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Borough Talks: Read, cook, live: the ingredients of a cookbook

Categories: News and previews

Borough Talks, a series of public debates presented by Borough Market, explores some of the most interesting and important issues relevant to today’s food world. In this year’s inaugural event, our guest panelists tackle the topic of cookbooks—namely, what makes a good one?

Words: Clare Finney
Images: Adrian Pope

What makes a good cookbook? What inspires us to pick one up and use it as a guide for one of life’s most important functions: feeding ourselves? Are there some books whose pleasures lie less in the cooking and more in the reading? And how are publishers adapting to the digital revolution? Our panel of enthusiastic bibliophiles gathered for 2017’s inaugural talk to offer a variety of perspectives on the past, present and future of cookbooks.

It’s a familiar enough narrative: something rich, complex and painstakingly created being rendered obsolete or unrecognisable by the age of the internet. For many of us in attendance at Borough Market’s first talk of 2017, Read, cook, live: the ingredients of a cookbook, it was the story we had come to expect. Sure, cookbooks are covetable; chic, sleek coffee table items that no self-respecting urban foodie would be without—but are they used? Are they useful? Or have cookbooks, like phone directories, CD walkmans and travel agents fallen victim to an increasingly digitised world?

Angela Clutton, moderator for the evening, kickstarted the discussion—vice-chair of the Guild of Food Writers, food historian and writer, she was well placed to ask her panel what they felt about cookbooks today. The insight of the sole publisher of the panel, Stephanie Jackson, was as positive as it was unexpected: “Food and drink is the single biggest category in the non-fiction part of publishing. It accounts for 90 million sales every year,” she explained.

The second biggest category within that is national and regional recipes, incorporating the likes of beloved Saturday Kitchen staple Sabrina Ghayour, the Ukrainian Olia Hercules and, of course, Stephanie’s fellow panelist Monica Linton, founder of Brindisa Spanish Food and author of Brindisa: The True Food of Spain.

Angela Clutton

Functional food
Admittedly, the first biggest category is what Stephanie calls “functional food”—recipes to manage your weight, which “breaks my heart slightly, because they aren’t about food you would wish to eat.” But the desire to experience a cookbook—to “flick through, be inspired and think, ooh, that looks nice, I might do that,” is nevertheless alive and well.

The impact of celebrities is declining. The impact of online recipes? “Well, if you want to use up the ingredients you have in your fridge or have something specific to make, Google is helpful.” The internet works, continued Stephanie, if you have a problem to solve. Panelist Felicity Cloake,acclaimed for her ‘How to make the perfect’ column in The Guardian, and its four associated recipe books, agreed.

“I have a vast collection of cookbooks, but if I’m trying to find out who did a particular recipe, or get the timings for how to boil an egg?” she shrugged. “It’s a lot easier to get my phone out than go to the bookshelves.” Where those come in (and with 60 metres of cookbooks lining the walls of shelving in Felicity’s flat, the plural is accurate) is to lend context and colour to recipes, and to discover those which exist before, or outside of, cyberspace. 

“There are a million different rice recipes. But Sabrina Ghayour will talk you through how her particular recipe came to her, and her feelings about it. Jane Grigson will tell you her apricot tart came from the curate in the French village where she lives. That historical colour is what makes a cookbook an experience you can’t get online, and that’s why it’s difficult to replace.”

Crowd at Borough Talk on cookbooks

A labour of love
It is a labour of love—quite literally in the case of Felicity’s latest book, The A-Z of Eating, which is “all about the food I really love to cook—a personal book of my favourite ingredients, which is a relief after the Perfect column.” For Felicity, as for all of the panelists and one imagines, most of the audience, a good cookbook was one that you read as well as cook from.

Monica’s book is a good example. One can, and would, cook from it: indeed, we enjoyed its fideuà after the talk, but “I wanted it to be a book people would spend time reading. I wanted it to include the people behind Brindisa’s food—producers, cooks, farmers and so on—as well as the recipes themselves,” she told us.

“My work at Brindisa has taken me down all sorts of roads—to specialist cheesemakers, the growers of rare beans, and I have learned with them. The recipes are their recipes”—a point which neatly brought us on to our fourth panelist Dr Peter Ross, the principal librarian of Guildhall Library and an expert on the history of cookbooks, who maintained that the very first cookbooks came from “individual men collecting recipes at the end of the 16th century and publishing them themselves”.

