A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I missed Nicola Humble’s cookbook phase because she published the results of her seven years of research on the history of the British cookbook outside the academic cabbage patch, with a mainstream publisher, and somehow I’ve only just now (ten years later) got hold of a copy of Culinary Pleasures. Its scholarship is very lightly worn: you’d hardly realise she is a professor of English literature if it weren’t for a single remark about Barthes. She writes as a cook and a book historian, leading the reader past the enticing recipes to think about the readers and users of cookbooks as well, and whether the most intimidating instructions from Mrs Beeton, Alice B Toklas or Raymond Blanc were ever actually tried. She tells a blackly funny anecdote about the inadvertent printing of a recipe containing ingredients that were seriously lethal in combination: the police were informed, all copies were removed from the stationers’ shelves, but no-one came forward with a near-death or even a death experience. That had me wondering what possible combination could be toxic: the very unnatural rhubarb plus pineapple is my best guess.
Cookbooks are aspirational as well as instructional: we buy them to read about the cooks we’d like to become. How many times have you found yourself just sitting (or leaning against the fridge) and reading a Nigella for pleasure? It certainly helps that some of the greatest British cooks who wrote books were also excellent writers. Nigella had been a journalist, after all, and her food column in Vogue in the late 1980s was the best writing it had printed for years (matched only by Helen Simpson’s shopping columns as if written by Georgette Heyer). Elizabeth David’s hauteur and assurance are as addictive as her recipes. Nigel Slater – given towering praise by Humble – writes engagingly to, not at, the reader, as does Tamasin Day-Lewis.
It’s the writing style that Humble concentrates on, and stories behind the food stains and comments on the pages of her vast second-hand collection of cookbooks. She begins with Mrs Beeton, jumps to the Edwardians, and then works steadily through the twentieth century focusing on how the cookbook developed in Britain, and what influenced its evolutions. These include rationing in both world wars, the social revolution that dried up the market in servants and forced ladies to learn to cook, many of them willingly, and the insidious social forces that pushed women back into the kitchen in the 1950s to live an advertising-led simulacrum of life locked into what they ought to be doing, not what they wanted. This is solid social history about food history, organised by the logic of a literary critic.
I very much enjoyed the more modern sections when books that my mother still owns started to pop up in the references. These were partly revelation and partly reminiscence for me: I now know the significance of my mother’s very elderly copy of Fannie Farmer (which contains the best American hotcake recipe ever). Humble puts the rise of vegetarianism and the horrors of nouvelle cuisine into their economic and social contexts, bringing back the 1980s in an electric blue haze with shoulder pads. She is severe about television chefs, especially the sainted Delia, and perceptive about how British television cookery shows caused a revolution in adventurous cooking.
The book ends with a sad panegyric for the unfashionableness of baking, and how important baking could and should be in Britain’s home life and in children’s education. Thus Humble unknowingly anticipated the massive phenomenon of the BBC’s The Great British Bake-off series that began in 2010, recording how domestic cooking was approaching the moment when it desperately needed to be shown how to bake by people like us, not distant, complicated chefs.
Nicola Humble, Culinary Pleasures. Cookbooks and the Transformation of British Food (2005, Faber & Faber), ISBN 0-571-20005-2, 978571-2005-4
When not blogging Kate is occasionally allowed to cook by her daughter, and is best at making emergency 15-minute meals from an empty fridge without a recipe.