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Image via Flickr by ottonassar

Once upon a time, the great and worthy subject of food was part of a much more holistic philosophy. In medieval and Renaissance times, for instance, cookery books were also books of medicine, and cooking was also deeply tied up with ‘husbandry’ – the effective management of land, livestock, and produce, as well as other domestic concerns.

The discourse of food and cookery only became separated from broader philosophies of manners, etiquette, comportment and health quite recently, in perhaps the 19th century. Even then, as industrialisation and urbanisation ramped up, cookery wasn’t an isolated discourse. It was still part of what my mother (no, she wasn’t quite around in the 19th century) knew as ‘home economics’. Mrs Beeton’s famous book, after all, was not a ‘cookbook’. It was a ‘book of household management’. Mistresses needed know how to budget in the kitchen as elsewhere, how to set a table and plan a menu in the same way that they should know how to dress their hair and address their servants. It was all part of a broader system.

Today, an interest in food has been marginalised, partly because increases in convenience (many of which I am eternally grateful for) have made this possible. If you don’t want to think very hard about food, you don’t have to: it no longer takes all day to produce three square meals, and a smaller proportion of our income goes on what we eat at home.

Food, despite being something that we all need, several times a day, has been made into… a hobby. You might take an interest in cooking just as you might take an interest in crochet or ferret-racing. Or you might not. Thinking carefully about what you eat has become, in the main, a kind of middle-class dilettantism.

The great and crucial paradox here is that this has not raised the status of cooking, or thoughtful eating. Rather, it has lowered it.

Being knowledgable about food can be easily dismissed as rather snobbish, and this means it can all the more easily be sidelined, or altogether eliminated from the daily discourse of millions.

And here’s another paradox: cookery book sales are healthier than ever. Does this show that we’re better at cooking than ever? No, quite the opposite, if you think about it. If we could cook, we wouldn’t need them.  A very great chef with whom I once had the pleasure of working (not in the kitchen; I wouldn’t have lasted a minute) was often asked how he thought food culture in Britain had changed since his early days. The answer everyone expected – wanted – was something about how much better things were now. That wasn’t what they got. People, he would say sorrowfully, knew less about how to feed themselves properly, practically, sustainably and economically, than ever before. The majority, he was sure, were more de-skilled than ever.

You can see one of the effects of this marginalisation of the discourse of food by looking at modern best-selling cookbooks. Whereas once, such books provided recipes in the context of a much broader discourse, with lots of other useful information (basic techniques, sourcing and storing produce, seasonality, budgeting – this was the case with my beloved The Cookery Year, whose brilliance I wrote about here), this is no longer the case. The way we approach food has been isolated, fragmented and whittled down to one very basic component – the recipe. Cookery books today tend to contain almost exclusively individual recipes, and what’s more, these recipes are usually dumbed down. ‘Cream together the butter and sugar’ now has to be spelled out step by step. ‘Thicken with flour if required’ has to be elaborated on at length.

There’s nothing wrong with not knowing how to do either of these things. There is something wrong in a system that encourages people never to learn them for themselves.

Indeed, the publishing industry has an interest in perpetuating this system. Give a person a hundred recipes and they can cook a hundred meals. Teach a person the fundamentals of how to cook, and they need never buy another recipe book again, unless it’s one that is truly exceptional, and these certainly do exist.

That’s not what the industry wants. Instead, it must maintain its customers in a state of needy ignorance, while simultaneously promising them that its next offering will finally be the book that means they can feed themselves and their families competently, quickly and affordably. Of course, it never is.

We’re very familiar with this kind of behaviour from one sector of the food business – the diet industry, which would self-destruct if its false promises were ever true. What I don’t think has been highlighted enough is the way that this same behaviour has crept into non-health-related food writing.

What’s particularly curious is that the infinite recipe bank called the internet hasn’t affected the growth in the cookbook market. It’s just as easy – easier – to find isolated recipes online as it is to find them in your latest cookbook purchase. So why do people continue to buy expensive books? That’s a very tricky and complex question, but the answer lies, partly, I am sure, in the glossy promise both of authority and success that a beautifully-produced book offers, and which the internet can’t really match. It’s no secret that most cookery books (and programmes) sell a ‘lifestyle’ as much as they do any practical advice, and I believe that the same kind of behaviour that drives millions to buy gym memberships they’ll barely use drives people to buy cookbooks. The act of purchasing itself feels like a commitment – an achievement, even. Googling a recipe can’t give you that comforting illusion.

Sure – if you use enough recipes and put enough thought in, you can draw out basic principles from them – but it requires a certain kind of thinking, and there are better, more direct ways to learn.

You may say, well, what’s the problem? 100 recipes, if you have them to hand, are more than you’ll ever practically need. True – but also misleading. Having 100 recipes to refer to is no use when you have guests sprung on you by surprise and have to dash, unprepared, to the shops after work. They’re no use when, at the end of the month, you have £10 plus the contents of your cupboards to feed you heartily for 5 days, and need to improvise based on the cheapest grub you can buy. They’re also little use when you’ve bought all kinds of fancy ingredients for one recipe and then have no idea what to do with everything left over, so it sits and rots in your fridge. As with everything, underlying principles make for more valuable knowledge.

Do I think this is a vast and sinister plot by our overlords in publishing and TV commissioning? No, of course not. In the great cock-up/conspiracy debate, I tend always to plump for cock-up. There’s no point publishing cookbooks as they used to be if potential buyers aren’t knowledgable enough to benefit from them, and would walk away. Many other factors are at play – but it is a vicious circle.

Nor by any means do I think that all cookery books prey on and perpetuate this kind of hapless dependency. Even if you know how to cook in a particular style there will be books which open your imagination to a whole new world of flavours and combinations. Learning about a totally foreign cuisine requires, certainly, a new book and also lots of new thinking. And pâtisserie, a discipline that is closer to science in its strictness than any other kind of cookery, is something that always requires reference to recipes. 

But freedom from lists and instructions should be the end goal of the home cook – it is more satisfying, much easier, and less time-consuming. A lot more liberating, too. We need to put cooking back in a wider context, not just of other directly food-related issues but questions of economy, health and the environment, for it is always connected to those broader issues, whether we think about it or not. The issue is just how empowered or disenfranchised we are – as horsemeatgate has shown. How quite to set about the necessary process of education, though, is a puzzle I don’t have the solution to.

Many thanks are due to Tim Hayward for a piece in Fire & Knives which inspired much of this, and also to Felipe Fernéandez-Arnesto’s brilliant book, Food: A History.