News that the cookery book is in decline makes you yearn for old-fashioned greats like Marguerite Patten

Her straightforward, didactic technique saw her sell 170 million books

When my husband and I first moved in together, the only book we had in common was Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course. We’ve kept our two Delias because each falls open at different classics, two lives revealed through recipes: scones, pastry, all the roasts….

It’s sad to hear, then, that the cookery book is in decline. In 2014, there was an 11 per cent drop in sales, and research by Rachel’s Organic has found that one in 10 people never open their cookery books, and almost half of women older than 55 don’t use them at all. John Lewis, charts editor at The Bookseller, tried to put a positive spin on the numbers. The food and drink category is picking up, he told The Daily Telegraph, “thanks to the recent trend of wellness books”.

When you see such words as “wellness books” bandied about in the Telegraph without comment, you know we’re living in a different world: one, Deliciously Ella, which offers “more than 100 new sugar-free, gluten-free and dairy-free recipes” with “awesome ingredients” to give you “boundless energy”, is at No 4 in the hardback non-fiction chart while no one knows how to make a mince pie (follow Delia’s recipe; add brandy).

This is particularly sad coming in the week when we lost the great Marguerite Patten. “Our role is to educate people,” she said, “I’d like to go back to the common sense of the war years, being clever about using up food.” Having made her name demonstrating refrigerators and then at the wartime Ministry of Food, Patten became the prototypical TV cook; but you wouldn’t catch her tiptoeing downstairs in her winceyette pyjamas to raid the Frigidaire and suck a cheesy roux off her fingers, or looking in her fridge for “leftovers” and finding a Wedgwood bowl of fresh raspberries, several portions of perfectly cooked, carved beef, or a lobster. And her straightforward, didactic technique did her no harm: she sold 170 million books.

Naturally, many of these women over 55 are using the internet to look up recipes. I’m told that the BBC Good Food website reached a peak of 1.7 million users on Christmas Eve 2014. That’s a lot of mince pies. This is clever, because on BBC Good Food you can search recipes for food you actually have – even if it’s not fresh raspberries and lobster. But those chocolate streaks and spillages aren’t nearly so satisfying to look back on when they’re in your new iPhone.

There is some consolation in Waterstones’ bestsellers lists for last week, which show Mary Berry’s Absolute Favourites as the second best-selling hardback non-fiction title. The Cordon Bleu-trained Berry is unusual now in offering tested recipes that people might actually use – and, like me, she’s not averse to bunging in a slug of brandy. At last: a small sign of wellness in the cookery books sector.

Twitter.com/@katyguest36912

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