Cookery books – should they lead you by the hand?

There’s been a quite intense debate going on at the Guardian, today, about whether cookery book recipes can, or even should, hold the reader by the hand and guide them through the minutiae of the process, which people increasing complain that they are not doing (on page 5 of the comments, the two from LePendu** are mine – the first gave birth to this post).

**Because I used to spend so much time hanging around CiF, in the days when there was intelligent debate, not rabid trolls.

My view is no – they should guide you, but not cosset you every step of the way. Ultimately it’s not the writers’ job to cater for lack of basic knowledge in his or her readers. If, for example, a recipe for rabbit stew says cut the rabbit into 5 portions, it should be obvious, looking at the carcases, what they are – fore and hind quarters, and the saddle. I don’t expect to be told that. If I didn’t know, I’d find out, not moan about it. The exception would be someone like Heston Blumenthal, whose off the wall techniques do require detailed instruction, not to mention more specialist equipment than any reader is likely to have, so the question is probably moot in his case.

If you feel otherwise, might I suggest Delia Smith, a woman whose recipes are, at heart, formulae, with no room for originality, spontaneity, or even passion. Damn it all, the woman even counts cranberries and weighs chorizo to a fraction of an ounce, for which she has been widely and justifiably mocked by foodie journalists, as well as by me! Cooking doesn’t need such obsessive micro-management, but judging from her success an awful lot of people do, which saddens me deeply.

I have 50 or 60 cookery books, and books about cooking – and no, they’re not the same thing at all. For example, Jamie Oliver writes cookery books, Elizabeth David wrote about cooking, which is why so many people complain about too little information in her recipes – she assumed her readers could actually cook, as did earlier writers, and quite right too – indeed, this lack on independence, this neediness on the part of readers is quite a recent phenomenon, due to the eroding of cooking skills. People would far sooner open a packet than reach for a knife. David also assumed that, presented with an unfamiliar word in a foreign language, people would be unfazed enough to look it up, not wander off in bemusement. I don’t find that unreasonable. Others do.

My book collection spans over 100 years, from Mrs. Beeton, via Escoffier, to Nigel Slater, among many others (definitely no Delia!), and, geographically, ranges from the American prairie to the Far East  – I’ve never used a recipe from any of them, though they have provided a great deal of inspiration and guidance.

Recipes, and the books containing them are, as far as I’m concerned, there to provide ideas and inspiration, for pointing me in a particular direction, or even taking me off in a direction I’d never even contemplated. Currently, that direction is Spain, inspired by Claudia Roden’s The Food of Spain – not the recipes, but the ingredients, flavourings, and spices. Inspiration can be found almost anywhere, though, and increasingly expensive books, while nice to have, aren’t essential (not least because Roden’s book is too damned heavy to hold).

A couple of weeks ago, as regular readers will know, a restaurant review by Jay Rayner contained the words “…and a light stew of chickpeas and roasted peppers and a chilli kick,” an accompaniment to his meal which pointed me in a slightly different direction, building on a base of panceta, Echalion shallots, plenty of sweet paprika, and using the long, pointed red peppers, which have a better flavour than bell peppers, even if they’re not as fleshy. Very nice it was, too, except for the bullet-like chickpeas** – I’ve now bought a pressure cooker, mainly for cooking pulses, and I’ll be making it again in a few days. I doubt it was, ultimately, anything like what JR had, but what does that matter? Someone else’s basic idea, my recipe. And, minus the panceta, it would be a great veggie dish, with a hunk of good bread to mop up the sauce and balance the protein content (yes, I know you don’t have to eat grains and pulses at the same time, but sometimes it’s just the right thing to do, like beans on toast).

**I made the mistake of assuming tiny chickpeas would require shorter soaking and cooking times than large ones – I was wrong. Even though, eventually, I cooked them for 3 hours, they were uneatable, though they tasted great.

As a child, I learned by watching my mother. She wasn’t a great cook, belonging to a generation that routinely boiled greens to a murky mush, and never used stock when salty potato water could be used instead (she was amazed, when I took over cooking, that cooked sprouts actually had texture, and were bright green!). But I learned the basics by watching and doing and, by reading, learned the names of the processes I’d mastered, sometimes better ways of doing them and, more importantly, timings for cooking, which meant that sprouts for Christmas didn’t have to go on in April! Fifty-five years later, I’m still learning.  What I’ve mostly learned, quite early on, is that I have an instinctive feel for combining ingredients and knowing, within very narrow margins, how they’ll turn out. No idea how it works, but it does, and reliably too. Except for occasional buggeration like chickpeas.

