I have always been a reader. I can’t remember not being able to read and my childhood was happily spent with my nose in a book. I am the kind of person who needs something to read at all times even if it’s just the sauce bottle on the table, so it was no wonder I found a way to combine my two loves of reading and eating and embrace cookbooks.
What was the first cookbook you ever bought?
The first cookbook I ever bought for someone else was a copy of Delia Smith‘s Frugal Food for my mum. I was about eight and I had no real idea what frugal meant but on flicking through it in the bookshop, I saw there was lots in it that I wanted to eat so quite simply, I bought it. Sadly I can’t still find the copy any more and had to buy the new edited version instead to replace it.
The first cookbook I bought for myself was Nigella Lawson‘s How to Eat and I know exactly where my copy is. First book on the shelf in the kitchen, now grubby and well handled and still used constantly. Nigella’s wonderful columns in Vogue in the late 90s introduced me to food writing beyond just writing recipes and her enthusiasm made me open the Claudia Roden books like the The Book of Middle Eastern Food on my parents’ shelves I’d overlooked before then.
Have you inherited any cookbooks from your family? Can you tell us about what they mean to you?
My family’s cookbook shelves were abundant and had a real mix of the glossy coffee table types, the homely St Michael ones, Keith Floyd and Claudia Roden, community cookbooks and the handwritten family ones. We still have the hardbacked notebooks, filled with the only remaining handwriting of long departed great aunts, grandmothers and family friends interspersed with bits of paper cut from magazines and newspapers and held in with yellowing sellotape.
I still cook these recipes and love the connection to the past. When I left home I started my own version with clippings, scribblings and annotations in a Muji notebook. It got lost about 10 years ago and just thinking about it still upsets me. It wasn’t just recipes, it was a journal of my life at the time. And I’ve never been able to find the original recipe for Nigella’s Venetian Carrot Cake again…
Which cookbook in your collection has really changed the way you cook and why?
The book that changed how I cook and the reason I love it so much is How To Eat. Before I bought it, cooking was a functional thing I did and shopping was a step that stopped me coming home after work as early as I ‘d have liked. The sheer evocation of how shopping and eating could be the basis of family life, entertainment, skill and enjoyment contained in How To Eat changed me into a cook who wasn’t scared to vary a dish when needed or to know when to keep it simple. It taught me to trust my instincts because when you feed someone it isn’t just about the food, but the welcome you provide. It also awakened a joy in food shopping that led to my great love of markets and writing Recipes from Brixton Village.
Which cookbook would you recommend as a source of advice on techniques?
This instinctive feel in cooking is how I still cook 15 years later. I am not a chef and I don’t cook like one. I only seek out techniques as and when I need them, relying on a mixture of blogs, dear Delia and Twitter advice to learn to make things like hollandaise. But if I need to know about anything to do with baking, I turn to Dan Lepard’s Short and Sweet. Utterly brilliantly foolproof, his knowledge and ability to convey it can’t be beaten.
How do you order/use your cookbooks? Do you annotate/scribble on them? Are the recipes catalogued somehow?
I like my cookbooks to become well used. I love it when they fall open at certain pages (flatbreads and sweet potato falafel in the first Leon book for example), laugh when the pages stick together (anything involving caramel) and like the spines to crack naturally. I don’t however write on them. That reminds me of too much of university where reading wasn’t about pleasure. I annotate onto post it notes which I love almost as much as cookbooks and welcome the splashes of colour amongst the splashes of food. I wouldn’t say they were catalogues though unless you count putting them on a shelf rather than piles on the floor or table.
If you had to save one cookbook in your collection from a house fire, which would it be?
I’d definitely seek to save the unique cookbooks in a disaster. All that social history bound up in scone recipes and debates about margarine versus butter. A handwritten recipe from someone is the next best thing to sitting down to dinner with them. You can’t recreate a Northern Irish WI fundraising book with a myriad of ideas for jelly and tinned fruit juice. It might not be fashionable but it’s the food heritage I come from!
Which cookbooks do you read most for pleasure and the enjoyment of the food writing?
When I get a cookbook, it doesn’t go into the kitchen to start with. It goes beside my bed with a pen and a stack of those post it notes and I flick through it before I go to sleep, marking what I want to make. This allows me to enjoy the recipes and the writing equally. I could happily read something like The Flavour Thesaurus by Niki Segnit cover to cover though and then start again. The best foodwriting is good writing that happens to be about food which is why I have Diana Henry’s Salt Sugar Smoke, Sally Butcher’s Veggiestan and Bee Wilson’s Consider the Fork by my bed right now taking turns each night.