Nicolas Freeling on cookery books

“Aphorism number two: this is not a cookery book because such things are whited sepulchres, that tickle but do not satisfy. They appear each year in swarms, burgeoning in spring like horse-chestnut buds, and about as much use—decorative, gentlemen, purely decorative. Nothing wrong with that, no, but the bad cook who buys a bundle of recipes thinking it will turn him into a tolerable cook is in for disillusion and so are all his friends. The worst cookery books are the ones that give formal recipes. The least bad are the coffee-table books, glamorous affairs that waffle on about the little place on the banks of the Loire: the illustrations are lovely and there are historical, archaeological and botanical interests. Most wicked are the dogmatic ones which give quantities and times, peremptory stuff about giving your chop seven minutes each side. The inexperienced cook, starting confident in his mentor, becomes flustered by strange gaps in the information, is confused, irritated and finally exasperated—what should have been a nice meal turns out spoilt and it’s the wretched book’s fault, not the cook’s. You cannot teach cooking out of a book any more than you can carpentry. No two stoves, fryingpans, ovens—come to that no two cooks—are the same. No good writer on food gives formal recipes. “A recipe has a hidden side, like the moon,’ remarks James de Coquet tolerantly.”

—from Notes on a Kitchen Book, 1970.

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