Perhaps J Alfred Prufrock measured out his life in coffee spoons, but I have measured mine in cookbooks. The cadence is wrong, but the words are true, and unlike him I am very happy with the results. When I was reading The Little Library Cookbook recently, I realised that I have never written about one of the genres I read most frequently – food writing. Perhaps more than any other genre, food writers have helped me to grow up and make a home for myself, and since that is one of the things that (in hindsight) I started this blog for, I should probably write about the people who are helping me to do so.
I am not a fantastic cook, though I’m decent and getting better, but I am an enthusiastic consumer of food. When I was growing up, I didn’t cook very much, but upon getting to university and moving into a houseshare, that changed rapidly. I bought a copy of Nigel Slater’s Tender, vol. 1, and it instilled in me a love of experimenting in the kitchen. Most of what I cooked was inedible to start (also, on one occasion I set fire to the kitchen and lightly melted two of the cupboards), but I enjoyed myself nonetheless. These days, I really enjoy cooking for myself and for friends, and I haven’t melted a cupboard in years. Which is progress.
I did not start out with that Tennyson quote just for fun. In his poem, food seems to represent stifling mediocrity, but for me it represents quite the opposite. Making home for myself, somewhere I feel equally comfortable on my own and with other people, has been one of the challenges and joys of my 20s. Without learning to cook, I don’t know that I could have done it half as quickly. Historically, like so many other lonely autistic teenage girls, I had a very bad relationship with food, calorie counting, weight loss, and anxiety. One of the many things that has helped me to move on from that has been developing a love of cooking (and, to a lesser extent, growing my own fruit and vegetables). Learning how things go together in the kitchen, what kinds of tastes and textures and smells I like, has been immensely beneficial in developing a healthier relationship with food. I love being able to put food in front of my friends, or stir together eggs and greens and garlic after a long day and end up with something I am genuinely looking forward to.
As I wrote above, I think Tender, vol. 1 might have been the first cookbook I ever bought, in my first year of university. Without realising, I had obtained perhaps the best possible introduction to cooking that I could have had. Tender, vol. 1, is a journey through Nigel Slater’s vegetable garden, suggesting recipes for vegetables from asparagus to turnips and everything in between. Slater is the king of “throwing things together” food writing. In Tender vol. 1, after his introduction of each vegetable but before the recipes, he makes some suggestions for different ingredients that pair well with it. For example, for broad beans, he suggests pork, salty cheeses, onions, mint, or dill. This gives even the most apprehensive, rule-following teenager a set of useful tools to start her own experimenting in the kitchen. Every time I make myself a meal of plain rice, garlicky greens, and a fried egg – which is frequently – I am doing so because of Tender.
My original copy of Tender, vol. 1 got sacrificed in a house move years ago, but I recently bought a replacement, along with its follow-up, which is about fruit. The books have taken on an additional resonance for me now, partly because when I opened them I was immediately reminded of evenings puttering about in my student kitchen, during what now feels like a different lifetime. There’s also the consideration that I am now attempting to grow my own vegetables, and his introductions to each vegetable provide helpful advice about what grows well in the UK, which varieties it’s worth trying, his diary of the process from sowing to table etc. I’d very much recommend this book for anyone who gets a veg box and is therefore sometimes stuck with eight courgettes to use up, as it’s ideal for that sort of thing.
Delia Smith is famed for teaching Britain to cook during the 70s and 80s, and for once causing a national run on cranberries. For me, though, her main gift has been helping me to cope a few years ago during a dark spell. For about a year, I was extremely miserable and lonely. A lot of friends had been unwell, I had seen a run of unusually nasty child protection cases at work, and I think maybe I had been looking after slightly too many people for slightly too long. During that time, I made Delia’s cheese and leek soufflé from the unfortunately-named One is Fun! over and over for a few weeks, because making a one-person soufflé felt like just the decadent act of self-indulgence that I needed. Also, it is kind of her to write a cookbook for single-person households. I would like more food writers to do this, please. There is only so long you can live off the same six-portion lasagne before you go temporarily mad and eat pizza every day for a week.
The other time I turn to Delia is when I want to make something that my nan made well, but that no-one else I know cooks. Nanny has had a stroke and is no longer able to cook, but she is an old-fashioned British cook of the first order – meat and two veg, pies, crumbles. To me and to probably millions of others, it is the Special Occasion Food of my childhood. Even though both of my parents are good cooks, eating at Nanny’s was always a treat. A month or so ago, I wanted to make a steak and kidney pudding. Even buying kidneys was an ordeal (in the end, I found them in my local international butcher’s, where – fun fact – I can also buy chicken hearts, should I need them). My mum gave me some helpful tips about how Nanny used to make hers, but ultimately I turned to Delia. I suspect that this is the function Delia Smith has for many Brits of my age or the generation above, and I am very grateful for it. (The pudding was delicious, by the way, though I cracked my pudding basin and scalded my fingers).
