Thursday, April 7, 2011

Cookbooks: the ultimate status symbol

Cookbooks have become something of a status consumer product in recent years, not to be used, but rather, like expensive coffee table books, to be leafed through and admired. That, by the way, is why I am such a fan of Food4Friends: we create recipes for real people, to be used in real kitchens and with real, easily sourced ingredients!

Cookbooks are supposed to be functional. They are supposed to encourage experimentation, not to terrify amateur cooks out of their wits with endless lists of impossible to find ingredients and difficult to use equipment. This point was driven home to me last night in a most hilarious way: I was sitting on the sofa with my other half and we were giggling at Heston Blumenthal’s attempt to pursuade us that miniature whisks and milk foamers were an essential part of every cook’s inventory; same with truffles, caviar and home made fish stock. Is he serious? This is a man who built his entire career on the creation of dishes so bizarre that they resemble science experiments more than food. This all takes place at his renowned and wildly expensive restaurant The Fat Duck, which, we are led to believe, is just like your run of the mill suburban kitchen in every way, even down to the meat smoker. This is the man responsible for introducing snails to almost every trend-thirsty restaurant menu in the country. So whilst it made for entertaining viewing- much as reading his cookbook would make for mildly entertaining reading- I am not convinced in any way whatsoever that this is something I could ever achieve. I am not pessimistic by nature, nor lacking in self-esteem, but I am not about to spend an entire weekend crying into my catastrophic attempts at Champagne and Caviar Tartlets, and, to add insult to injury, then be forced to spend an hour scrubbing some new and hideously expensive piece of kitchen equipment which I am going to use again precisely never.

This does not go for all professional cooks. I am inexplicably biased towards Nigella: Jamie too. They have done an excellent job of making cooking glamorous again, and although their recipes sometimes blur the line between imaginative and overly fussy, they remain just in reach of the realms of possibility; within the boundaries of ‘I could make that’. This is important. They create beautiful and functional recipes at the same time, as time-consuming as they may be. But if I am going to be perfectly honest, sometimes I stare at my ever expanding cookbook collection and feel a certain amount of guilt. The guilt of years of neglect, of always complaining I don’t know what to eat when there are hundreds, if not thousands, of recipes just waiting to be tried. Why? Because these are recipes that, though beautiful, always seem to be made up of at least ten steps. And I don’t mean to sound lazy here, but after a whole day’s work do I really have the energy to follow ten recipe steps, one of which includes making my own pastry? Does that really fall under the category of ‘easy’? Last night for some reason I decided I had had enough of all this, and pulled out a copy of 100 Pasta Sauces (all hail Food4Friends!). I selected a salmon and garden pea sauce and whipped it up for the two of us in about twenty minutes tops. Why can’t we see more of that in the majority of cookbooks on the market? Not to mention the huge expense of the latter: your average Nigella book will cost you dearly (about 25 euros on average). What you are paying for a lot of the time is, of course, the brand. The recipes in these books are inevitably alternated with quirky little stories about the wonderful lives of said cooks. Call me cynical, but whilst I adore these titles for their escapist qualities, when I have a hungry man to cook for and I’m so tired I can barely be bothered to put a pizza in the oven, am I really going to have the mental attitude and physical capacity required for Nigella’s Fish Pie? Or Jamie’s Leg of Lamb? Cue an emphatic and resounding NO.

I feel I must pay homage to the iPad at this point, for making it possible for humble foodies like ourselves to develop and publish affordable, beautiful and functional recipe collections for those who want to expand their culinary horizons but don’t know how. Cooking does not have to be complicated to be good. Somewhere along the line we confused these things, and ended up with books we can’t really afford and definitely can’t use. Well I for one have had enough. End the trend!

By Zeena Price

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