Christmas is one of the few remaining occasions when the English feel obliged to cook a proper meal at home. To help them, in the autumn, kind publishers bring out lots of huge, glossy books. The idea, or collusive polite fiction, is that the cooks read the books carefully, plan their meals, buy ingredients and any necessary equipment — Jamie Oliver lists a vast amount — and then successfully cook a whole delicious meal. I have long suspected that in reality, the purchase of the book, its subsequent prominent display and discussion are acts of propitiation that take the place of actually cooking and excuse the cook from her obligations.
These books certainly fulfil this second task. They are huge, very heavy and some contain as much garish illustration as text. They weigh some 3lbs each. Perhaps they are commissioned by the pound. If so, Nigella Lawson wins with the heaviest. It’s a near tie with the photos. She has over 160 full-page ones (and a double-page-spread of red radicchio), but Jamie Oliver’s are more garish. They serve little instructional function. These two books both contain some adequate recipes but they are unnecessary when it comes to cooking.
This is because all but the youngest cooks will already have enough cookery books and recipes, of which some will be classic or definitive. For instance, Marcella Hazan and Anna del Conte, published four and two decades ago respectively, provide quite enough Italian recipes and background knowledge for almost any cook. But more philosophically, instructions such as recipes are not the way to learn to cook. That requires background knowledge, the experience of seeing other already competent cooks at their craft, and practice. Instructions don’t make the cook. The reverse is the case. You have to be a good cook to make practical sense of instructions.
The authors would protest there is something new or different about their books. For Oliver this is speed, 15 minutes per recipe. To achieve this he has to rely on meals cooked in a few similar ways, notably with a frying pan. The result is that despite their promiscuously cultural origins, they are of very limited range. The speed requirement rules out all sorts of the best dishes there are to eat. Many also smack of kids’ food. No 12-hour rillettes here.
Crucially, the speed does not include shopping, which he largely ignores. Yet even in highly prepared food, such as in French, let alone Italian, cuisine, the quality of the raw ingredients makes the dish, especially with fish and poultry.
Lawson offers speed too — and ease. There is to be mouth-watering ‘fresh’ food ‘in an instant’, ‘without stressing the cook’. The fresh is not strictly true; vac-packed chestnuts, tinned beans, frozen peas, pre-prepared crab meat, dried mint, frozen artichoke bottoms, powdered stock and tinned red peppers all feature. Her book is also about herself. The title is well-chosen. The book is full of her and she full of herself. It is the book she wanted to write. She proudly ignores the demands of (Italian) authenticity.
This is Lawson cookery, which means, inter alia, lots of vermouth, even rosato vermouth, in the cooking, Brussels Sprouts (with wholewheat pasta, cheese and potatoes) and courgettes peeled in stripes: ‘It’s how my mother peeled hers and I cannot do otherwise.’ The recipe formula is worse than useless in this book. Thus the early pasta section has the same instruction to boil and salt water repeated over and over again. Why not give it once, then use the space saved to explain some of the principles common to types of Italian food?
Jerusalem gives lots of recipes from the many food cultures of that city. The salad and vegetable sections are unsurprisingly better than the meat and fish. Some of the foods are not well-known and cooks will be interested in them and in the discussion about food cultures. There are recipes such as barley risotto with marinated feta or chard, tahini and buttered pomegranate. Yet this book also is too big. Too many recipes, too many photos. Why not exercise some taste and judgment and give us just a few of the best? There is no more room in the contemporary English kitchen for yet another year’s worth of garish, heavyweight cookery books. Good cooks don’t need them. And they won’t save the bad ones. What the latter need is a spot of ‘stressing’.