Here's why we should all be writing in our cookbooks

Harry Harris

Harry Harris takes a loving look at the cookbook as we know it and reasons why we should all delve into the joy of writing all over it, hence, prolonging its centuries-old history

Growing up, our shelves were full of cookbooks, and each cookbook, full of my mum’s handwriting. Dates when recipes had been cooked, who they’d been cooked for, whether or not they were any good, any alterations that had to be made (“too salty,” “double the recipe,” “didn’t have this, used that instead”). Where other forms of literature can feel rarefied, even precious to some, cookbooks are ripe for this kind of vandalism.

Truth be told, the amount of cookbooks I have on my shelves far outweigh the amount of time I have to make the recipes on the folded down pages within them, but the ones I go back to are obvious before you even turn to them—crinkled paper, stain-splattered, and annotated. I’ve halved the amount of crème fraîche in a leek gratin recipe from Rukmini Iyers’ The Green Roasting Tin. I’ve added sumac to the spice mix for a carrot and chickpea salad from Ruby Tandoh’s Flavour. I’ve scratched out the ingredient “smoked water” from a recipe in Anna Jones’ The Modern Cook’s Year. For better or worse, the cookbooks I own are owned by nobody else.

 

If you do this too, and feel guilty about scratching through thoroughly tested recipes or messing up beautiful paper stock, you needn’t—the practice of annotating cookbooks is intrinsic to the experience of reading, and indeed, using them. Often annotations can provide a window into the owner’s life. British cookbook author Elizabeth David, whose library is available to look through at The Guildhall in London, would write acerbic, often damning notes in the books she acquired. Beside a recipe entitled “Italian Salad” in a book called Ulster Fare published by the Belfast Women’s Institute Club, David wrote: “Sounds just about the most revolting dish ever devised.” The recipe itself amounted to a mixture of cooked pasta, tinned pears, raw carrot, minced onion, string beans and French dressing, so who are we to argue?

 

There’s a school of thought that places cookbooks in the same category as textbooks. A purely utilitarian form of literature whose only use is for us to make the recipes within it. In an era where so many people get recipes online, or where recipe boxes like HelloFresh or SimplyCook will send you pre-measured, pre-portioned step-by-step guides to your weekly dinners, the cookbook has been called into question. “Recipes are dead,” American chef Tyler Florence told The Washington Post back in 2017, announcing he’ll no longer be printing any cookbooks himself. “They're dead the same way paper maps are dead… I'll publish a cookbook and I'll have 125 recipes. People only use five. They'll use those as a sort of a guide that they'll kind of interchange different ingredients with."

"Food and our personal and collective identities are so deeply intertwined that it shouldn't come as a surprise that cooking is often a powerful form of storytelling"

True to his word, Florence hasn’t published a cookbook since 2014. However, he’s wrong in the intimation that this way of using cookbooks—to edit and alter to the taste of the user—is a new thing. “Since people started writing recipes, cooks have sought their own ways to fix, improve, or rate the quality of those recipes,” says Dr Ian Mosby, Assistant Professor of History at Canada's Ryerson University, “I think this dates back to the very origins of cookbooks.” Indeed, he’s also wrong in suggesting that cookbooks have historically only been vehicles for recipes—Mrs Beeton’s famous Book of Household Management from 1861, an influence on everyone from Delia Smith to Nigella Lawson, placed recipes alongside advice on how to deal with bad dreams and how to calculate income tax, among other helpful tips.

The other issue with Florence’s assessment of how presumably he wants people to use his cookbooks, ie, making multiple items from it strictly to the letter, is that it ignores the narrative quality the food has. “Food and our both personal and collective identities are so deeply intertwined that it shouldn't come as a surprise that cooking is often a powerful form of storytelling,” Dr Mosby says, and often this is illuminated and built upon by annotations. “[Annotations] are deeply personal and it's one of the reasons why cookbooks are often handed down within families. In many cases they are the only written records we have from our loved ones.”

