They say print is dead.
I’d like to argue that if I can no longer pick up the written word lovingly typeset on a thick-ish page (thick matters, I’ll get to that later) then quite frankly it’ll be me who is dead. I freaking love cookbooks and I’m obsessing over how to build a library that will serve me for life. I’m the girl who takes a cookbook to bed with me. After my nighttime routine – cleanse, polish and moisturize – I derive extreme pleasure from pulling up the duvet, switching on my bedside light and leafing my way through a book. The best kind of book for this is a new one, with that smell of ink and fresh binding seeping out through the pages, fresh images unblemished by days of cooking, floating off the page towards my tired eyes, imploring remembrance and use.
A good cookbook is a magical thing. As soon as it is delivered to your hungry hands, it should be considered a part of your makeup, another step on your path to a repertoire of food experiences.
Open the stiff covers and flip through the pages. I’m curious to know who goes through a book from start to finish. It’s the way I work – a linear (vanilla?) mind. But Wiz (My husband) will pick up a book, and flip from the back to the middle to the front and all over the book in an entirely random fashion. It’s one of those things I have to walk away from because although I’d say I’m not OCD, I can’t bear that kind of disorder. If we’re in a bookshop, he’ll literally pick up a book and start reading from the middle.
Anyway, back to the cookbooks: once you’ve got through the bedside reading phase (this phase is reserved for the brand new ones, the ones that still smell fresh), they move to the bookshelf, and from there to the kitchen. It’s at this stage that I find I have to kiss goodbye to my ambition of keeping the book pristine. Fat spots, greasy hands, bits of cake mix, and sparkling grains of sugar in the spine of the book are part of its life journey and an important mark of experience. Much like the sun spots and freckles on my face, I consider those imperfections to be indications of fun had in the kitchen.
Another debatable activity around cookbooks is writing in them. Do you or don’t you? My answer is you should. That cookbook, as much as it is part of your journey in life, deserves your notes. Your observations. Your adjustments. When your children look back on that book, they will feel a jolt of nostalgia as they see your handwriting, which carefully noted alterations specifically for your family. This makes each recipe yours, no longer the authors. It’s like the author offered up this book to your table, knowing that it would be changed to suit you, and your lifestyle. I know this because when I look in the books that belonged to my grandmother and see her writing, I feel like I’m standing back in her kitchen. There’s a silver shell dish on the side with perfectly curled butter, a mason jar full of homemade granola ready for breakfast, and a rack of spices with dark jars hiding a plethora of different powders and seeds. She has recipes for everything from window cleaner to beef wellington. Always with an eye on her waistline, but generous to a fault, my enduring memories of Granny are either in her kitchen or around a dining table. So I love that now I can refer back to her recipes and see her writing. A little piece of her soul is left on that yellowed page.
We are very lucky to have a large Welsh dresser in the kitchen, in which current books are kept for everyday use. This dresser was a wedding present from my grandparents to my parents, and again a memory from childhood. Today, it is home to a messy stack of children’s plates and implements, some special pieces of silver and of course my cookbooks. These cookbooks are the ones whose spines are detaching from the rest of the pages, who ache for some care and attention from a wide roll of tape. One of them has a list of notable books in the back, written by a friend when we were at university in Edinburgh. Whenever I see it, I literally time travel back to our small flat on the top floor of Hanover Street, high above the noisy cobbled streets of that ancient city. We had a flatmate who was determined to make his own pancetta. Adam walked down to the butcher in Stockbridge and ordered his whole leg of pork. A few days later, he lugged it up to our steep stairs and into the kitchen. A box was produced and kilos of fine table salt emptied into the halfway point, the leg gently laid in and another few kilos of salt poured on top until everything was covered. He took it up to his bedroom – thankfully another floor up – and there it sat for a few weeks until it was ready to be air dried. We had a small rooftop terrace, so Adam fashioned a box of sorts and hung the whole leg for months until it was duly dried out and ready for slicing. It was a ritual moment when he sliced nervously into the meat, all of us gathered around the table, eager to see if it had cured the way it should. When it worked, we had feasts of olives, Adam’s pancetta, cheese and wine; a spread way above our station, and our pockets – we were supposedly poor students. But Adam’s experiments elevated our existence into that of yuppies.
The cookbook is a stitch in the tapestry of your life (or several stitches in my tapestry) and the ones you buy, or are given, are indicative of who you are in a particular season, and who you become as you get older. When I was younger and more idealistic about body shape, there were diet books aplenty. Now I’m a little older, and my stomach has stretched and softened thanks to my two beautiful children, I’m a little more accepting of shape and a lot more accepting of my tastebuds desires. Food, cooking and life are all mixed up into one philosophy – have fun whilst you can, and relish the flavours. On my Christmas wish list, every year is simply either a book to cook from, or a book to read. I’ve become obsessed with the words written on paper, by the ideas from those much more experienced than myself, and by the results that can come out of even the most modest of kitchens. And ultimately what matters is sitting down, together, with friends, family and sometimes even foe, to share the most unifying of all human experiences: eating.
The books I’m referring to on a regular basis right now are Donna Hay’s “Life in Balance”, Lily Vanilli’s “Sweet”, Ottolenghi’s “Plenty More” and his book with Helen Goh “Sweet”. Also Meera Sodha’s book “Fresh India” and of course my bible Darina Allen’s “Ballymaloe Cookbook”. It changes fairly regularly and I have four new cookbooks on their way which is inciting an obsessive checking of my post box to see if they have arrived.