Learning never stops,  though, it’s a lifelong process; there is no legitimate point in the life of a person when they can say, OK, I know enough now. Doesn’t stop it happening, though. The attitude I can never get my head around is the one that says, why should I learn this, I don’t need it? Just so short-sighted it beggars belief. Knowledge has value in and of itself – it doesn’t have to be immediately useful, but if the day ever comes when you need it, you’ll be glad it’s there.

Ignorance is not something to treasure – trust me on this – and throughout my life, when I’ve come across something that challenged me – an unfamiliar word, or concept, or even a cookery term or technique – I’ve made it my business to find out about it, thus increasing my knowledge. And in my teens, without the convenience of the Internet, I’d have to get out my bike and go to the library to look things up that weren’t in my books, which were sparse while I was still at school – just think how much simpler it is now, for people to lighten their intellectual darkness. And how, all too often, they simply can’t be bothered.

Come to think of it, I did use a book recipe once, from the Good Housekeeping cookery book (my father bought it for my mother; as far as I know, I’m the only one who ever opened it; I still have it), and made some rather nice shortbread. It was 1956 and I was 11. That is, to my honest recollection, the only time I’ve followed a recipe rather than just gleaning ideas.

For those who want to break away from the constraints of recipes, a  good starting point is a copy, in English, of Prosper Montagne’s Larousse Gastronomique –  an encyclopaedia of gastronomy; try Amazon for a used paperback copy, or be prepared to fork out serious money for the hardback version. For those of you who haven’t read it, it covers a multitude of ingredients, techniques and recipes, the latter mostly French, but that doesn’t matter – a technique learned for a French dish can be happily applied elsewhere.

Things to be aware of – make sure you get an English copy, unless you read French fluently, and  there are a variety of partial LGs around covering specific subjects, so check what you’re buying. Avoid the concise version, too, for obvious reasons. Oh, OK then, given the nature of this post – the most obvious reason is that what you want might not be in it!

Amazon have several vendors selling used copies for £0.01 plus £2.80 postage – I advise snapping one up, I have, as my own is a bit tatty these days.

A tip: If you’re just starting out learning to cook, or branching out into new areas, perhaps making bread for the first time, keep a workbook – doesn’t have to be a physical book, keep it on your computer if you wish – and write down your recipes. That way, if they turn out less than perfect, you know what to tweak next time. And, if it’s really good, you can do it again. And the more experience you gain, the less dependent you  become on other people’s recipes, and upon writing down your own.

And finally, the complete opposite of bitching about the lack of hand-holding in a cookery book is the person who first looked inside such unpromising-looking subjects as a lobster, a crab, or an oyster, in the hope of finding something to eat. Such an intense spirit of enquiry, of learning, seems almost lost today, and that’s a great pity, in so many ways.

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2 thoughts on “Cookery books – should they lead you by the hand?

  1. One thing i have learnt is that although at 60 i was convinced my brain wouldnt take anymore, once i got a puter, i went on a learning curve which so far has taken 10 more years. I have a friend, an ex next door neighbour aged 87 yrs old. she hates computers with a vengeance., i phone her most days for 30-60 minutes. have some marvelous conversations with her, and frequently use the comp to look something up, often trivial but still its learning. breakthrough time came not long ago when she asked me to look up the area where her father had been born (got pics and info. printed it out. put it in an envelope . sealed and stamp on it and asked my lovely postman if he would post it for me. and again yesterday wanting some other info on something quite different. as you say. knowledge is there for the asking these days. and you dont even need to get on your bike to go search for it as long as you have a phone and know someone who has a puter.

    • The brain, barring accidents or dementia, has an almost unlimited capacity to learn. The problem is, most people can’t be bothered – or, like Homer Simpson, they think learning new stuff pushes out old stuff (when Homer learned wine appreciation, it made him forget how to drive!).

      They installed a communal computer here about 10 years ago, with a broadband connection. I did a schematic for IE, showing what the various parts of it did, so that anyone could use it even with no experience, and offered to train anyone who was interested. Nobody went anywhere near it.

      I’m a firm believer that, as far as the brain’s concerned, it’s a case of use it or lose it – and far too many people are content to to just let it lapse into disuse.

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