The false glamour of cook books

World of books by the books editor

One can’t escape them in any bookshop: the tables plied with the latest tomes by celebrity TV chefs, of all ages.

But it seems to me, with their polished presentation, that these titles are often akin to what (for politeness sake) we can call ‘top shelf’ magazines, with the same soft focus images, the same airbrushed fantasy. No casserole straight out of the oven ever looks quite like a stew that has passed through the hands of a photographer and designer studio.

Are cook books then a sort of soft porn, so to speak? This notion of mine has brought hoots of laugher from some. But let me explain.

What is it these books are selling? They seem to promote a style of wellbeing and a good living, but are perhaps just another element in a materialistic culture.

When one examines the recipes – never costed by the way; all talk of money would spoil the fantasy – they all too often involve expensive quickly cooked cuts of meats, imported herbs and vegetables and other exotic ingredients. All too often there are large amount of chilli – if nothing else dishes have to be, as those photos suggest, hot stuff.

They are not an adjunct to feeding your family, but to mimicking a celebrity lifestyle. They are not for a parent trying to feed a family on his limited budget – for not all housekeepers are women these days!

But go back in time, and consider the history of the modern cook book. In the 18th and early 19th Centuries, we had Careme, Escoffier and others, the cook books of royal palaces, grand houses and exclusive clubs. But with the emergence of the middles classes in the Victorian era this changed. Mrs Acton’s pioneering work, Modern Cookery for Private Families, in 1845 set the style, listing the ingredients, the techniques, the cooking time, etc. But it was aimed at household economy and well as healthy eating. Healthy eating was a great priory in those days.

When Isabella Beeton brought out her book in 1865 this was called Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. That idea of the young married women running her home like a business with little or no help was the key to its success. She covered not only food but many other aspects of daily life and health as well.

The theme of management lasted a long time, all through the era of domestic science. But this changed after the WWII. Elizabeth David introduced a generation of readers to the delights of cooking in the South of France and around the Mediterranean – she also emphasised practicality, freshness and economy. The heirs of these writers are Mary Berry and Delia Smith.

In this day and age when obesity is a plague on western culture, endangering whole societies, cooking is far from being a trivial matter. “No time to cook” could be translated as no time to live properly. And that may well be the point. We have confused “living well” and “living properly”. But then living properly has been lost sight of elsewhere in our society as well.

And what of the future? One of the latest cookbooks, on sale just this week, is entitled Cognitive Cooking with Chef Watson: Recipes for Innovation from IBM & the Institute of Culinary Education (Sourcebooks, US$ 29.99). Chef Watson is a supercomputer (which competed in and won a US TV game show) which was programmed by IBM to create ideas for new recipes that would taste nice “at a molecular level”. This may seem strange and the results sound very much like Chef Watson had been actually programmed by Heston Blumenthal.

One of Chef Watson’s creations, very much in the Blumenthal manner, is a Spanish almond crescent, a butterless and sugar free pastry, flavoured with pepper, saffron and coconut milk. Another recipe suggests grilled asparagus served with pig’s feet croquettes and mustard foam. And for dinner we can try creole shrimp-lamb dumplings, Italian-pumpkin cheesecake and hoof-and-honey ale.

If this is a vision of the future of cooking, humanity is truly doomed.