Advertisement

KILLINGS, daily columns and blog —

Books

I won’t be eating my words: narrative in cookbooks

by Carody Culver , October 8, 20122 Comments

Until this year, cookbooks had managed to evade all those doomsday prophecies about the death of the book. But in March, a Sydney Morning Herald article dared to ask the question on every worried bibliophile’s mind: is the cookbook dead? Have food blogs, cooking apps and ebooks finally sounded the death knell for those glossy tomes that fill the shelves of your local bookshop, enticing you with their pretty pictures even as they repel you with their unreasonable price tags?

As long as I’m conscious and in possession of a credit card, the answer – for me – is no. At last count, there were 149 cookbooks bending the shelves of my shitty Ikea kitchen bookshelf. The fact that I’m working on a PhD about cookbooks is no excuse; I’m only writing about 26 of them in my thesis. (This hasn’t stopped me from claiming every single cookbook purchase since 2010 back on tax. It’s research.)

But the shameful truth is that I don’t use any of those 149 cookbooks very often. And I’m not the only one who keeps buying books about food, salivating over them, and then sticking them on a shelf before going into the kitchen and making that tofu stir fry recipe I found in a magazine once and now know off by heart (because I’ve made it approximately 18,756 times).

I enjoy cooking, but I’m no budding MasterChef contestant. I live alone, so I probably make less of an effort in the kitchen than I would if I had others to feed. I stick to a tried-and-true repertoire of simple meals, and have a morbid fear of attempting anything too fussy if I have company, lest it turn out to be a complete disaster. The idea of making, say, a croquembouche makes me want to assume the foetal position.

I’m pretty bad at following recipes, because at some stage, inexplicably, I decide that I know better. (I won’t pretend this strategy is always a success…the Peanut Butter Slice Train Smash of 2012 and the Raw Prawn Stir Fry Travesty of 2010 are burned into my family’s and friends’ culinary memories – and stomach-acid-burned digestive tracts – forever.)

I’m surely not the only one with more cookbooks than I can possibly justify – I know plenty of people with similarly overburdened bookshelves (admittedly, I seem to be the worst offender). But if we’re not all chopping up a frenzy in the kitchen like Jamie Oliver every night, why are we still buying cookbooks? It’s easy to find free recipes online, and cooking apps supposedly enable you to whip up something surprisingly edible when the only things in your fridge are beer and wilting bean sprouts.

The answer to our obsession, I think, lies not in any sort of practical need, but an emotional and imaginative one. Cookbooks don’t simply tell us how to cook. Think about how many of them combine recipes with stories; memories; and vivid scenes that tap into the social, cultural and personal meanings we ascribe to food. When Stephanie Alexander writes about roast chicken, she remembers her Grandpa carving it when she was a child, ‘slice after snowy slice curled from the breast, each one rimmed with golden crisp skin’; when Valentine Warner shares his ‘proper’ method for Welsh Rarebit, he tells you confidently that it ‘knocks out cheese on toast, barely before they have touched gloves’.

It doesn’t matter if you think Welsh Rarebit sounds dubious (it’s not; nothing involving melted cheese and bread can ever be bad) or you hate roast chicken. What’s compelling is the way those passages are written, how they encapsulate the universal way food can make us excited or nostalgic. It captures your attention and your senses in the same way a novel might.

Arguably, some food blogs offer similar kinds of food stories, but what they can’t replicate is the physicality of cookbooks.

I’m not just talking about those that are so lavishly produced that they’re practically coffee table books – the ones you don’t dare risk actually cooking from in case you splatter tomato sauce over, say, all those glossy pictures of Nigella smiling lasciviously over her stove. There’s something equally satisfying, I find, about leafing through the rather mildewed pages of my mother’s first edition Margaret Fulton Cookbook, or even my heavily dog-eared $12.95 Hamyln All-Colour Meals For Two. It feels more real (and more meaningful) than anything on a screen.

On a more practical note, I feel a lot better about taking a book into the kitchen than I do my laptop, which will surely never be the same again if it comes anywhere near me when I’m wielding saucepans and playing with fire.

