Cookbooks bring me joy on many levels – they can be a handy reference tool, a beautiful design object and a source of culinary inspiration. I spend more on cookbooks than any other genre, and I read them for the same reasons I might read a novel or other non-fiction: for pleasure and escapism. I’m not on any publisher review-copy lists (yet – by all means, hook me up) so I’ll be writing about cookbooks I like enough to have bought, and this means that most of what I write will be positive. I won’t always be discussing the most recent releases either, because although I love cookbooks, sadly I don’t have an endless amount of cash to throw at them. My publishing background means that I am as interested in the cover design, paper stock and typeface as I am in the food so I may occasionally get hung up on illegible text or insufficient line spacing. For each cookbook I write about, I will endeavour to make at least one recipe. Because food is naturally tied in with travel and discovering new cuisines, I will also be writing about adventures close to home and afar. I hope that in sharing some of my discoveries you might be inspired too.
At its most basic level, a cookbook is just a collection of recipes, but when done well can be so much more than a culinary instruction manual. Sometimes you just want to know how to make a good crème brûlée but these days many people go straight to Google for this type of thing, so we expect more from a printed – and paid-for – cookbook. First and foremost, a good cookbook offers delicious food and recipes to broaden your horizons and break out of your usual cooking repertoire, but at their best they also feature stunning photography and innovative yet sympathetic design that shows off the photos, aids recipe accessibility and creates a mood and a sense of occasion to aspire to. The best cookbooks also reflect the zeitgeist of a time and place without being too trend-driven.
In my last month at Penguin Random House before going freelance, I trawled the website for books to buy before I lost my staff discount (yes, employees get a hefty discount on PRH books as well as books from the other publishers they distribute in New Zealand, and it’s as dangerous as it sounds). Big, beautiful Phaidon books are always especially tempting and one in particular caught my eye: Cookbook Book, by Annahita Kamali and Florian Böhm. So meta. The simple yet clever cover design hooked me, then the blurb reeled me in:
Featuring 125 seminal cookbooks from the last 100 years, Cookbook Book is a celebration of the world’s most beautiful, influential and informative cookbooks. From the tried-and-true classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking to The Astronaut’s Cookbook and Salvador Dalí’s remarkably original Les Diners de Gala, each of these cookbooks has shaped, influenced and/or revolutionised home cooking.
In the flesh it’s a good-looking collection, with a surprising sky-blue case and endpapers. The jacket, printed on lovely textural paper, folds out into a poster (or really fancy wrapping paper).
The first introductory piece of text in the book – ‘Cultural Context and Roast Chicken’ – gives a history of the cookbook. While the earliest surviving example of a recipe collection dates from 1700BC (featuring quail on barley flatbread and turnips stewed in blood), the first printed and bound cookbook was apparently created in AD1480 by Bartolomeo Sacchi, a writer and gastronomist. (Trust an Italian to have created the first cookbook.) From here recipe collections evolved from a simple stream of text to include separate ingredient list and method and recommended cooking times.
Colman Andrews observes that the best cookbooks ‘can be a kind of savoury literature, meaty and satisfying’, and this explains why Nigel Slater’s books – part recipe book, part journal (one of which, Tender, is featured in this collection) – are so utterly devourable. In ‘Judge a Cook by His Covers’, Tim Hayward points out that cookbooks have always represented something more than cooking instruction – they reflect moments in your life: the person who gave it to you, the relationship you were in at the time, the vegetarian phase you went through. From my experience, cookbook publishers are aware that many readers will not prepare a single recipe from a book, but won’t think of it as a wasted purchase – it has served as a symbol of their tastes and aspirations.
The chapter list (Enduring Classics, Enduring Nonconformists, Design Mavericks, World Flavours, Modern Essentials) gives an idea of the range of themes included and the selection acts as an illustration of how tastes, both in terms of food and in terms of design, have changed over the years. For the non-English recipes there is a section of translations at the back, along with a little run-down of each book. As well as more conventional classics such as Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty (Aubergine with Buttermilk Sauce), there are some lesser-known gems, such as White Trash Cooking (Liver Hater’s Chicken Livers; Aunt Donnah’s Roast Possum; Mama Leila’s Hand-Me-Down Oven-Baked Possum).
So, a clever idea and a thoughtful selection, but did I feel inspired to make any of the recipes in the book? Not really, which I guess proves Tim Hayward’s point. But it does does entertain and inform – functioning as a culinary history – and did inspire me to add a few of the featured cookbooks to my wish list.
Cookbook Book by Annahita Kamali and Florian Böhm (Phaidon, 2014).