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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. 




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