Wednesday, 21 December 2011

The Christmas cookbook nativity

A slightly longer version of my piece in Monday's Guardian.

Unlike the celebrity memoir, the cookbook aimed at the Christmas market seems to be remarkably recession-resistant: last Christmas, Jamie Oliver’s 30 Minute Meals became the fastest selling non-fiction book ever, and books by Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Lorraine Pascale and others are among the bestsellers so far this year. A pagan Rip van Winkle, just waking up after a 2000 year sleep, would feel quite at home, observing a celebration taking place around the winter solstice organised around feasting, with little evidence of the intervening two millennia of Christianity. The kitchen has replaced the church as the focal point of Christmas: it is where we are supposed to unleash our creative, sociable, better selves.

The Christmas cookbook nativity goes like this. In the autumn of 1995, a visionary woman emerged out of the culinary wilderness, and her name was Delia. She had written a book, with a TV series attached, called Delia’s Winter Collection. And although this book created great anguish across the land, for it produced a terrible cranberry famine, it did help to slay a 95-year-old tyrant called the Net Book Agreement, which was cruelly forcing all books to be sold at the full price. Suddenly a small number of titles could be sold at huge discounts and millions came to our modern shrine, the supermarket, to pay homage to a new-born phenomenon: the hardback bestseller. Between 1960 and 1995, Elizabeth David's most successful book, French Provincial Cooking, sold just under 250,000 copies; by the end of 1995, Delia’s Winter Collection had sold a million.

Wise men began to spread the good tidings. In his 1999 book Living on Thin Air, Charles Leadbeater saw the cookery book boom as a paradigm of the new economy, “a worldwide upgrade of the software which runs our kitchens”, introducing us to food from around the world in a way that proved that “globalization is good for our palates”. While a chocolate cake could only be eaten once, Leadbeater pointed out, the same chocolate cake recipe could be endlessly replicated without anyone being worse off - just like the new weightless, knowledge economy which would be driven by ideas, information and networking.

People don’t talk so much about the new economy now: its vision of an endless expansion of knowhow and opportunity in which everyone would benefit has not yet materialised. And Delianomics didn’t explain the relationship between our obsession with cookery and our continuing culinary illiteracy: a new generation of amateur chefs with Smeg Ovens and River Cafe Cook Books was also sustaining the biggest market for ready meals in Europe. But the celebrity cookbook is still thriving, probably because people buy it for reasons more complicated than just following the recipes. These books are often given as presents and, as the sociologist Marcel Mauss pointed out in his classic 1925 work, The Gift, the ritual of gift-giving is a tangled web of mutual obligation, duty and status-seeking which doesn’t necessarily follow conventional economic rules.

Leadbeater called the exchange of cookbooks at Christmas “an annual, global knowledge transfer on a vast scale”. In retrospect, it seems to be the product not so much of a democratic exchange of information and skills as a heavily centralised and constrained market. Television programmes have become commercial opportunities to spawn books and merchandise, and the big chains can afford to offer such large discounts that small, independent booksellers are forced to buy celebrity cookbooks from supermarkets because it is cheaper than buying them wholesale. The books themselves are packaged not just as collections of recipes but as fetishised objects: food photography, in which meals are made to look delicious with the aid of hairspray and cigarette smoke, is now an art form and industry in its own right. These books may teach us how to cook, but they also promise to satisfy more nebulous cravings and desires.

Not that there is anything new about that. Before the 1970s, it was difficult to purchase Elizabeth David’s more “exotic” ingredients (like anchovies or aubergines) outside of Soho delicatessens or the food shops off Tottenham Court Road. For the middle classes, David’s sensuous descriptions of continental foodstuffs had a partly vicarious appeal, evoking fond memories of the foreign holidays they were beginning to take in places like Tuscany and Provence. The best food writing is, like David’s, an artful combination of precision and sensuality. And the cookery book may be selling us desires, but, should we ever get round to following the recipes, they are satisfiable ones. The new economy may be an insubstantial memory, but meals can be tweaked to take account of straitened circumstances and, however long our age of austerity lasts, we are unlikely to go hungry.

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