Culinary Pleasures, by Nicola Humble

Guzzling on gastroporn
Click to follow

The annual flood of cookbooks is currently in full spate. This is one literary genre that the British public can't get enough of, but it is a moot point how many of the succulent volumes purchased between now and Christmas will ever be read, still less cooked from. Maybe this explains why Culinary Pleasures is the first extended critique of British cookbooks. The acquisition of these salivary manuals to fulfil wholly conceptual appetites - in other words, gastroporn - is far from a new phenomenon. In her Book of Household Management (1861), Mrs Beeton includes a detailed account of turtle soup that Nicola Humble describes as "quite beyond the scope of a domestic kitchen", and almost certainly untried by Mrs Beeton herself.

Most of the book, however, was "precisely tailored to the needs of the average middle-class household of her day". Beeton's Victorian rivals ranged from the ruthlessly entrepreneurial Mrs Marshall, who "mercilessly tweaks and decorates" such dainty dishes as Croustards of Lark à la Rothschild, to the socially concerned Alexis Soyer, an early advocate of "food for free", such as nettles, field mushrooms and sweet docks. His "Cheese Stirabout" was actually polenta.

Opinionated and intelligent, Humble's survey repeatedly confirms that there is nothing new under the culinary sun. In the late 19th century, volumes like Culinary Jottings for Madras and Camp Cooking for Camp People detailed the fiery favourites of the Raj. After the First World War, cookbooks took account of the craze for dieting. Alice Martineau's Cantaloupe to Cabbage (1929) covers such fashionable items as celeriac, cardoons and endives. Countess Morphy's Recipes of All Nations (1935) anticipated the modern appetite for global cuisine with dishes from Turkey, Morocco and South America. The section on Japan refers to udon noodles and tofu, though she appears to believe that sushi was cooked.

Humble praises the books of X Marcel Boulestin, an intellectual who worked as assistant to Colette's Svengali-like husband Willy before moving to Britain in 1906. After working as a journalist and society decorator, Boulestin "stumbled on food writing by accident". He was not only "the first writer to introduce the British to the recipes of bourgeois France" but also the first TV chef. His recipes are "consciously economical - gutsy, full of taste, yet clearly also somehow modern".

Humble also advocates the Constance Spry Cookery Book, published in 1956 when Spry was 70. "It can be stuffy and unnecessarily grand", but is solid, detailed and its recipes really work - something that can be said of surprisingly few cookbooks." She notes the tension between this huge volume's two authors: Spry, an enthusiastic amateur, supplied the narrative, Rosemary Hume, a professional cook "in the haute cuisine mould", the recipes. Humble comes down on the side of Spry, whose proposal for a "kitchen party" sounds as tempting now as then: "rustic gazpacho, salade niçoise, a good terrine, smoked ham with black olives and gherkins".

Inevitably, the dominant figure of Culinary Pleasures is Elizabeth David, the Bohemian purist who revealed her uncompromising stance on the first page of her first book (Mediterranean Food, 1950): "Anyone who has lived for long in Greece will be familiar with the sound of air gruesomely whistling through sheep's lungs frying in oil". Humble gives a balanced view of this culinary Titan, "so absolutely assured" in taste, but goes too far in suggesting that David is "pretty much solely responsible for the yearly exodus of well-heeled Britons to Provence".

Her account of more recent culinary figures, many known to us through TV appearances, tends to be more sketchy, though she bestows well-deserved praise on M F K Fisher, Jane Grigson and Nigel Slater, whose "descriptions of food make you salivate - a rare skill among food writers". She bashes Delia Smith as "utterly uninspirational", if "well intentioned", but her discussion of Nigella Lawson is solely concerned with children's recipes.

Specialist writers are virtually ignored. Rick Stein's bestselling series of fish books are skipped over entirely and Alan Davidson's wonderful reference works on the same subject crop up only as an adjunct to Elizabeth David. There is no mention of Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall's mammoth and authoritative tome on meat. Though she includes recipes from each era, there is little sense that Humble has cooked her way through the books she appraises. The only exceptions are Katherine Whitehorn's Cooking in a Bedsitter ("I cooked out of the book for a year... illegally in my college room") and River Café Cook Book Green, from which Humble cooked two recipes because "I could not imagine what they would taste like. Bad is the answer."

In her introductory sections to each era, Humble occasionally strays into topics only distantly related to cookbooks. Discussing the postwar age of austerity, she feels obliged to point out "the extent of marital infidelity during the war". It is strange that Humble, a senior lecturer in English literature, should repeat Alice B Toklas's misspelling of the Beat writer Brion Gysin (he contributed the recipe for "Haschich Fudge" that ensured immortality for the Alice B Toklas Cook Book) as Brian Gysen. Still, despite omissions and odd tangents, Culinary Pleasures should be welcomed as a readable survey of the books we all own but only rarely visit.

Christopher Hirst won this year's Glenfiddich Food Writer of the Year award