(which is really the opposite of a problem except that I’m running out of room!)
I’m writing this from my bed, under a shelf which holds my stereo speakers, three French milk bottles, a cinnamon candle, a pink spaceman, and thirty-four cookery books.
As a child, I had absolutely no interest in learning to cook. None. I did the occasional bit of baking with my mum (including the fateful time that we made apricot muffins and forgot the sugar), peeled potatoes for my nan when we visited her on Wednesdays, but that was all. When I had to choose a technology subject for my GCSEs, I wanted to do Resistant Materials (woodwork, metalwork, some CAD/CAM) but my parents convinced me to take Food Tech, in the hope that I would learn to cook: that was a bust, when it turned out that we only cooked about twice a term, and instead spent our time watching videos about production lines for bread, and producing joyless coursework about ready meals. I liked cookery shows, though, and when I got a copy of Gordon Ramsay’s Healthy Appetite (with ‘to Alice, now fuck off out my kitchen!’ in the front) for my 16th birthday, it started an obsession that I haven’t managed to shake. Unfortunately, it took rather a while for my interest in the books to translate to an interest in actually cooking.
This resulted in my moving to France at the age of 18, unable to cook much more than a pasta bake. I could get by, but the combination of a lack of inspiration, and being terrified of the price of food, meant that I came back for Christmas much thinner than I was when I left. I was, by no means, the only one to be so inept – I went away with friends that year and we ate a lot of pasta and sauce – but it bothered me. I had Nigel Slater’s Real Food, so slowly I learnt. I distinctly remember writing out all the ingredients for the onion gravy, standing in my tiny kitchen – two hob rings attached to the draining board of the sink, no oven, terrible microwave, two cupboards – to make it, and sitting in bed with a mountain of mash and gravy. Onion gravy is hardly a big deal, but it was a labour of love, and I was delighted with it.
Now, one of my greatest pleasures is in feeding people. I love making something new, and seeing everyone clear their plates. When, in second-year, I lived with someone who made me miserable and intimidated me so that I often went without dinner rather than risk being in the kitchen with her, I began to claim the kitchen in the late afternoon to try out a new recipe. I learnt, in that difficult year, to make chowder, risotto, decent pork crackling, a light cheese sauce, gnocchi bakes, curries, dauphinoise (and a variation without milk), and countless others. When the person who made me miserable moved out and a guy we didn’t know moved in, I used those recipes to bring us together as a flat, coming together a couple of times a week and lazing over dinner and beer. I grew excited about ingredients and flavours, tangible things I could produce, how happy I could make people by feeding them. I learnt techniques from reading about them, and about how to combine flavours, what can be substituted and what can’t.
Now, I do a lot of the cooking at home. I love days when I can spend hours tending a stew, making a pie, pickling onions, and while I grow anxious and agitated about timings and feeding a lot of people at once, I also find it incredibly satisfying. This afternoon, I’ve made a beef and mushroom pie – I’ve made more pastry in the past few weeks than I think I’ve made in total in my life, starting with Josceline Dimbleby’s mince pies, which my Nan makes and I’ve stolen the recipe for – and I’m pleased about it, although there was a moment when I was rolling out the pastry that I slightly regretted starting it.
But that doesn’t mean I use all the cookbooks I own. Some of them were gifts, and while theoretically lovely, I find them unusable – I like pictures, clear lists of instructions and ingredients, variations, things to catch my eye when I flick through them. Others, though, are lovely, and I use them, but I also use a lot of recipes from the internet – She Cooks, She Eats is a firm favourite, as well as the treasure troves of BBC Food and Good Food. Increasingly, I make things up as I go along, using what I’ve learned over the past few years, and hope it works – this has picked up a bit since watching my friend Kate cook, because everything she does seems so intuitive and natural, and I want to be more like that, and most of my experiments have been successful, which is incredibly gratifying.
I decided, out of some sense of guilt or minimalism or something, that I should put myself on a ban, and not get any new cookbooks until I had made something from every book. Of course, I failed. I was still given new ones as gifts – some of which have proven very useful, but not adhering to the ban. And then there was the simple fact that I enjoy looking at them, and am easily swept away by promotions of new ones. My heart really wasn’t in it, though I managed about eighteen months. When I eventually caved, it was because I was faced with a shelf full of Nigella Lawson in Foyles, and bought Kitchen – I read the entire thing in two days. So now, instead of banning myself from buying them, I try to make something from a new book as soon as possible. Within a few weeks of buying Kitchen, I had made meatballs, teriyaki salmon (from a chicken recipe), escalopes with roastini, rocket and lemon couscous, and tomato curry with coconut rice; I also attempted to make the cinnamon plums while catsitting, but found that the cinnamon tube in the kitchen actually contained vanilla pods. I got Nigel Slater’s Kitchen Diaries III for Christmas and have already made something from it – the salmon macaroni, which was a joy to cook and to eat, and will become a household regular.
Alongside Nigella and Nigel Slater sit my other favourites, the five published by restaurant chain Leon. My auntie gave me Naturally Fast Food one year for Christmas, and it kicked off a love affair. They’re beautiful, easy to follow, fall open comfortably on their spines when flat on the counter (it really bothers me how many cookbooks refuse to stay open on their own), and have yielded many an excellent recipe. I have a couple of baking books, but I prefer cooking savoury things – it’s harder to salvage a bad cake than a runny tomato sauce or an under-seasoned stew, and I don’t like when things go wrong.
Of course, the sensible solution to this is to get rid of the books I don’t use, and pass them on to someone who will, but it’s so hard – something I am starting to think about in earnest. But I am also doing my best to use them, to make something out of the ordinary on a Tuesday evening, to cook things that scare me a little bit, to learn and experiment and adapt, to bring a bit of joy into everyday life and to avoid becoming bored of my food. To find new favourites more often, and share them around.
And maybe make room for a new cookbook.