Culinary Pleasures, by Nicola Humble

From Elizabeth David to Jamie Oliver and Delia Smith, cook books give a snapshot of our social aspirations and anxieties. Ian Irvine looks at a history of the genre and finds much for the thoughtful foodie to chew on
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Don't get me wrong: I think Jamie Oliver is an highly accomplished chef with a rare gift for communication, and his recipes are excellent. But cook books are not only about food. To buy one, or to write one, can be to acquire a new image of oneself.

"Cook books and the transformation of British food": the subtitle of Nicola Humble's entertaining history would be misleading if you took it to imply agency to the cookbooks. British food has indeed been transformed since Mrs Beeton's Household Management first appeared in 1861, but as this volume shows, there's little evidence of direct causation, except among the still-small group of amateur and professional enthusiasts. Greater forces than even the Naked Chef shape what the majority of the country buys and cooks: trade, for example (hard US and Canadian wheat transformed British breadmaking in the mid-19th century), technology (refrigerated ships first brought cheap New Zealand lamb and butter to the UK in 1880), war (both world wars brought food rationing, with major improvements in the population's health and disastrous effects on farming), disposable income (the economic booms of the 1950s and 1980s both fuelled new influential restaurant cultures: Italian, Indian, Thai and tapas), patterns of employment (more women with jobs relied on "convenience" foods to feed their families at speed, hence the popularity of pasta) and fear (the successive crises of salmonella, BSE and foot and mouth caused the 1990s' stampede towards organic produce). Newspapers, magazines, television and advertising are greater influences than the single cook book.

But if they are more often in the wake of changes in the national diet than in the vanguard, what cook books can provide for the historian is an unconscious snapshot of social realities, aspirations and anxieties. Nicola Humble is an English academic and the skills which she brought to her last book, The Feminine Middlebrow Novel 1920s to 1950s, serve her well. Its own subtitle, "Class, Domesticity and Bohemianism", also marks out the areas of interest in her current work, especially the changing roles of women, notably in her account of Mrs Beeton's great work. Beeton wrote for the rising middle-class (whose numbers had tripled between 1851 and 1871) living in the new suburbs of the great cities. The men commuted to work, leaving their wives in control at home: "The divisions between the home and the world outside became more marked, and the ideology of 'separate spheres' - the idea that the woman presided over the domestic sphere, the man over the economic - gained increasing sway. Increased prosperity meant that this new middle class could employ more servants, and this fact became so important that within a generation the keeping of servants had become the defining qualification for membership of the middle class. It was Isabella Beeton's ability to speak to the particular desires, anxieties and snobberies of this mid-Victorian middle class that ensured the success of her book."

Humble runs briskly through the next 150 years in six chapters, chronicling the highs (the elegant prose of Boulestin, the spriteliness of Ambrose Heath) and the lows (wartime pamphlets and the utilitarian concept of food as fuel). There is a judicious selection of specimen recipes from each period, as well a colourful selection of cookbook illustrations with witty commentary. It is a great pleasure to see again David Gentleman's charming 1955 cover for Plats du Jour by Patience Gray and Primrose Boyd.

She deals judiciously with the two great elephants in the kitchen of postwar cookbooks: Elizabeth David and Delia Smith. The two of them now represent the opposing poles of food writing. Without rancour, she corrects the myth which has become unconsciously established that, with the publication of David's first book, Mediterranean Food, in 1950, our domestic cuisine was immediately transformed from grey austerity to southern brillliance, olive oil replacing margarine, glossy aubergines and peppers the humble turnip and carrot. This was not something that David ever claimed for herself; she was well aware of previous authors, like C F Leyel in the 1920s, who had written about the food of the south. Humble observes that the small hardback edition of Mediterranean Food could only have influenced a few thousand at most. On its first appearance it was not so much a practical book, as a type of fantasy. It shares much with another work of the period, The Unquiet Grave, Cyril Connolly's 1944 masterpiece: both are palimpsests of literary quotation, contain much lyrical description of southern landscape and sensual pleasure and were inspired by memories of better times and places. Connolly's was a love-letter to the French paradise from which he been driven by the war. David had begun her book in the severe winter of 1946-7 on her return to England after nine years of travel: Marseille, Crete, Cairo, India. The shock of the atrocious food and the joylessness of her exhausted motherland spurred her to recall the sensuous world of the warm south.

It was the Penguin paperbacks of Mediterranean Food in 1955 and David's later books, like French Country Cooking, which made an impact on the way we ate, largely through their influence on a new generation of bistro-owners and food writers in the press. Rationing had ended in 1954, most of the ingredients she required were now available, and an increasingly confident population at the beginning of the consumer boom was eager to expand culinary horizons.

Delia Smith is less charitably treated. Neither an original cook, nor a scholarly researcher, Smith is seen by Humble as an Isabella Beeton for the 21st century: reworking the ideas of others and providing safe, foolproof recipes for her vast, socially anxious lower middle-class constituency in clichéd and tone-deaf prose. The genuine gaucheness of her early television performances has now become her deliberate style, authenticating her absolute ordinariness - although as the most successful cookbook writer in British history and an astute businesswoman (she is now worth £25m) she is far from ordinary.

The book is judicious and well-documented with mordant and sprightly footnotes, for example when she observes that when browsing for cook books in second-hand shops, she finds that those by Marguerite Patten are invariably the dirtiest. (Patten, who turned 90 on Friday, has written over 160 cook books in the course of a 70-year career.) "I longed to tell her this when I met her at a conference, but I was afraid she might think it an insult. It seems to me a tremendous compliment," Humble writes.

There is an excellent account of the revival of our native culinary traditions which have since the war shrugged off their sense of inferiority to fancy foreign food. It has produced many first-class works, from the magisterial Food in England by Dorothy Hartley in 1954 to English Food by the great Jane Grigson in 1974, although one of the few surprising omissions from the book (and also from the extensive bibliography) is Fergus Henderson's Nose to Tail Eating, first published in 1999. Its subtitle is "A Kind of British Cooking", and it quirkily documented the dishes he offers at his restaurant St John in Clerkenwell. Henderson's wholehearted rehabilitation of offal - not just lamb kidneys and calf's liver, but lamb's brains, pig's spleen and marrow bones - has played an important role in the current rethinking of animal husbandry, to improve both quality and our ethical relationship to the creatures we eat, of which Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is the most prominent supporter.

This book deserves the attention of every thoughtful foodie and though I fear it won't pip Jamie in the bestseller lists this Christmas, this would be a better country if it did.