I have a friend with several shelves full of cookbooks and yet I know she rarely gets to use them. She and her partner both have full-time demanding jobs, three children and very busy lives, so why does she buy so many? I’m not quite as bad, my vice tends to be fiction, but we do also have quite a few cookery books, and yet we return to the same few recipes week in, week out.
The answer, of course, is that most families I know, rotate about 15-20 meals for most of the weekday refuelling stops (and in houses with kids, that is usually what mealtimes are). Only occasionally do we get the time and opportunity to try out something new. My husband is an occasional (very good) cook and selecting a recipe, compiling the list, shopping and preparing the ingredients is a form of relaxation for him. In our household, though, I do the lion’s share of the cooking and all too often it is just another task to be completed. One of my daughters is a keen baker and a good experimenter so she likes recipe books (though vlogs and the internet are also a major source of ideas for her). I tend to go for the tried and tested things because on a midweek evening there is a low tolerance for failure!
So, if we’re not trying out all the recipes why do we buy so many cookbooks? Well, in this age of celebrity, TV chefs and their lives are as interesting to us as other Hollywood A-listers. How else does Gordon Ramsay’s daughter get her own TV cooking show centred around the family’s life in their holiday home in LA? Also, there are many more cookery shows on TV now, not just about techniques, but linked to all those other things we aspire to such as exotic travel; in our house we loved watching Gino’s Italian Escape and Rick Stein’s From Venice to Istanbul and bought both books.
I have two pet theories: firstly, reading cookery books has become the genre of choice for many time-poor adults. They are now incredibly visual, gorgeous to handle and to look at and the quality of the photography is as important as the quality of the recipe. The game-changer, I think, was Nigella’s How to be a Domestic Goddess from 2000. Nigella made cooking sexy! The book is visually stunning and the recipes are written in a very conversational style. Cooking is a narrative journey, not the usual soulless step-by-step instructions. Secondly, evidence shows we cook less than we have ever done but I think many of us aspire to cook more. Some of these cookbooks, like a lot of fiction, provide a form of escapism into a life where we do everything ‘better’, where we have friends over for spontaneous dinner parties every weekend, our kids eat all their veg and someone else does all the washing-up. We all know that real life isn’t quite like that!
So, here are the top cookbooks on our shelves, and note there are two lists – one for the books we use the most and one for the books I like to own!:
- Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course, first published in 1978. Still our primary source book for most of the basics.
- Fish: the complete guide to buying and cooking, by Mark Bittman, first published in 1994. My husband bought this after our first child was born when we realised that we wouldn’t be going out to eat so often so he’d better up his game! I’d been a lifelong vegetarian up to then, but started eating fish when I became pregnant. It is still the most used cookbook we have and it has only a handful of photographs.
- How to be a domestic goddess: baking and the art of comfort cooking by Nigella Lawson. A classic and the main reason my kids love baking.
Like to own:
- The Kitchen Diaries by Nigel Slater, published in 2005. I love Nigel, loved his column in The Observer, love his TV shows, love his gentleness. I love the way the book reads and is laid out, like a chronicle of his cooking life. But I’ve tried hardly any of the recipes….
- Economy Gastronomy: eat better and spend less by Allegra McEvedy and Paul Merret. I bought this after browsing through it in a friend’s downstairs loo (what does that tell you?!) I like the concept (cook a huge batch and then tweak it and turn it into several different meals) and we’ve tried a few of the suggestions, but not many. It feels like a big effort, but it’s a nice read.
- Hugh’s Three Good Things on a Plate by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Love Hugh, love the River Cafe, love the idea of the book, great pictures. Not tried many of the recipes and, browsing through it now, realise I should.
So, what are your favourites, to use and to own? Love to hear your thoughts and suggestions.