The growth of the Internet has caused me largely to dispense with my cooking books, of which I once had several hundred. The Internet is particularly useful if you have three ingredients, and can’t quite think what to do with them. It is also great if you want quickly to find the common ground about how to do something you’ve never done before, as with a standing rib roast a couple of nights ago.
But I still keep my core books, Larousse, two Time-Life series from long ago, both of Marcella Hazan’s books on Italian cooking, and dozens of books that I bought for particular reasons, in particular places, or because I liked their titles. And at the head of the library, so to speak, are the works of my five goddesses. I return to them again and again, often because one or other of their dishes has become part of my repertoire, but just as often because I like to read their writing: they just write so well.
The Queen of the pantheon is Elizabeth David, who was the first to introduce me to French cooking. I never met her, but possess an autographed copy of a hardback of French Provincial Cooking that a great friend got for me before she closed her shop in London many years ago. I have all her books, and love her conversational style, her wide reading, and the stories of her life. My generation of home cooks grew up on her work, and she is probably the most admired cookery writer in the English language.
Her American counterpart is not Julia Child but M. F. K. Fisher, of whom Auden once said that he did not know anyone in the US who wrote better prose. Mary Fisher’s accounts of her life in Dijon in the 1930s, of the meals she ate and the people she met, are a joy to read and to revisit. I don’t know where I acquired her The Art of Eating, a compilation of five earlier books which are in turn collections of published articles, but I go to it again and again, for reading rather than recipes.
Elizabeth David was a mentor of Jane Grigson, whose Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery was my bible when I began to make pates and terrines a long time ago. She too was a fine writer, and I bought all of her books as they came out. Her book on fish has been a great standby, even though she said nothing in it about the fish in our part of the world.
Three of my goddesses are dead, alas, as is Julia Child. Marcella Hazan will be 90 next year, lives in Florida and has almost given up writing about food. But my other two goddesses are still alive, thank goodness, and Australian as well. They are, in alphabetical order, Stephanie Alexander and Maggie Beer. I once hosted a fine dinner for friends at Stephanie’s restaurant in Melbourne, and met Maggie Beer briefly once in Canberra. I use both their big cooking companions, which have the great virtue of having been written for cooks in this part of the world.
And, like my other goddesses, they both write very well, so that I find myself dipping into pages about something else altogether, even though I was going there for a recipe. Long may they both prosper!
Why are there only goddesses, and no gods, in my kitchen? There is a simple reason, I think. Men are about the process and the product. They try to find the best way to produce a particular dish. And they do that very well. I’ve used some excellent Jamie Oliver recipes, and some from Gordon Ramsay too.
But the goddesses write about where they encountered the dish, and whom they were with, and what the table looked like. They write about the relationships between food and people, food and love, food and pride, and so on. They make cooking part of our civilisation, not just an effective means to a purposeful end. And I bless them for it.