So, as long as we’re as hungry for stories as we are for food, there’s a place for cookbooks. At least, there always will be in my house. I might just need to invest in some more shelving first.

Carody Culver is a Brisbane-based bookseller, book buyer, and freelance writer. She’s due to submit her PhD thesis about cookbooks in just over six months, after which she’s going to have to find new and inventive ways to justify (and cover the cost of) her out-of-control cookbook-buying habit. Donations are welcome. 




2 thoughts on “I won’t be eating my words: narrative in cookbooks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

9864007066_4a196b364d_z

Tim Robertson

Fear, loathing, and the erosion of civil liberties

The hysteria currently being concocted by Australia’s political leaders is a smokescreen for the more serious threat facing everyone – an attack of the very freedoms and values our nation has been built on. Read more »

308982705_be9f94455b_b

Marika Sosnowski

Back inside: Life on the Syrian-Turkish border

In Turkey, less than 50 kilometres from the border, Syrians have chosen their favourite cafes, have opened Aleppine sweet shops and set up stores in the old city. Read more »

Frances Abbott

David Donaldson

Why #whitehousegate matters

A few days after the release of the budget, in which the Coalition government announced it was spreading the burden by increasing university fees, cutting school funding, and cutting welfare for young people comes a story that confirms what many already suspect to be the nature of opportunity: it’s much easier to come by if you’re born into privilege. Read more »

9781863956932

Carody Culver

Charmless lives: Helen Garner’s This House of Grief and Erik Jensen’s Acute Misfortune

How do narrative non-fiction writers who dare to dissect the darker aspects of humanity keep their readers engaged, rather than simply horrified? Read more »

KrissyKneen_credit_DarrenJames

Carody Culver

‘As if the top of my head were taken off’: The digital possibilities of poetry

‘When Emily Dickinson says, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry,” I can’t help but think she would be stupefied by the possibilities of digital literature.’ Read more »

tumblr_n9hftkebsr1tfwx0xo1_1280

S.A. Jones

‘Fool the Axis, Use Prophylaxis’: World War II’s anti-venereal disease posters

Protect Yourself: Venereal Disease Posters of World War II gives a fascinating insight into one of the ways the United States ‘managed’ servicemen’s sexuality: through poster art. Read more »

15115828030_526f79c515_z

Julia Tulloh

The celebrity spokesperson phenomenon

What should we expect celebrity advocates to deliver? Emma Watson is not a full-time activist, but if she inspires young people to take an interest in gender equality, is that not a good thing? Read more »

Clara and Doctor

Julia Tulloh

Doctor Who’s gender dynamics: a mid-season evaluation

In some ways, Peter Capaldi was a problematic choice for the newest regeneration of Doctor Who. How on earth were the producers going to pull off a successful friendship between a middle-aged man and a twenty-something woman, without it seeming at best patriarchal and at worst creepy? Read more »

blue-ombr-speckle-liner

Julia Tulloh

From the outside in: the beauty vlogger phenomenon

A current cohort of beauty bloggers are helping to break down distinctions between internal and external expressions of self in ways that allow them to generate new ideas of beauty on their own terms, rather than according to society’s expectations of what women (or men) should look like. Read more »

Gone-Girl-Ben-Affleck-Rosamund-Pike-Entertainment-Weekly-cover

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Marital Crises: Gone Girl and Force Majeure

You can share your body, your bed, your bank account, and even your toothbrush, with another human being. But each mind contains a private world that can never be fully understood or examined, let alone shared with another. Read more »

theskeletontwins1

Rochelle Siemienowicz

Suicide, Laughter and The Skeleton Twins

Even the best parents can inflict some form of lifelong damage upon their children. But when parents are outright mad, bad or dangerous – or in the case of the funny, bittersweet comic drama The Skeleton Twins, so depressed they commit suicide – the damage can feel impossible to bear, even decades down the track. Read more »

stepup5poster

Anthony Morris

Let’s Dance: unapologetic repetition and Step Up: All In

A franchise of movies based entirely around good-looking people performing unlikely and oddly aggressive dance moves wouldn’t seem to require heavy continuity – or any continuity at all – but Step Up: All In is surprisingly effective. Read more »

