Anna: Last Sunday, the Observer Food Monthly had a special edition where they listed their top 50 cookbooks of all time. As cookbooks are our business, it’s only right that we let our viewing public know what we thought. Isn’t that so Kirstin?
Kirstin: I loved Rachel Cooke’s introduction about all her cookbooks. She nailed it perfectly, why we have cookbooks. Did you think so too?
Anna: I did, except that by her own admission she doesn’t cook from any of them.
Kirstin: She doesn’t cook from Sophie Grigson because she doesn’t like her earrings. I remembered that.
Anna: Wise words. However, I find it a bit rich that she is judging and deciding on the top 50 cookbooks of all time and she doesn’t actually use any of them.
Kirstin: Who is she anyway?
Anna: A food journo.
Kirstin: So she’s not a cook.
Anna: She’s looking at them from an aesthetic point of view then maybe? And the writing. But not necessarily the quality and clarity of the recipes themselves.
Kirstin: I have more cookbooks than her. Who’s that woman with the bike? What sort of shoes is she wearing? They aren’t practical for cycling in.
Anna: That’s Thomasina Miers. It says they are Laboutins.
Kirstin: She’s just going to end up in front of a bus with her organic produce she’s bought in Spitalfields!
Anna: So, back to the list then.
Kirstin: Well here’s my problem with the list. OFM do it again. They get a whole load of chefs to tell us their top 50 books… they do this all the time. Next month it will be the same load of chefs telling us their top 50 recipes with a slice of bacon. Or their top 50 restaurants that serve oysters. Honestly.
Anna: It’s always the same chefs too.
Kirstin: Always Fergus Thingy, Jamie O, Thomasina, Tamasin D-L…..
Anna: And Nigel. But he’s on the payroll, and we like him.
Kirstin: Even though he cooks everything in butter.
Anna: My problem is it just felt really fixed.
Anna: We need a French cookery book. Tick. We have to have a Elizabeth David, a Claudia Roden and a Madhur Jaffrey. Tick.
Kirstin: Which is fair enough.
Anna: But then there’s one Thai, there’s one Japanese, there’s one vegetarian.
Kirstin: Faff-Olenghi. Clearly no one cooked anything from it.
Anna: A Nigel, a Delia, a Jamie. Tick, tick, tick.
Kirstin: But how would you have done it?
Anna: I would have thought about the recipes themselves, started with them, not the cuisine or the chef. I mean, the book at number 1 which neither of us have heard of — “The French Menu Cookbook” by Richard Olney (published in 1970) — I read the blurb that went with the decision and I couldn’t tell you anything about the actual food. It’s all about him, and his life, and his writing. Which is interesting of course, but this is the top cookbook, not the top most interesting cookery writer.
Kirstin: Alice Waters is number 11, and I have about 3 of her books and I’ve never cooked a single recipe from any of them. All her recipes start with “Prepare a small wood fire”. Which was the point at which I realised this was the top 50 cookery writers, not books. It should have been the “top 50 books that we actually use”.
Anna: Exactly. That’s why there’s only one of each chef. One Jamie, one Nigel, one Nigella etc etc.
Kirstin: These aren’t Desert Island cookbooks, are they?
Anna: They probably think they should be the 50 cookbooks you should have on your shelf, but they aren’t the ones that you would actually want to use on your island. Well, some of them. But “The Rice Book” at number 19? Really? So of the chefs we use regularly, do we think they chose the right book?
Kirstin: “Jamie’s Italy”. Crap choice. Jamie two, “Return of”, would be my choice. Nigella, on the other hand, has got better. So I wouldn’t agree with the choice of “How to Eat”. “Feast” has got to be her best. It’s got easy, yummy recipes with scrummy combinations. I cook from it all the time.
Anna: We do use “Jamie’s Italy” but it’s third in our house to his first two, so I agree with you. Random choice. They say this one was chosen because Italian food is his first love, but that comes through in bucketloads in the first two books too. Even if they don’t have the word “Italy” in the title! Nigella, hmm. I can see why they chose “How To Eat” as she runs from the basics through to full meal ideas. But I cook from “Forever Summer” and “Feast” more, and if I had to choose one book only (by the OFM’s criteria) it would be “Feast”. How boring, we agree!
Kirstin: So, it was interesting to read, but if you were putting together a cookbook library from scratch you shouldn’t go by this list — unless you’re not planning to cook anything!