By Imogen Willis
Recipes and cookery books have been a long-standing bastion of elitism, copied down by the literate, and preserved by head chefs in royal kitchens. One example, The Forme of Cury from 1390, documents several hundred dishes, and a list of ingredients for a feast held by king Richard II, including: “14 oxen lying in salt”, and “11 thousand eggs”. In contemporary society, food snobbery has less to do with wealth and education, but bears the strain of these ‘class-markers’, contemporary chefs mystifying food through linguistic devices with extravagant ingredients, specific tools, and tricky methods.
Delia Smith articulates her disdain at the snobby narrative accompanying food: “Cooking should not be exclusive or ‘cheffy’. It’s about sitting down around the table and having a nice meal”. Deceptive titles such as “sublimely simple” on Gordon Ramsey’s starter of Watercress Veloute with Poached Oysters exacerbating the hierarchy between chef and consumer. Journalist Bee Wilson lambasts the recipe, claiming that attempting it was to “feel like a failure”.
Historically the cookery book wasn’t just an exploration of food, but a lifestyle guide. Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management published in 1861 provided everything from recipes to rules regarding social engagement. The book presumed the social and economic status of the reader, allowing the middle-class woman to navigate married life. Although society has progressed regarding the role of the woman, recipe books are still tied to the narrative of the perfect host. Still reflecting Brillat-Savarin’s 1826 aphorism: “Tell me what you eat: I will tell you what you are”, we are obsessed with the idea that the food we put on the table is a reflection of our identity.
However, cookery books including Nigella Lawson’s How to be a Domestic Goddess have tried to reclaim the kitchen as a place of comfort instead of stress. Her food-narrative is personal, “I love this… late at night when its melting squidginess tends to fall darkly on to my white sheets – and I don’t care” introducing her recipe for Quadruple Chocolate Loaf Cake. This conversational style coincides with what Michael Mikulak calls ‘storied food’: recipe books invoking “authenticity, family values, frugality, community”, flattering the “the benevolent citizen-consumer” who “changes the world every day by voting with his or her dollar”. Buying a recipe book is a political statement; joining a community of like-minded consumers.
With this in mind, Jamie Oliver and his 30-minute Meals encouraged a strand of food writing tailored to suit the constraints of the consumer. Yotam Ottolenghi’s 2018 cookbook SIMPLE, appeals to our personal narratives with food. Perhaps you are his friend Esme who prefers to leave things “simmering away, ready to be eaten four or five hours later” or Tara who “can’t really relax” without a meal being ready in advance. The consumer seemingly dictates the story of the relationship with their food.
With the recipe and cookery books being absorbed into digitised resources, the 21st Century chef encourages an interactive engagement with their cookbooks.