Article

Books of life

Categories: Features, History of food, Reflections and opinions

Angela Clutton, host of Borough Market’s Cookbook Club, looks back at how cookbooks have changed since 1998 and what those changes tell us about the world of food

Anyone who has been along to the Borough Market Cookbook Club will have heard me say that the reason I love cookbooks so much is the way they offer insight into people, place and time. There are moments when those factors perfectly align and 1998 was one of them. In the same year that Borough Market opened its gates as a retail market, Nigella Lawson’s first book, How to Eat, was published. If that seems like something of a tangent, I promise you it isn’t. The opening up of the Market for people to be able to buy produce was also fundamentally about considering how we eat.

At the time that Nigella—whose need for a surname faded away in the intervening years—emerged as a food writing voice, the recent runaway cookbook successes had all been by top chefs. The legacy of Marco Pierre White’s iconic 1990-published White Heat was still being felt. Chefs were stars. Magazines kept calling them “the new rock’n’roll”. The wilder they were, the more their stock rose. The shoutier they were, too. (Yes, I’m looking at you, Gordon Ramsay.) The public appetite for the cult of the chef may have pushed through into the early noughties, but Nigella’s arrival on the scene, puncturing it, would have a more enduring cultural impact.

To the British public, Nigella offered a breath of fresh air in the heat of the kitchen. She wasn’t just a pushback against the machismo of the restaurant chef, she was a reminder that home food is about home life. How to Eat covered cooking for toddlers, dinner parties, Sunday lunches, fast meals and slow meals—real life stuff. The Borough Market Cookbook Club featured it last year for its 20th anniversary, and it was wonderful to hear how many home cooks felt that the book had spoken to them and answered a need.

Personality driven
Same too with Jamie Oliver, whose first Naked Chef book appeared the year after How to Eat. The word ‘chef’ may have been in the title, but this was all about home cooking. Jamie encouraged cooks to get out to markets for seasonal produce, tap into the expertise of market traders, and then actually go home and cook with it.

Cookbooks have long been personality driven. Think of Keith Floyd, Fanny Cradock, even Mrs Beeton. The shift with Nigella and Jamie—and Nigel Slater and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who also broke through at pretty much the same time—was these were personalities we were meant to warm to, to want to cook along with. It is fascinating that they are still among the most popular cookbook writers of today.

It is said that hemlines are a good indicator of the health and wealth of a nation. Cookbooks offer a similar barometer. After the relative economic calm of the early 2000s, the credit crunch of 2008 and the recession that followed changed everything. Let’s be clear: people were skint and miserable. We wanted cake. All hail The Great British Bake Off, which answered the call and was to inspire a flood of home baking cookbooks.

Simplicity at the fore
Simplicity came to the fore then and is still holding fast now in the cookbooks modern cooks are most drawn to. It’s not just in the simplicity of the recipes we want, although that too—think about Rukmini Iyer’s best-selling Roasting Tin series, or the number of books that are based on the idea of needing only a few ingredients. I mean simplicity in terms of lifestyle.

You see it in the styling of whole-page photographic images that go beyond plates of food to present homes, kitchens, linens and crockery, all of it homely, simple and understated (none of which are the same as being inexpensive). Cookbooks that sell an aspirational lifestyle are nothing new but what is interesting is how for the last six years or so, this ‘simplicity’ is what those aspirations have pointed towards. We talk a lot at the Cookbook Club about whether these are books people buy to actually cook from, or more because they offer a few moments of hope and escapism.

It makes me wonder whether Nigella’s How to Eat would even get published now as a debut book. In our Instagram age, where photos are so important, it is a book without a single one. It is hefty and text heavy. And I know the Cookbook Club members (aka the world’s best cookbook focus group) tell me time and again that they are turned off by cookbooks and by recipes that don’t have pictures.

Snuggle down
Yet they also tell me that they like a cookbook they can snuggle down with to read. The spread of that must be behind the rise in recent years of literary cookbooks, where the emphasis is on the text, ones in which the recipes, to varying degrees, are incidental. Thom Eagle’s First, Catch guides the reader through dishes without ever getting close to including a recipe. Olivia Potts’s A Half-Baked Idea, Felicity Cloake’s One More Croissant for the Road, Mark Hix’s Hooked—they all weave recipes through food memoir. If the cynic in me thinks the emergence of this wave of food writing is in part because these books are cheaper to produce, then I for one certainly don’t mind it when the quality and execution of ideas is so strong.

Our recent and enduring move towards culinary simplicity is also evident in the success of cookbooks based around family. Rachel Roddy, Claire Thomson and Georgina Hayden have struck a chord in writing about food to eat as you gather to break bread with your nearest and dearest. Food with heritage and the ability to connect.

I’ve been known to rather flippantly call this vibe: “If we’re all going to hell in a handcart then let’s at least have good times together on the way there.” Which isn’t to say mine or the nation’s culinary mood is reckless. Quite the opposite, actually. The staggering rise in vegan cookbooks in the past few years is partly about health—it is how we have emerged from the clean eating cookbook phase of the mid-2010s—but is as much about sustainability, about being aware of our environment, and about caring where our food comes from.

Essential reference points
The list I have compiled of the defining cookbooks for each of the past 21 years (see above) embraces many of the different facets of cookbooks over that time: TV-led bestsellers; ones that caught the mood (like Simon Hopkinson’s Roast Chicken and Other Stories, even if a decade after its first publication); ones that introduced us to whole new ingredients (that’s you, Yotam Ottolenghi); and a few that will be essential reference points for years to come (take a bow Niki Segnit and Samin Nosrat).

The list doesn’t include my take on this year’s defining cookbook because I think some distance is needed to give perspective. It could end up being one of the glorious plant-based books such as Romy Gill’s Zaika. Maybe From the Oven to the Table, which is Diana Henry’s latest and brings together those core themes of simplicity and sharing. Maybe it will be Dishoom—one of the restaurant-based cookbooks that abound today, rather than the chef-based ones of yesteryear. The distinction between those is bigger than it maybe first seems, as the cookbook focus in them has become about experience rather than ego.

I know too, of course, that maybe the one I will look back on as being so very 2019 will be completely different from your choice. When all is said and done, cookbooks are a very personal thing. We all respond to them in different ways. And that is exactly why they show no sign of fading in popularity anytime soon.

Borough Market’s Cookbook Club is for anyone who loves good food, good cookery books and good company. Sign up for free at boroughmarket.org.uk/cookbook-club and you will be eligible to come along to our small, friendly Cookbook Club events held in The Cookhouse.