Food sustains life. Not just a fuel or simple necessity, the food we eat and the way in which it is consumed defines cultures. We have learned to develop the manner of its preparation both as a regular and essential pursuit and as a complex scientific fantasy that pushes the boundaries of our imaginations, and there are few subjects that engage the senses so absolutely. For many, like myself, cooking is not just some obligatory process but also a pleasure that happens to be a part of everyday life. We delight in immersing ourselves in the subject, from pursuing producers at farmers’ markets, to supplying impromptu morning teas for an evaluation of our efforts and perusing at length the infinite array of digital resources now so distractingly close to our fingertips.
Where once there were only books we now find blogs, articles and ebooks. In an instant you can search magazines online, tweet chefs for tips, and find your favourite author’s best recipes by dispatching a few carefully selected keywords. But despite this conversion to the digital, enter the home of any dedicated foodie and I can almost guarantee you’ll find shelf upon shelf laden with gastronomic literature. We hoard titles as though we were preparing in the event of a nuclear holocaust and, regardless of the ease and expanse of electronic resources available, we return time and time again to these dog-eared and food-stained tomes. Moreover, with more chefs than ever before committing to print, our opportunities to indulge our paperbound passions are seemingly endless. Our appetite for the humble cookbook is voracious even though we are enveloped by the convenience of the digital age, and what I have often wondered is, why?
In essence, I believe that it is because creation requires influence. To learn techniques we first need instruction and, like anything, must be educated in the fundamentals of components, composition and form before we can take hold and develop our own approaches to kitchen life. We take inspiration when and where we can, but as these can be found across all publishing mediums there is clearly something different about those made in print that keep drawing us back.
For me it is that a book defines both a moment in time and a culmination of experience on the part of the author. Where I see blogs as a ‘work in progress’ that can be amended at will, books are the whole story complete with a beginning, middle and end. They are written not on a whim or out of sheer fancy, but as a dedication to someone special or persons held dear. My favourites are those that create narratives, which are not just a list of ingredients but a sharing of the author’s defining experiences: of inspiring travels, family traditions and light-bulb moments. You can spend hours journeying through the diverse landscapes of Spain and Morocco with the Clarks in Casa Moro, share in the family secrets of Tessa Kiros in Falling Cloudberries, delight in a few of Yotam Ottolenghi’s favourite things, or learn to pare it all back with some of Simon Hopkinson’s good, honest cooking. And if, after all that you still have the mental wherewithal, then you can always join Brillat-Savarin in meditating on transcendental gastronomy in The Physiology of Taste, one of the most civilised and deliciously verbose cookbooks ever written.
However, it is not just the creators of cookbooks who pique our interest, but also the users themselves. Cookbooks connect us with our past, and while serving now as our own personal keepsakes that subtly record memories and experiences, when handed down between generations they become a link to those who have gone before. My grandmother’s copy of Cookery the Australian Way, while a book I refer to less frequently now, remains one of my more treasured possessions. I love it, not because of the occasional annotated quip—quite simply because there are none—but because of the cracked spine carefully stuck back on with masking tape and the wrinkled pages that are evidence someone special to me was using it as a part of their everyday. To anyone else it is just another book, but for me each stain is like a secret, and a memory or story that is mine alone to treasure. It reminds me, too, of my beginnings, and of my first foray into baking with that foundation butter cake recipe. I think the “medium-strength” marbled version was my favourite.
But although I delight in these markings of my forebears, when it comes to my own collection I’m a stickler for the pristine. If something requires amendments then any notes made are mental ones, and I take every effort to keep each book at arms length so that the pages are not unnecessarily sullied. I’m not always successful, as the furrowed spine of Nigel Slater’s Kitchen Diaries and the dusty prints covering Dan Lepard’s Short & Sweet will no doubt attest, but given the modern standards of publication it seems only right to treat each book as a work of art, rather than a well-informed notebook put there for future doodling. For cooks as meticulous as myself it is instead the ribbon bookmarks that betray one’s last meal, and I secretly delight in perusing the shelves of others to discover what it was that they last cooked. From my collection, it was Ginger Pig’s clod of beef stew with herb dumplings and Bourke Street Bakery’s carrot cake that last got a look in, while Skye Gyngell’s A Year in my Kitchen, with no less than three bookmarks, portrays a nice balance of braised lentils, spicy meatballs with coriander and sour cherries, and chocolate sorbet. Oddly, all three ribbons in Gyngell’s How I Cook lie between the pages for her banana bread—clearly this is something of which I am particularly fond.
I love having this tactile connection with the subjects of my admiration, and to me the purchase of a cookbook is not just self-indulgence; rather, it is an acknowledgement of the countless hours someone I respect has devoted to sharing his or her passions. Certainly there is no less effort in writing for digital media, but it is the ability of the traditional form to provide a visible framework, on which concepts are built and related elements bound together, that for me brings the greatest satisfaction. It is the sense of connection with their world that draws me in, and the pleasure in knowing that someone has taken the time to develop perfection. It’s about a need to do things well, and to get things right.
I have no doubt that these impressions are tremendously idealistic, but isn’t that what makes them so wonderful? By sharing in an author’s experience we are encouraged to go on our own journeys, to make our own discoveries and adaptations, and to find our own favourites and obsessions. We thread ourselves into the culinary fabric handed down from generation to generation, and enjoy the simple pleasures to be found in smiling at a disapprovingly scribbled footnote or in deducing someone’s favourite recipe from the way certain pages stick together. These are our own private collection of moments in time. They give us knowledge, they offer substance, and they bring us joy; and that is surely something worth treasuring.
Follow Em on Twitter@TheLadyBaker.