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Blog // Thoughts
November 6, 2007

Posh Cookbooks

Confession time: I’m an avid buyer and reader of cookbooks. This habit both qualifies to comment on some cookbook marketing whilst also making me somewhat cautious of being overly critical of this form of publishing. For, if anyone is guilty of spending far too much in the cooking section of local bookstores and far too […]

Confession time: I’m an avid buyer and reader of cookbooks. This habit both qualifies to comment on some cookbook marketing whilst also making me somewhat cautious of being overly critical of this form of publishing. For, if anyone is guilty of spending far too much in the cooking section of local bookstores and far too much money in the collection of books about kitchen craft, then that someone is me.

Caveats aside, I’ve noticed a fascinating and perhaps disturbing trend in recent years – books written by people who have no claim to kitchen excellence beyond what we could call a higher station in life. I’m not just talking about celebrity books (we’ve always had those). Rather, I’m referring to books by people whose main claim to fame (so to speak), is they come from a well-to-do family, or have had a lavish upbringing, or are married (or in some way connected to someone else) who might know how to cook.

Let’s call these – posh cookbooks.

Not that I expect to connect with every trend in cookbook marketing. The more one’s approach to cooking and eating is defined over time, the more clearly great swathes of the cooking section of any bookstore start to fade in appeal. But the posh-cookbooks seem to gaining an increasing amount of shelf-space in recent years and I’m not sure that s a good thing.

It’s well-documented that a lot of cookbooks are little more that gastro-porn. Seductively written and gorgeously photographed tributes to what food could look like, if only you were, well, a much better cook (maybe with years of professional training, time to hone your craft and studio lighting to show of your creations). I’ll admit to being guilty of buying into this stuff at times – despite the fact that most of the cookbooks that actually spend time in my kitchen have few photos in them (and a couple of all-time favourites have no photos or illustrations of any dishes at all).

Moreover, a great many cookbooks are of the dumbed-down, recipes in a hurry variety. Although I do tend to stay clear of such books, there’s no question they can play a valuable role. Many of the diet and weight problems we face today are, at their root, reflections of the incompatibility between contemporary lifestyles and traditional approaches to food preparation. Pre-packaged factory food (or gloopy sauces in a jar) are no substitute for fresh healthy food prepared at home and if the price we must pay is simplicity in approach and flavour – so be it. Moreover, these kinds of books are often the best way to explore new cuisines, especially where traditional recipes seem at first to be dauntingly time-consuming.

That said, I’m still of the view that the best way to learn to prepare “quick meals” is to acquire a good all round technique and learn a small clutch of traditional recipes. After that the key is some planning. Professional kitchens do what they do with speed and consistency because they often separate preparation from cooking.

Which brings us back to the posh-cookbooks – an odd hybrid of the gastro-porn and ready-to-cook formats. They make me wonder what their point is. One the one hand, they are asking your pay way over the odds for simple dumbed-down recipes (or ones that bear remarkable similarity to traditional and widely available ones). On the other hand, they are not offering you the insights that might come from reading the approach of a professional chef. Books like Sauces by Michel Roux, New British Classics by Gary Rhodes or Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook by Fuchsia Dunlop are not just collections of recipes, but serious foundations in the technique and technology of food preparation.

The appeal of the posh-cookbook is purely aspirational. These writers can only be qualified to write on food with any authority because they are posh – which is surely another way of saying, because they are better than you or I. These books only make sense if their appeal is not just about food cooked and presented in a certain way, but food consumed and praised within a certain lifestyle. Much like those extended friends and family tableus in Martha Stewart Living, they sell a yearned for vision of what we wish our meals and social interactions were like.

[tags] Cookbooks, Coooking [/tags]

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