ST_Ello_600

Connor Tomas O'Brien

The Rise of the High-Minded Startup

Ello’s manifesto is the key to understanding its relative success, and how it has managed to sign up hundreds of thousands of users despite offering a wafer-thin feature set. Read more »

6289302147_38e8035680_z

Connor Tomas O'Brien

Jacqui Lambie and the limits of Remix Culture

The combination of Google Image Search, Photoshop, and Facebook is a powerful one, providing web users with the ability to seek out swaths of copyrighted visual material, rip and manipulate these pictures so the original source is obscured, then share the freshly “remixed” images to a broad audience with no real fear of legal action. Read more »

Streisand_Estate

Connor Tomas O'Brien

Don’t Look: The emergence of Streisand criticism

In the wake of the recent nude celebrity photo leak, I noticed something strange about the ways different publications skewed their coverage. Tabloid-style publications tended to be honest about their motives. The behaviour of left-leaning broadsheet-style outlets, however, was more complex. Read more »

nonaandme

Danielle Binks

Race, growing up and Nona and Me

Nona & Me beautifully explores female friendship amid cultural and political upheaval. It’s a tender portrayal of two girls who have so much in common, but are worlds apart. Read more »

7183815590_de3f64bca6_z

Danielle Binks

‘YA-bashing’: sexism meets elitism

Another month, another critic who doesn’t read YA literature but still feels superior enough to dictate to those who do. And with this latest instalment of ‘YA bashing’ comes critique of the critics – as many start pointing to a patriarchal undercurrent that runs beneath such articles that claim young adult and children’s fiction is unworthy. Read more »

tumblr_inline_n9e5g8afMe1rvc0fr

Danielle Binks

Beyond ableism and ignorance: disability and fiction

Youth literature has the ability to shape our attitudes to subcultures, and been proven to create empathy by reducing prejudice. So, if the genre has such potential for inclusivity, why are so many of these characters white, straight, able-bodied and middle-class? Read more »

homepage_large.9419e472

Chad Parkhill

The music of exhaustion

The War on Drugs new album Lost in the Dream is the startling sound of exhaustion – both a personal exhaustion and a broader cultural exhaustion – transformed into art that is thrillingly and paradoxically vital. Read more »

free-u2-album-on-itunes

Chad Parkhill

The Perpetual Undeath of Rock

 ‘Hey hey, my my, rock and roll can never die.’ Depending on your own tastes and cognitive biases, Neil Young’s famous lyric will now seem more prophetic than ever before – or profoundly misguided. Last week saw the release of U2’s Songs of Innocence in what Apple … Read more »

arthur-russel-beckman

Chad Parkhill

Calling out of context: The perennial appeal of Arthur Russell

When Arthur Russell died in 1992 at the age of forty, he did so in relative obscurity, having released four commercially unsuccessful albums and granted a single print interview: not exactly a promising oeuvre on which to build a legacy. Read more »

bojack-horseman-exclusive-trailer-debut_bghe

Stephanie Van Schilt

Jerks, antiheroes and failed adulthood in You’re The Worst and BoJack Horseman

In addition to both being really funny, two new US comedies – You’re The Worst and BoJack Horseman – speak to a widely-held fear about what, exactly, constitutes ‘adulthood’. Read more »

images

Stephanie Van Schilt

How To Talk Australians and the rise of web series

How To Talk Australians has deservedly garnered widespread praise both locally and internationally. With close to two million views worldwide, it could be deemed our first truly successful locally-produced web series. Read more »

please-like-me

Stephanie Van Schilt

Mental illness and Josh Thomas’ Please Like Me

While the jury is still out on the success of Please Like Me’s efforts to address ideas around mental health, the discussions both its seasons have provoked and continue to encourage are incredibly important. That, I definitely like. Read more »