Cooking up a classic: what’s the recipe for a timeless cookery book? | Life and style | theguardian.com:
Historic cookbooks must compete for shelf space with modern-day classics. Photograph: Andreas von Einsiedel/Alamy
Last week a friend asked me to cast an eye over her extensive collection of cookbooks. She is moving house and won’t have shelf space for a library accumulated over years of preparing meals for family and friends.
What to keep? Anything of real sentimental value and for the rest, pack only well-thumbed classics. Question is: what makes a classic? With the recent death of Marcella Hazan, uncompromising voice of Italian food for the English-speaking cook, it’s particularly timely.
A quick search will produce plenty of classic cookery book lists, each interesting for its linguistic and cultural bias. An Observer list of the 50 best cookbooks of all time, for instance, included works by Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson, Nigel Slater, Richard Olney, Simon Hopkinson and Robert Carrier. On the other side of the Atlantic the same exercise would not be complete without Julia Child and Alice Waters, Fannie Farmer’s 1896 Boston Cooking-School Cookbook or Irma Rombauer’s 1931 titleThe Joy of Cooking.
Australian lists look to local talent first and then more often to familiar English writers such as the omnipresent Ms David. No Australian list would omit Margaret Fulton, Stephanie Alexander, Maggie Beer, David Thompson and Charmaine Solomon. But after that the field is wide open: Janni Kyritsis, Damien Pignolet and many more. It should be added that very few authors produce multiple classics even if they go on writing many books.
There are some writers who make it onto multiple anglophone lists: Marcella Hazan, Elizabeth David, Alice Waters, David Thompson, Claudia Roden, and more recently, Fuchsia Dunlop. It’s an evolving and contested business, but what the classics have in common are elements of authority, style and innovation.
When it comes to putting together my personal classics, I look to the past. My current interest is in historical recipe books, particularly English classic cookery books of the 19th century, and what they reveal about the experience of those who wrote, published and used them.
In the fast-changing world of improved distribution, new wealth and cheaper costs of publishing, 19th century publishers were quick to sign up authors with any possible relevance to the burgeoning middle classes.
It was no great leap of imagination for publishers to ask celebrated chefs such as Alexis Soyer (high-profile society chef and all-round food entrepreneur) to turn out cookery books. And while Alexis’s titles proved popular – keeping his commercially prepared sauces and trademarked kitchen appliances in the minds of housekeepers – his books have not stood the test of time. Sound familiar?
It took Eliza Acton, a middle-class woman and experienced home cook, to strike a more enduring chord with her audience. Her authority came from years practising and perfecting her craft in her own kitchen. It shows itself on every page of her book, first published in 1845, Modern Cookery for Private Families: her directions are innovative and her writing free of condescension and laced with humour. Acton received no initial advance for her work but, unlike other female writers, had her name firmly imprinted on the cover. Overnight she made it respectable for women to write cookery books.
It was also Acton who added for the first time, lists of ingredients, cooking times and measurements for her recipes as well as highlighting common problems the home cook might encounter. What we now take for granted in a cookery book, she detailed in stylish prose derived from her earlier calling as a minor published poet.
She advocated seasonal fresh produce, less sugar than is popular today and was remarkably light in her dishes. She was also an outspoken advocate of unadulterated ingredients and the serious pleasure of preparing wholesome food for the table. Her book was, as its title promised, “modern” in every way; a hugely successful cookery book that stood the test of time to become a classic.
What titles would you add to your classic list?