This is a diet blog so thought was about time I talked about cooking. I had bit of a clearout over the long bank holiday weekend (I know how to live!) and the kitchen shelf that contains all my cookery books is now tidy and sorted. I was bit surprised to realise I hadn’t bought a single cookbook in about, oooh, must be 20 years. Last one was Nigel Slater’s 30-Minute Cook which I still use. I adore this book because it’s full of butter and cream. He rightly says if you want low-fat recipes, buy a different book. He’s also very generous in his measures and his food is lovely.
That aside though, everything is from the 70s. The decade when I learned to cook. I took up cooking as a hobby when I went to college in 1976. In fact Facebook thinks I took Domestic Science at University. That’s not so very far from the truth. Here’s why.
My fantasy 50s housewife days
When I finally got to college it was after four years of working full time, commuting an hour each way to my place of work and taking all my O and A levels at evening classes. This must’ve meant I regularly did a 50 to 60-hour week.
I’d like to say it did me no harm but in fact, I had a nervous breakdown when I was 18, at least partly brought on by over doing the studying and obsessing about getting away from boring typing jobs and going to college.
Anyway I recovered and got to college. Where I found that you only had to be in for 12 hours a week! Luxury. So I needed something to fill my time. I took up cooking with a vengeance, often playing a fantasy out in my head of being a 50s housewife, having dinner on the table every night for my then live-in boyfriend.
In those days we also had fairly formal dinner parties and sometimes I’d spend the entire day shopping, chopping, slicing, dicing, having a light lunch then preparing and cooking ahead as recommended by Julia Child, co-author of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume I. One of the five cookery books that sustained me during this time.
However I didn’t use that book all that often. Most days I deferred to either Bee Nilson in her cracking Penguin Cookery Book or the even better Dairy Book of Home Cookery, which I think either came free from the then Milk Marketing Board or was heavily discounted if you had your milk delivered. For a few fun experimental dinner dos I used The Duchess of Duke Street Entertains, a TV tie-in that, like so many cookery books then and now, was more of a fun read than a manual.
My fifth and final book that became something of a bible in the kitchen for me was Katharine Whitehorn’s Cooking in a Bedsitter even though we lived in a lovely self-contained attic flat. But I thought the basic nature of it would be useful, as it indeed proved to be. Good thing about very basic cookbooks is that you can embellish. Harder to scale back on the more elaborate books.
Yellowing, well thumbed and splashed
You can always tell if a cookery book has been used. It’ll be yellowing, have pages missing or falling out and be full of splashes. If you’re a keen cook and have acquired cookery books as you’ve gradually improved, chances are they tell quite a tale about you.
Why did I stop buying cookery books after the 70s, Nigel Slater aside? For sure I didn’t stop cooking. One of the loveliest side effects of going Paleo is that I’ve reignited my love of cooking. I’m not saying everyone should do this. Nor do I wish to be evangelical. You either want to cook or you don’t. I’m just saying it’s like I’ve found an old friend and I’m so glad I kept those books. Heck, checking them out on amazon and ebay they may even be worth something!
Cookery as therapy
For Nigella Lawson – whose books I’ve never bought but lusted over – cookery was therapy when her darling husband John Diamond became ill. She got a lot of stick for calling her book How to be a Domestic Goddess but, oh my, those cakes! And a book that even looked like a cake. In my tougher moments in life I too have found cooking to be brilliant therapy. When I’m going through a cake-baking episode I call it doing a Nigella. I’m sure I’m not the only one to do this. But I never bought her books.
I’m also a big fan of Delia Smith whom I used to work for when she and her husband ran Sainsbury’s Magazine – very good people to work for. Never bought her books though. Ditto Hugh Fearnley Whatshisname, Gordon effing Ramsay and Jamie (Ratners) Oliver. They’re all fine cooks and Nigella aside, have worked in professional kitchens.
But the truth is, apart from Delia Darling, as my BFF calls her, these glossy, celebrity chef books are really just for entertainment, by which I mean reading, not using as a manual for living. They sell well because people enjoy them. They enjoy reading them or rather, they enjoy looking at them. Or seeing others look at them on their kitchen or living room shelves. Some people read cookery books in bed which is about right being as this is often much more food porn than cooking instruction.
They aren’t used with nearly as much regularity, I think, as my five faves from the 70s. I could be wrong. But I did read once that people only use about two per cent of the recipes in their cookery books. I’ve used waaay more than that in my five favourites. And I do still use them. Odd isn’t it how UK supermarkets sell so many ready-made meals and takeouts do a roaring trade, not to mention eating out and yet… people still buy cookbooks they mostly won’t use. Why not just buy a novel or biography if alls you’re going to do is read it? Perhaps it’s a bit like buying lots of cleaning products and sticking them under the sink thinking, right, that’ll do for now. I’ve bought the products. I’ve made a start. But you don’t actually use them… or is that just me?
Cooking at school
I learned to cook initially at my Mum and Gran’s side and then I was taught to cook at school. But our cookery lessons were run by a really scary teacher, terrifyingly glamorous, tall and over bearing. A sadness to me as I wanted to enjoy my cookery lessons but instead I was petrified of them – we all were! However from scary DS teacher I learned one lesson that’s stayed with me for life – how to slice a tomato without squashing it. (Pierce it first, then slice slowly from the pierced cut).
I’m a bit of a recipe rebel, often modifying ingredients or even cooking times to see what happens. I like to experiment. The other day I think I discovered how to make tomato ketchup! (Gently fry some sweet-tasting tomatoes in butter for about 20 mins. That’s it!). When you’re trying to avoid added sugar in your diet, that’s a great way to get some natural sweetness in but not too much. It made a great marinade for some chicken thighs.
With nostalgia always all the rage – though never as good as it used to be – cooking can be a great way to time travel. The other day I made us a mixed grill for tea. Forgotten just how utterly delicious they are.
The best recipes and the best cookbooks don’t date. Which is why I feel no need for Nigella, Delia Darling, Hugh FW, Jamie Ratners Oliver, Posh Prue, Effing Gordon and any of the rest of the multiplicity of celebrity cooks. (And I know there are many others I’ve missed out). Nor do I watch their programmes. Frankly, I’m bored by them all now and think their time has passed. Or I really wish it would, along with reality TV. Anyone who wants to cook will be doing so by now. Or will take it up at some point for whatever reason. We weren’t bullied into cooking and “eating well” in the 70s. But we had the best cookbooks then. Far less pressure too. Do a decent spag bol and serve it with Red Bull and you were halfway to being considered a good cook. Maybe that’s still so today?
One thing I can guarantee – if you can cook, you will never be short of friends. Cooking and preparing food is love on a plate. But it doesn’t have to be for others. Sometimes the most enjoyable cooking is that you do for you. Besides, it’s a great way to experiment. You’ve got to try things out a few hundred times first haven’t you?
Enjoy the rest of your week if you can.