortages, so maybe I should be buying Christmas presents too - maybe for the granddaughters - perhaps Med would be a good one for them, or Adam Liaw, Donna Hay ...

For me - when I first started this I thought I was only looking at Ottolenghi, Stephanie Alexander and Neil Perry, but the floodgates have opened and there are so many to desire. Because that's what it is with me. Desire. But so interesting that the emphasis is on home cooking not aspirational dinner party stuff.

A few cookbook quotes:

“they’ve become more aspirational, incorporating lifestyle, not just recipes. Eat like this, live like this, throw dinner parties like this.” Celia Sack

“While she loved the whole idea of cooking elaborate meals, her forte was in the reading of cookbooks.” Linda Wiken, Toasting Up Trouble

"cookbooks say to the person reading them, 'If you will read me, you will be able to do this for yourself and for others. You will make everybody feel better." Laurie Colwin

"A cookbook is only as good as its poorest recipe." Julia Child - I don't think I really understand this one - surely the poorest recipe implies that there are other better ones. Am I missing something?


This post was actually inspired by an article in last week's Life and Leisure section in the AFR, It featured a podcast series from Ruth Rogers of the London restaurant River Café which gave a start to so many chefs who went on to fame and fortune. The River Café Cookbook is a classic - which I don't own, and it made me think that I should see if I could find a copy. I should start tracking down some of those 'classic' books that I don't have.

Anyway this is a series of podcasts, not a book - in which Ruth Rogers interviews some of her famous customers, some of them friends, about their life in relation to food. They also read a recipe from that classic book. It sounded interesting. It's called River Café Table 4 and can be downloaded from your favourite podcast source. There seem to be only a few available so far, although I believe there are more in the pipeline.


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