Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

FOOD HONESTLY

The simple, soothing pleasure of great cookery writing

If the prose is good, you don’t even need to prepare or eat the food described. Just gorge on the writing, says Alexandra Heminsley

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By Alexandra Heminsley on

Where some of us make elaborate Pinterest boards of dream houses, some lower our heart rates clicking through the galleries of coastal boutique hotels and others spend happy evenings planning dream outfits we’ll never wear, my soul is best soothed by rainy afternoons spent reading cookery writing. Timeless, transporting and as comforting as a duvet of mashed potato, good food writing is not just an art, but one that seems impervious to fashionable ingredients, well-lit Instagram images and the shimmering impermanence of foodie celebrity. The more photographs there are of the “author” in the book, the less interested I am in reading it. I don’t want to scan countless images of garish rainbow bagels or symmetrical radishes, but to read, losing myself in the text as I would in a romance novel or thriller. And that is why I am so excited by the publication of Diana Henry’s 10th book, Simple – she is the queen of brilliant cookery writing.

It began 30ish years ago with my mother’s mesmerising copy of Cook Now, Dine Later, which would occasionally be taken from the bookcase in the kitchen and put on the countertop. Something was afoot, I noted to myself, each time. The book, a Faber paper-covered edition, had an illustrated jacket cover divided in two, featuring a woman whose left half was in a pinny, busily gathering her ingredients, and whose right half had “done” hair, an enormous glass of wine and was bringing a chicken casserole to the table. (There was no man in sight; it was published in 1969…)

Written by the glamorous-sounding duo of Catherine Althaus and Peter Ffrench-hodges, its prose promised access to a modern, carefree life. It was a recipe book for “any bride who intends to go on working after her marriage” and promised the solution to “the panicky home-coming, the frenzy in the kitchen, the doorbell earlier than expected, the guests being bundled into chairs with the gin bottle”. There were no glossy photographs and no step-by-step guides, but the lives described, which apparently necessitated such a book, were so unimaginably exciting that I wanted to cook from it more than anything on earth. A recipe book, it seemed, was more than a set of instructions – it was a secret trapdoor to a life that seemed intoxicating to an imaginative 10-year-old.

Ten years later, when I started at university and began regularly cooking for myself, such exotic pleasures seemed a distant memory. I was packed off to my student digs with a Woolworths desk lamp, a John Lewis duvet and a copy of the Good Housekeeping Step-By-Step Cookbook. Cookery writing as an escape was a hazily remembered dream as I struggled with the stodgy lessons of the Institute’s way with everything, from scrambled eggs to salmon en croute. Who still ate like that?

Nigella’s writing was not just that of someone who loved to cook and to eat, but to read

It wasn’t until I moved to London and started working in publishing that I realised the true wealth of writing that was out there for the curious would-be cook. It was the heyday of the Le Caprice and The Ivy cookbooks, whose stunning photography and Britpop glitter made them shoot to the top of the bestseller lists. I’d heard of launch parties in these places, but I was a long way from being invited to any of them, so I made do with AA Gill’s hypnotic descriptions of a day in the life of The Ivy and his essay on what Le Caprice expects of you, the diner. Heaven.

Luckily, more at my end of the budget spectrum, Nigel Slater was emerging as someone writing with just as much passion and elegance – but about bunging some sausages in the oven, making a simple dahl or doing something incredible with potatoes, garlic and cream. Finally, I was on board, devouring his writing and fizzing with the freedom of simply using a “knob” of butter, rather than having to get out scales with every recipe. Here was a writer who understood that the mood of an evening, or even a weekend, can be changed by cooking – or merely reading about – the perfect dish at the perfect time. Instructions and manuals were no more; self-expression and wary experimentation were everything.

