Saturday, 25 June 2011

Culinary Pleasures by Nicola Humble

Nicola Humble's book is a fascinating review of the way cookbooks have been written, presented and used in Britain since the 1860s; it also functions, extremely effectively, as a social history of cooking and eating.  Presented chronologically, each chapter deals with the most celebrated food writers - Mrs Beeton, Agnes Jekyll, Boulestin, Elizabeth David, Constance Spry, Jane Grigson - and also their contemporaries who may not be as well-known today but whose influence on the way we cook and eat is persistent.  Humble's topic allows her to explore the social changes of the period thematically, too: the significance of gender in food writing, the decline of the servant class and the growth of a professionalised domesticity, the anxieties around the best way to feed children.  Some of these themes will be familiar to those who have enjoyed Humble's The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, as will her prose, which combines a thorough scholarship with great readability and humour.

The book is excellent at tracing the links between social change, class mobility and the transformation of food retail, and developments in food writing.  Modern cookbooks are often criticised as being for reading, or displaying on shelves, rather than cooking from; but Humble shows how this was always an aspect of cookery writing.  Late Victorian and Edwardian cookbooks often had chapters called something like "When Cook is Away", which included simple recipes the housewife might attempt herself, and glossed over the fact that for many readers at this time, Cook was not just away, but gone for good, if she had ever in fact existed.  The more elaborate recipes were for wistful perusal rather than for use.  The two chapters on wartime cookery show how important food writers were to the war effort, providing new ideas for using an increasingly limited range of ingredients, even if the results of their inventiveness were peculiar at best, revolting at worst.    Humble is also very good at analysing the way in which food writers write, the lifestyle that is being endorsed along with the recipes, and the influence on our contemporary views of dishes and ingredients; Elizabeth David's endorsement of tinned tomatoes has gone some distance to make them acceptable to the majority of today's foodies.  The book also considers the ways in which recipes and cookbooks have been presented: the simple hardback, recipe cards, flip-books that allow you to combine three courses in new and exciting ways, and the picture or cartoon books, like Len Deighton's cookbooks aimed at men.  The final chapter, which considers the rise of the celebrity chef and the influence of television on food writing, is a fascinating piece of analysis, and skewers Delia Smith with delightful precision; apparently she finds it disgusting when her fellow TV cooks taste their own food on screen.  This tells you all you need to know about Delia, really, although I am bound to admit that her recipe for flaky pastry is truly excellent.

Best of all, this book has recipes, so you can see for yourself how this type of writing has evolved and how it reflects on itself.  There is a frightful-sounding, necessarily eggless, World War II cake which comes with a rather surprising endorsement from Stella Gibbons.  Nicola Humble is particularly devoted to Constance Spry, and we get her apparently infallible recipe for choux pastry.  From Raymond Blanc's oeuvre we get a terrifying multi-stage recipe for red pepper mousse, the style of which will be instantly familiar to anyone who bought a cookbook in the late 1980s.  A Nigella Lawson recipe for a comforting family supper of fish pie followed by cherries and ice-cream exemplifies the intimate and personal tone that characterises her writing.  This book was not only highly informative and entertaining, but it sent me straight back to reading my own collection of cookbooks, and wondering when I might find the time to cook Jane Grigson's recipe for Paris-Brest, making use of the Constance Spry choux pastry method, obviously.


  1. I probably won't read this one as I'm not especially interested in cooking but I read Humble's The Feminine Middlebrow Novel and thought it was fabulous. As you say she combines academia with readability which is rare, I hope she writes more about middlebrow novels in the future.

  2. Sounds fascinating. Does she comment upon the literary aspect of cookery books? I'm thinking particularly of post WW2 writers such as David and Roden here with their intelligent commentaries based on considerable knowledge and research into culture and history.

  3. Dark Puss - yes, she does. There are some very good close readings of the way cookery books are written, and she considers the literary as well as the social impact of writers like David. There is a great analysis of two Jane Grigson recipes in which Humble teases out the social and cultural assumptions that are inherent in the text.