Those of you who follow this blog with any regularity will know of my Holy Trinity of First Principles: words, music and food.
These are my three main sources of nourishment, and without their sustaining, inspiring and stabilising presence in my life I would probably end up in jail or in what used to be called (in the good old days of political incorrectness) a lunatic asylum.
But those of you who know me personally will know that there’s another thing that I am slightly obsessed by — planning. Yes, I’ll admit it, I’m one of those people who loves lists. Particularly of the old-fashioned hand-written variety, the kind that can be crossed off with flourish and flair.
I am also, I’ll confess, a bandit for spreadsheets, tables, and — more recently — menu plans. And when the menu planning mood strikes me, I find there is nothing more pleasurable than sitting down with a couple of old friends and working out what my family and I will eat for dinner for the next month.
Technically speaking, they’re not ‘friends’ at all, they’re cookbooks: the tried and trusted tomes I turn to when when my soul’s kitchen needs re-stocking. But when I’m happily ensconced at the dining room table with a pile of cookbooks beside me, it begins to feel like Nigella and Jamie are my friends (obviously…after all, we’re on a first name basis here). Similarly, the likes of Stephanie Alexander and Maggie Beer feel like neighbours who pop their heads over the back fence to chat about what’s growing in their veggie patches, while Yotam Ottolenghi — whose latest volume I have only recently acquired — feels like an exciting new acquaintance who I want to get to know a whole lot better.
Seriously — what’s not to love about cookbooks? They’re where words and food collide, with delectable results.
Cookbooks are also packed with beautiful photographs, enticing recipes and, more frequently in this age of the celebrity chef, introductory pieces that allow the author’s passion for creating delicious food with locally sourced, seasonal produce to shine through. I suspect I find Nigella Lawson and Jamie Oliver particularly accessible because their cookbooks read like the television scripts they no doubt once were, and I can hear their voices in my head as I read the (sometimes pithy, occasionally rambling) comments that preface each of the recipes in their books. They don’t just make me feel hungry, they make me want to cook.
I am equally inspired by food memoirs, especially Ruth Reichl’s widely-acclaimed trilogy of her lifelong journey with food. In my opinion, Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table, Comfort Me with Apples: More Adventures at the Table, and Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise are all well worth a read. Novels that include recipes for dishes cooked by the characters also fill me with joy — but I suspect that may be the topic of another blogpost altogether.
To be honest, I think I’m a better cook when I’ve sat down with my culinary ‘friends’, or even when I’ve simply been side-tracked by a recipe when I’m looking for something else entirely. I know I’m definitely more willing to try new things in the kitchen afterwards, despite the fact that I have been known to tune out the kids clamouring for their evening meal over the top of the television blaring the Octonauts theme just because my attention has been entirely captured by a new way of cooking with chorizos…or artichokes…or tangellos…or any number of other ingredients.
And, notwithstanding such lapses of maternal attention, my kids are developing a great relationship with food, not doubt partly because I am interested in what I am cooking for them and because I willingly express my love for fresh, local produce. They are eager to try new dishes and to have a crack at cooking too, and are particular fans of purple carrots, pomegranates and many other fruits and vegetables I had never heard of when I was a child.
Needless to say, I’m running out of space in my kitchen for all my cookbooks, much to my chagrin. Even so, I find it hard resist the siren song of a new volume culinary inspiration, despite my lack of cupboard space and my husband’s (probably well-founded) dismay.
But I do know this: sticking to my First Principles is good for my health — mentally, physically, and spiritually — and, by extension, it is good for my family’s health too. So my argument (and believe me, I’m sticking to it) is this: if I splurge ever now and then on a cookbook, everybody benefits.
And besides, if my habit of making friends with cookbooks continues, I’m sure we could renovate the kitchen…