Thursday, 19 November 2015

On the popular culture of cookbooks

Fast food’s not in fashion anymore, everyone’s telling us to go slow. Restaurants too. They’re blocking mobile signal, reservations and you from Instagramming your food. They’re sitting you at communal tables and serving you their mamma’s-mamma’s recipes. They’ve been cultivating a lifetime of sourdough starters and the single estate coffee is made by a single barista one. single. cup. at. a. time. Slow food can be as simple as drip coffee – crazy, huh, how your parents had it right the whole time? New-school breweries are serving pickled eggs instead of peanuts and putting beer in wine casks. Noma went back in time to learn from Japan and if you’re not preserving, pickling, smoking or fermenting everything, have you checked you’re even alive? It goes without saying that you have the time, space and required amounts of sunshine to grow your own vegetables.

Like any fashion, versions of this trickle down to our homes, too. Christ, I’ve had a sheep’s skin lying under a heap of salt on my balcony for four weeks. Every time a workman comes to tell us how expensive double-glazing is (expensive), I pray he won’t comment. We’re brining the two cucumbers we managed to grow on land that, for all legal intent and purposes, we’re squatting, and the other day we found swiss chard growing there long after we'd abandoned it for winter. Come spring, there's talk of us putting bees there and we almost killed our kefir babies – honey is a bully.

We are where we eat and our souls belong to those whose cookbooks we have on our shelves. I suppose we should be happy print is not dead, long live print; but too many of these bestsellers are formulaic. Celebrity so and so with so and so million followers and oh, here’s a recipe for a juice and the secret to long lasting health or at least good skin.

But I should be fair: there are other types of cookbooks too. Next to the rows of healthy eating girls (sorry books) with no health qualifications whatsoever, there’re the Nordic manifestos (pine-bark cake: first, cut down a pine tree), the science-y ones, the ‘stay in on a Friday and bring back date night’ ones, the ‘everyone can cook, even you’ ones, the ‘you can’t cook this because you’re not a restaurant i.e. you don’t have a dehydrator’ ones, the ‘you are man, you BBQ’ ones and the good old ‘I’ve travelled to exotic places and you can feel like you have too even though you haven’t and I don’t mean going to the south of France who even does that anymore’ ones. Oh, and then we have all of Ottolenghi.

Is it a hype? Does it matter? We don’t ask fashion to be forever.

People cite Elizabeth David when they want to magic us back to a simpler time. But when Elizabeth David was writing, she was the first one to tell people how to do it. Now we have Google Jamie Oliver and the BBC losing money on it. When David was writing, cookbooks promised you tricks and secrets, how to economise, where to buy cheaply, how to save time, how to simultaneously bake easy pie crusts and air the beds. They were full of remedies; they got the cooking out of the way.

Nowadays cookbooks still provide a sort of remedy. And as we collect remedies (in the shape of colouring-in books, pretending you're in the army on a Saturday in city parks, turmeric, cold pressed juice, apps that switch your Internet off etc.), we collect many cookbooks. We collect them as talismans of a more leisurely existence. They help us to envisage a life where we have a day to set aside to actually make jam. They allow us to imagine ourselves presenting the neighbours with out of the oven pies, throw dinner parties on a Wednesday and never having to come home to a fridge that echoes. Nowadays, the longer the recipe the better, and that stack of cookbooks by the bed’s side is all the bigger. 

Illustration by Felicita Sala.


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