Feast is not just about the way we cook and eat at the great religious festivals or big-deal special occasions, but about how food is the vital way we celebrate anything that matters – a birthday, a new job, an anniversary; it’s how we mark the connections between us, how we celebrate life.
Even once I had become reasonably confident cooking for myself, I found the idea of cooking for other people – even very close friends – completely panic-inducing. (To this day, whenever I cook for my friends, I spend the next two days worrying that I might have somehow given them all food poisoning. I have to resist the temptation to send out panicked texts at midnight checking that they are okay). I love the way that Nigella Lawson writes about cooking for other people in Feast. One of the things that Feast emphasises over and over is that cooking for other people is an opportunity to make them a part of our lives, our everyday lives, rather than an opportunity to impress or put on a production. That takes so much of the pressure out of it.
In fact, one of the things on my “30 before 30” list is to cook something from every section of this cookbook. When I first wrote that list, I subconsciously picked only things that I could do alone. That way, I wouldn’t be disappointed if people didn’t show. On reading it through, I decided that was a terrible attitude, and intentionally introduced this challenge, which necessarily involves lots of parties, evenings in with friends, and celebrations. It’s working. I’m making slow but steady progress – I’ve ticked off Thanksgiving and Christmas, New Year, Meatless Feasts, and Kitchen Feasts – though 30 is now looming, so I’m going to have to speed up a bit. My favourite recipe so far has probably been the mushroom stroganoff from Meatless Feasts, which I made for my birthday earlier this year. I’m so grateful to Nigella, and to Feast in particular, for helping me to feel more comfortable cooking for other people.
And the book that started this post in the first place – The Little Library Cookbook, by Kate Young. Young’s first book runs through recipes that she has developed from books she loved. Each recipe is introduced with an excerpt from the book in question and a paragraph or two about when she first read the book, or cooked the meal, making this a wonderful combination of cookbook and memoir. Topics range from her experiences as a nanny to her childhood growing up in Australia. It is unusual for people who have had happy childhoods with healthy families to write memoirs, so I really appreciated reading about Young’s.
That is not the reason this book is on the list, though. What comes through overall in this book is the sheer joy of cooking – how much fun it is to start out with ingredients and end up with something completely removed from any of them. It has been a while since I have read any food writing that captured the excitement of trying to master a new recipe as well as this book does. In a few of the recipes, Young writes about how she came to adapt the recipes from the books and why she made the decisions she made. I have frequently wished I could eat the food described in particular books, but it would probably never really have occurred to me to try to do so. Reading this has inspired me to construct recipes from books with memorable food – the buns in Dragon’s Green, for example, are first on my list.
And, since there are so many other food writers I love, here are just a handful of recipes, essays, and columns that I heartily recommend:
Green pea, chickpea, and black-eyed bean usal by Meera Sodha. Absolutely everything I’ve made from Sodha’s vegan cooking column for the Guardian has been a joy (I’d also recommend the aubergine larb), but this is the recipe I return to most often. Whenever I am heating up a portion of this in the office microwave, someone will stick their head into the kitchen and tell me how delicious it smells.
Midnight Chicken and Broccoli and Butterbean Curry by Ella Risbridger. Risbridger writes about cooking as it relates to mental health, which it certainly does for me. I’m looking forward to Midnight Chicken (and other recipes worth living for), her cookbook, which comes out in January.
How to cook the perfect… by Felicity Cloake. I love the joy de vivre that comes through in Cloake’s writing, the way she writes about cooking as if it is a combination of adventure quest and detective story. She also has recipes for things I would never have been brave enough to cook without her help – I have made reasonably competent bagels per her instructions, for example.
Cheat’s Carbonara from Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant, edited by Jenni Ferrari-Adler. This series of essays about all the surreal things people eat when they primarily live, cook, and eat alone is delightful. Although not every essay contains recipes, one of them (I cannot remember which) contains a recipe for cheat’s carbonara – which is essentially just spaghetti with scrambled egg and cheese – that I have committed to memory and make at least three times a month.
I always actively collecting cookbook recommendations, so if you have a favourite, please let me know!
The book links in this post are Foyles Affiliate links. If you click these links and make a purchase, I may receive a small commission, though the price will not change. Apparently they don’t sell Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant, which an oversight on their part.