ChipLitFest has always had a fine tradition of cookery. Every year, wonderful chefs stir up inspiring demonstrations and pepper us generously with their time, tastings and tips.
But this may be the first time we’ve had a whole session about a cook book. When the author in question is Prue Leith; Bake-Offstar, culinary legend and local resident, it’s not surprising that tickets are selling fast for the launch of The Vegetarian Kitchen, at Chippy Theatre on 23 March.
Prue has co-written this book with her niece Peta, a pastry chef and a lifelong vegetarian. Based on favourite family meals, it promises recipes that are ‘homely, hearty and delicious.’
But will we sit and read it, cover to cover? Cook books seem to come in two different flavours – those designed to load plates with food and those that set out to fill our heads with ideas.
Prue – although she is a novelist herself and will have no doubt taken great care over the writing of The Vegetarian Kitchen – will want to impress us with the recipes rather than her prose. We’ll turn to this book when we want a meal, not an intellectual appetiser (like the currently trendy Salt, Fat Acid, Heat – Samin Nostrat’s deconstructionist approach to preparing food).
There’s a long tradition of both types of books. My mother’s generation’s food bible was the Constance Spry Cookery Book, published in 1956, which could certainly tell you how to make a white sauce or a blancmange. Spry – also famous for flower-arranging – had spent the war years encouraging people to grow and cook their own food. Her thoroughly British approach was shortly to be challenged by Elizabeth David, the food writer’s writer, whose 1960 Provincial French Cooking showed astonished readers the simple appeal of a plain omelette and a glass of wine.
The parallel lines continue. In the 1970s Fanny Craddock was showing us how to make baked goods on TV as well as on the page (“Would you like to make doughnuts just like Fanny’s?” her husband Johnnie gamely encouraged.) Over in paperback, Jocasta Innes was writing The Pauper’s Cookbook, following on from Katherine Whitehorn’s Cooking in a Bedsit– nourishment for a new age of independent but thrifty women. On through the ’80s: on the one hand, Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course, on the other, a revised edition of Jane Grigson’s English Food, simply describing what to do with native delicacies such as artichokes. By the ’90s, we had on the one hand, earnest learning (Delia again, in How to Cook, starting with how to boil an egg), and on the other Claudia Roden continuing her tour of Levantine and European culture with her Book of Jewish Food. In the new age of the 2000s, we saw the lines coming together – food writers who really wanted you not just to cook food, but to relish the process and understand its provenance. From Nigella’s slathering and scooping deliciousness in How to Eat, we got to grips with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s grow-your-own casserole in the River Cottage Cookbook, and enjoyed Nigel Slater’s poignantly nostalgic memoir Toast.
Where are we now? After a period of immersion in cup-cakery – The Hummingbird Bakery Cookbook (2009) and beautiful chef-led fusion (Moro and Ottolenghi) now it’s all about veg. This year we are seeing a seismic shift in food consciousness. Vegetarian cookbooks are selling like Greggs’ hot vegan sausage rolls. Which ones will stand the test of time? Only one or two will become our go-to staples, leading us to open up their pages for inspiration again and again rather than make a quick swipe on the iPad. I’m sure Prue and Peta’s The Vegetarian Kitchen will be up there. As the owner of a very well-thumbed and still-consulted copy of Leith’s Cookery Bible, I’m hoping this new book will also find a permanent place on my kitchen shelf.