An Ode to Cookbooks

Cookbooks offer a useful way to learn new and tasty recipes

Source: pixabay

My family has a rigid formula for choosing presents, neither innovative nor successful, largely intended to reduce stress for the giver.

First, discern a category of things that your target likes. Second, purchase something in that category. That’s it. I was once gifted all fifty-one episodes of the anime adaptation of Soul Eater based on a brief interest in manga. Although the strategy yields many near misses, it can also produce some presents to which you can only nod and say, “fair enough, that’s me”. So it was when my dad presented me with the Hungry Student Vegetarian Cookbook. I am, indeed, often peckish, enrolled in full-time education, disenchanted with meat, and on the hunt for recipes.

Hungry Student sits on my shelf, brushing shoulders with the more adventurous books that combine utility with celebration and curiosity. Ruby Tandoh’s Crumb opened up a world of baking, de-mystifying tense exchanges on GBBO, while the Leon vegetarian cookbook became a sort of home away from home when I missed the comforting presence of the Saturday Guardian’s cooking supplement. The best thing about it is the number of recipes that need only one pan, maximising deliciousness on minimum hob space.

Recipes can tell you so much about an author’s tastes, but more comes from the layout of a great cookbook. I knew I’d love my latest purchase, Fresh India, when I found an entire section on dahl and another on aubergines, accompanied with brightly coloured printed patterns and sturdy, unpretentious paper ready to soak up plenty of spilled madras sauce.

Hungry Student Vegetarian Cookbook has pages like ‘Shopping On A Budget’ and ‘How To Impress Your Mates’. Recipes come with no preamble, though there are many pictures to let you know what dinner will look like. I find the genre strange: the absence of personality and simplified instructions remind me of colouring by numbers. Follow these steps, and you will have food.

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I was raised by two separate single parents who rarely had time to slave over an oven. The cooking lessons we shared were generally in the holiday mode, centring on treats: pale, puddled rock cakes on my dad’s boat, or the sweetly stodgy crumble that gave me my first burn. The meals that I did learn as a child often used ingredients that I now rarely buy for myself, mirroring a widespread generational shift in eating habits.

I hesitate to mourn the loss of the hereditary recipe, given that my Irish grandmother’s favourite pork chops were frequently so tough as to necessitate sawing. I’m happy to remember her with Bisto and rich tea biscuits. But the Hungry Student book fulfils a similar purpose: that of a parent pushing the food into your hands and saying, “make it like I would”.