 

Kate Young’s books are built on this relationship between food and narrative. An award-winning food writer and one half of luxury catering company Food By Feast (with fellow food writer and cook Olivia Potts), her books The Little Library Cookbook, The Little Library Year and the forthcoming The Little Library Christmas take passages from novels that feature food—Ishmael and Queequeg salivating over the Clam Chowder in Moby Dick, or Mrs Beaver’s Marmalade Roll from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe—and turn them into recipes, accompanied by beautiful photography and equally beautiful prose introductions. “My favourite cookbooks are ones that feel like literature,” Kate tells me, “And I think that food is storytelling, because you talk about class and culture and what we spend our time doing and caring about and people that we sit around the table with and all sorts of other things.” And yet, despite how wonderful her books are to read and look at, that should be no impediment to making them your own. “I would be absolutely chuffed about someone annotating my books,” she adds, “Something about annotating cookbooks says to me, 'not only do I enjoy cooking this thing, I’m going to do it again.' I feel OK about writing in them and annotating them and them getting beaten up or covered in gravy or whatever else needs to happen to them for it to be cooking.”

"It's better to see cookbooks not as textbooks but as choose-your-own-adventure stories where you decide on a path and see where it might lead"

 

Maybe then it’s better to see cookbooks not as textbooks, but as choose-your-own-adventure stories, where interaction isn’t so much finding the correct answer as it is deciding a path to take and seeing where it might lead.

“They invite conversation,” Kate says, and implicit in conversation is talking back, exchanging something with the author, and maybe exchanging something with a version of yourself in the future.

Ella Risbridger, author of Midnight Chicken, one of the Sunday Times' Cookbooks of the Year in 2019, is another avid recipe annotator, something that runs in the family. “Every cookbook in my parents house has the date of every time they cook the recipe. It's like a little diary,” she pauses to pull an old collection of recipes her parents had given her when she left for university from her shelf, with their annotations down the side, and flicks to the first page. “It says: 'Mum's best curry. Was going to write out for you, remembered you have book, page 79, Curry Bible by Madhur Jaffrey', and then underneath that my mother has written in quotes: 'Quite simply the best curry I have had anywhere anytime. Wow. 15th April 2006.' It’s a habit she’s carried into her life. I see cookbooks, and in fact all books, as a working document, really.” When it came to planning Midnight Chicken she wanted to allow readers to do the same: “I specifically wrote in the introduction: please write in this cookbook. It took a really long time to find paper that would work no matter what pen or pencil you were using. It was really important to me that you could write in it in pen or pencil and it wouldn’t slide off.”

"Sometimes I wonder what I'm buying when I buy cookbooks: is it inspiration to do something I haven't done before or permission to indulge in a hobby"

Midnight Chicken is another book that foregrounds its literary qualities as well as its culinary ones, its genesis being Ella’s blog, "Eating With My Fingers." Dr Mosby sees the growth of recipe blogs as a natural extension of the inclination to make recipes our own, saying “people have tried to make what was once deeply personal much more public and, in the process, have often foregrounded the stories of cooking rather than just the recipes themselves,” and Ella’s work is a testament to that development. Alongside recipes for blondies, pies, and probably the only roast chicken recipe you’ll ever need, Ella talks about how cooking lifted her out of depression, about her friends (Carbonara for Caroline, for author Caroline O’Donoghue, Marky Market’s Creamed Leeks, for her former landlord and current butcher, Beginners Chicken Curry for Harry Harris, for, uh, me), and throughout about her partner John, The Tall Man, who died before the book was published, and to whom the book is dedicated.

Sometimes I wonder what I’m buying when I buy cookbooks. Is it inspiration to do something I’ve not done before, or permission to give myself the time to indulge in a hobby—I can’t envisage a scenario when cooking will be anything other than that to me. Ella sums up her own mantra on food writing simply with “writing about food is writing about being alive,” so maybe that’s what I’m buying, and what we all are: writing about being alive. When we write in them ourselves, we’re doing the same: acknowledging the fact that we are, and how important food is to the life we want to lead.

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