Nigel was, of course, a gateway drug to Nigella, whose How To Eat was published in 1998 and dropped further truth-bombs about what being a good cook really meant. I had spent months at university trying to buy Kilner jars to fill with millet, only to be told: “Don’t believe what you are told about essentials: all it means is that you’ll have a larder full of lost bottles of Indonesian soy sauce with a use-by date of 1994.” The boldness! Throughout, the writing and recipes suggested at the sort of life I’d imagined I would be living by now – but remained somewhat out of reach off the page. There were casual mentions of other wonderful writers who I would scuttle off and find, discussions of “the tyranny of the recipe” and instructions on how to eat for only two that were as sophisticated as anything in Cook Now, Dine Later.

Then again, what else should I have expected from someone who was deputy literary editor of The Sunday Times at 26 and a Man Booker Prize judge in 1998? Nigella’s writing was not just that of someone who loved to cook and to eat, but to read. She lavished attention on her descriptions of the emotional balm that a good shared meal could provide and created fantasy dinner parties, family Christmases and romantic nights in at a time when all of those things were more than scarce in my life. There was wit, charm and a sense that she understood moods which far exceeded what I had previously found in more formal fare. She was, and remains, a storyteller.

Emboldened by Nigel and Nigella, I gallivanted around the world via the Books For Cooks series, devoured Simon Hopkinson’s work and spent a heartbroken summer working my way through Madhur Jaffrey’s Ultimate Curry Bible, occasionally making meals that reminded me of my mother’s meals cooked from her earlier cookery titles.

Then came “wellness”. I’m as bored of its neurotic pandering to dreams of weight loss and the duplicitous promise of being “feeling great”, rather than merely “getting skinny”, as the next person. But it has become an easy target for those who have never struggled to shed weight or who grew up with an innate taste for veg over carbs. Yes, it’s tedious and, yes, it can stoke anxieties, but it has its place.

What it doesn’t have is any decent writers. OK, perhaps one. Recipes are described as “yummy” when they patently aren’t, images of photogenic authors take precedence over those of either ingredients or text and there is an almost constant hum of awareness that these are just tasty meals with the good bits taken out.

Anna Jones alone seems to understand that you need more than a spiraliser to create a culinary universe of vegetables that you might truly want to live in. In How To Cook and How To Eat, she speaks with both authority and genuine enthusiasm for textures, tastes and smells, giving the reader not just a sense that a meal might just still be a meal without meat, but that it could be an indulgence or an adventure as well. She isn’t precious about gluten, she has a way with a witty aside and she frequently lets you know where you can swap out some of the more outlandish ingredients, reassuring the reader that this is a writer who uses all of her senses when cooking.

Good cookery writing is about transporting yourself to a country, a city or just a table where you might be your very best, happiest or simply hungriest you

Meanwhile, as the wellness juggernaut trundles on, Diana Henry’s cookery writing has gently found the most special of places in my heart. She is not only eloquent and wise on our UK big-chef culture, but speaks with real honesty about the relaxed way that Americans write about food, the current madness of fetishising certain ingredients because they’re “having a moment” and the importance of being realistic about what her readers can afford.

Her recent BBC Radio 4 Food Programme special was one of the best interviews I’ve ever heard on the subject of a writer finding a voice, finding an audience and reading and discovering passions for other writers – in any field. That is was cookery writing she was discussing was a particular pleasure.

Simple is everything I’d hoped it would be, with comforting writing, imaginative meals and the most simple and utterly perfect instructions for a perfect baked potato. I made one this week using her method and promptly spent the afternoon discussing it on Facebook. TV tie-ins and New Year diet books are momentarily distracting, but reading the Chez Panisse Cafe Cookbook, even decades after its publication, will leave you feeling more full than any number of “scrummy energy balls” ever could.

Like top-drawer travel writing or the best of fashion journalism, cookery writing is rarely a simple matter of getting the job in hand done. It is about transporting yourself to a country, a city or just a table where you might be your very best, happiest or simply hungriest you. Finding the perfect paragraph on macaroni cheese or ripe figs or peppery radishes does what all great writing does: it lets you sigh and think, “It’s not just me who thinks that!” And, in Diana Henry, we have its current queen.

@Hemmo

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