Some of the best cookery books that I have read this year.
You can learn a lot about an object and the culture that produced it from its material form. Take the cookery books published in 2015, for example: the plumped-up, weighty and heavily art-directed hardbacks scream ‘coffee table bling’.
The undeniably beautiful and expensive tomes churned out by publishers reflects the fact that their function is as much to display food knowledge, as much as to impart it. Show that you can forage seaweed and smoke your own goat, or at least have read about it, and you can ‘make it rain’ – with cultural capital. Self-identifying foodies around the globe lap up new hardbacks by Nigella or Ottolenghi like they’re a new Star Wars movie, and authors oblige fandom with marathon book signings.
Sometimes, form trumps content in the race to publish at the right time to trigger sales. My mother found that a recently published (and gorgeous) volume by a highly regarded writer was full of errors and missing instructions. Not only are poorly tested recipes a waste of time and ingredients, they’re also unacceptable when a book costs in excess of £25, as many do.
My beef with hardbacks is their lack of portability.
All of my favourite cookery books, with a few exceptions, are paperbacks*. I like to read them – not just gaze into the abyss of a well-lit beetroot dip – and I like to read them on the bus or in a café. I don’t want to lug a pointy-cornered hardback around in my rucksack, and I don’t want a Daily Mail front page-style overshare of what I’m reading about, inevitable if there’s an A4 size photograph alongside. Reading a paperback is an intimate act that allows you to range between recipes and stories without feeling publicly gluttonous. You can privately indulge your cooking imagination without others knowing what you’re up to.
Many paperbacks are decorated sparsely with etchings or line-drawn pictures. The writing must stand up to scrutiny without photos and styling to support shabby content. The recently acquired Alice B. Toklas Cook Book – bought from the excellent second hand shop Bookmongers in Brixton – is filled with anecdotes from Toklas’ life with Gertrude Stein alongside her recipes. Paperbacks really treat the reader, not just the visual food fetishist.
An illustration from the Alice B. Toklas book.
This is not to say that brilliant writing is absent from hardbacks: it’s not. Claudia Roden’s recent Spanish book for example, is magnificent, and Rachel Roddy’s ode to the contemporary Roman kitchen ‘Five Quarters’ is full of insight and things I want to cook. I just wish they were out in paperback too so I could slip them into my bag. Though the margins are lower for paperbacks, it would be wonderful if smaller, cheaper and more portable editions of new books were part of the publishing cycle.
Anyway, here is a list of some of my favourite paperbacks from the last year (as seen in the image above). Not all were published recently and the Alice B. Toklas Cook Book is a second hand purchase. Prospect Books are notable for taking chances and publishing interesting books in lovely formats. The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book (Brilliance Books); Plat du Jour by Patience Gray (Persephone Books); Sud de France. The Food and Cooking of Languedoc by Caroline Conran (Prospect Books); Honey from a Weed by Patience Gray (Prospect Books); How to Cook a Wolf by M.F.K. Fisher (North Point Press)
*Developed in the early nineteenth century, paperbacks played a significant role in the democratisation of reading. They were far cheaper than hardbacks and initially they were mostly restricted to trashy fiction, looked down on by serious readers. In 1935, the Penguin imprint was created by Allen Lane to publish literary fiction in affordable pared-back, modernist paperback editions.