“Thomas Dawson in his Booke of Cookerie was collecting recipes that reflected the upper classes’ taste in food, because he’d noticed there was a market.” He was one of the first recorded authors of a recognisable cookbook. Many men followed, but it wasn’t until the 18th century that female writers emerged. “They are much more interesting in many ways, because you can guarantee they really were cooking the food, not just collecting recipes,” he pointed out.

Borough Talks: cookbooks

Simplifying English food
Hannah Glasse was one, notable for fighting the influence of French food and resurrecting and simplifying English food for the emerging middle classes. Another big source of cookbooks in the 18th century was London taverns, who would publish them essentially as an advertisement for the tavern.

“Not much different to today’s recipe books then,” Angela laughed. Oklava by Selin Kiazim; the Ginger Pig Cookbook; Zoe Adjonyoh’s Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen; even Monica’s Brindisa: all are by chefs who own restaurants and whose books serve, among other purposes, to promote them. The lesson? “There is nothing new under the sun,” Peter grinned.

Even the writerly books like Felicity’s have their forerunners in writers like Florence White and Dorothy Hartley, who were “interested in ordinary English food and writing a history of food. Then after WWII you get Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson: both very different people, but both writers writing cookery books to read.”

The emphasis on reading, as well as cooking, remained paramount throughout the talk. Yet with cameras snapping, Instagrammers gramming and the event being streamed live on Facebook, there was no avoiding the most obvious change in cookbooks in the last 40 years or so. “The importance of presentation—particularly, of photography,” said Angela. “Visually, how have cookbooks changed?”

Borough Talk on cookbooks, panel

A book of pies
Peter turned to the 17th century, pointing to the pie designs used to illustrate a book of pies, “which was very popular,” he says. In the 18th century it was diagrams of table settings, followed by the introduction of colour lithography in the 19th century. People like pictures, a truth acknowledged by the panel, but opinions were divided as to their utility.

“Readers want images. That is the feedback we get as publishers,” said Stephanie, “and it’s one of the first things we talk about when it comes to a new book.” She thinks seeing the finished dish gives people confidence to cook it when they might otherwise have dismissed it—but acknowledged that “there is also a growing demand for books which aren’t just recipes sat beside pictures, but have sophistication, flow and pace.” Brindisa is a classic example and in fact, both Monica and Felicity disagreed with Stephanie as to the usefulness of pictures of finished dishes.

“Photography is sometimes limiting. I think it can impose, and I think the freedom that you gain by having words that speak to you as opposed to images is a huge pleasure,” Monica explained. “Something can look unapproachably beautiful because it has been styled within an each of its life, but it doesn’t have to be like that,” agreed Felicity.

Most of the pomegranate, egg halves or coriander leaves you see sprinkled over dishes are just there for decor. “Reading the recipe through is still the best way to decide if you want to cook something.”

She likes illustrations. They at least don’t date the cookbook—or not so obviously as grainy pictures of food sprinkled with parsley and served on brown and cream plates do books from the nineties. “Even if the recipes are not dated, the pictures can make it look old fashioned. It pains me that people say, if you don’t have photographs the book won’t sell. I know it is true,” she continued, “and I think people like them, but I do think what Monica says is right: it can hold you back.”

Ginger Pig sausage rolls

Elizabeth David
Members of Borough Market’s Cookbook Club struggled with Elizabeth David not because of her recipes, Angela recalled, but because without pictures they were at a loss to know what to cook.

Unsurprisingly, this was a subject that went on to be discussed at length when the floor was opened for questions. “Is there a risk we miss out on dishes that aren’t pictured because they aren’t as beautiful, but are delicious?” Yes, was the simple answer. The dishes shot in books are the ones that look prettiest, not necessarily the tastiest. “Let’s face it, some of the most delicious food in the world is brown,” said Felicity, to affirmative laughter.

Stephanie fielded a question about self-publishing with a kind but firmly comprehensive description of everything a publisher does for an author to ensure their book gets the exposure it needs “and deserves. I would hope that anyone who has spent the hours, weeks and months it takes to get a cookbook together would be rewarded for their efforts.”

A few more questions follow then, with the aromas of Brindisa’s fideuà, bread from Bread Ahead and Ginger Pig’s sausage rolls wafting tantalisingly toward us, it was time to finish up and replace food for thought, with food for hungry stomachs.