Eating & Drinking: My cookbooks are breeding

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The Independent Culture
I'M GOING to have to do something about my cookbooks. The walls seem to be closing in. Cookbooks now occupy three sides of my home office, most of the attic and sundry cupboards. What's more, they keep popping up in the strangest places - under the bed, next to the bath, in the boot of the car, even in the kitchen.

Not only that, but they're breeding. I swear that when I wake up in the morning, there are more cookbooks than there were when I went to sleep. I'm convinced Nigella is having it off with Simon, that Jamie is chatting up Marguerite, and Robert Carrier, shocking flirt that he is, is getting up to no end of mischief. And I don't even want to think about the things Nige, Alistair, Ruthie, Marco, Gary and Delia get up to when I leave the room, but I bet it's sticky.

The trouble is, my cookbooks are my family, my children, my love. I am genetically incapable of tossing one in the bin. If I buy one, I buy four; it's sort of compulsive. People know I collect them, so they give me heaps of them for Christmas and birthdays. Also, a few friends have been down-sizing lately, and leaving boxes of cookbooks on my doorstep. And every time I leave the country, I buy cookbooks as if they were postcards. So I've gone from nought to 3,000, in 20 years. That means - let me see, using all fingers - I have averaged 150 cookbooks a year, or roughly one new book every second day.

But the time has come to admit that I no longer control my cookbooks. They control me. If I cooked something new, every breakfast, lunch and dinner for the rest of my life, I still wouldn't be able to use them all. I have never cooked a single thing from The Official Star Trek Cooking Manual, for instance, not even the Vulcan vegetarian curry. Just haven't gotten around to it.

Nor have I ever cooked from The New Hot Dog Cookbook, in spite of its irresistible promise: 250 new and exciting ways to fix this old-time favourite. Nor have I done anything but browse through A Gourmet's Book of Beasts, although the minute I find fresh armadillo in the local butcher, I'll have the onions, garlic, green peppers, ham, marjoram and pepper ready to go.

Maybe it's a by-product of the in-breeding, but don't you find a lot of modern cookbooks are starting to look the same? They seem to share the same fabulously talented handful of photographers, editors and stylists, and, let's be honest, recipes. Hummus, salmon fishcake, polenta, Thai salad, cod with a herb crust, duck with noodles, poached pears, flourless chocolate cake. Oh goody, another recipe for summer pudding.

Luckily, the bookshops are making it easier on me, by bringing out lots of books I don't want. What on earth drives people to write some of these books? I once eagerly turned to the author's introduction in a book on salad dressings in order to discover what deep, dark compulsion forced her to explore the nether reaches of vinaigrette. "When I was asked to write about salad dressings," she wrote, "I thought, why not?" Why not. There, in two words, were the grand, luxurious heights of her commitment, passion and philosophy. I could have said it for her in three words - making a quid; churning them out; whipping up another.

So from now on, a cookbook has to earn its place on my shelves. It has to have something to say; it has to say it well; it has to have recipes that actually work; and it has to have a reason to be, other than "why not". The good ones have a sense of their own time and their own place, and always leave you with a great idea or two. The bad ones are anonymous, international orphans designed for an anonymous, international market.

But I now have the right idea. My new policy is called: buy one, set one free. For every cookbook I bring into the house, I have to lose one from my collection. It's going to make me think hard about buying something called The Feng Shui Cookbook (Creating health and harmony in your kitchen), or Simply The Best Vegetarian Barbecue Recipes. Especially if it means I will have to get rid of The Official Star Trek Cooking Manual.