This year a clutch of good books address subjects of interest to britishfoodinamerica. The order is roughly alphabetical and implies no hierarchy of value.
Hugh Acheson’s New Turn in the South offers a personal riff on traditional southern preparations and reflects an unmistakable British influence in a number of recipes, whether intentional or not.
Heston Blumenthal at Home is his latest and best cookbook. It does include a section on sous vide, recipes can be long and require lots of ingredients, and Blumenthal sticks to his unorthodox techniques and combinations. The book is a departure, however, because many of the recipes reflect the cooking at Dinner. His new restaurant specializes in reinterpretations of traditional English dishes running all the way from the Renaissance into the nineteenth century. The book is beautiful, Blumenthal is an engaging writer and despite appearances the recipes are remarkably accessible. At Home would be appreciated for its Marmite consommé, prawn cocktail (utter simplicity), and chicken and ham pie alone, but there is so much more that temptation untrammeled would list everything in the book.
Eugenia Bone studies, hunts and eats wild mushrooms. She also, based on Mycophilia: Revelations from the Weird World of Mushrooms, writes with a quirky flair that should appeal even to the reader who thought that the subject of fungus would leave her cold. Bone’s book abounds in anecdote, insight and information.
In 1997, Adam Gopnik lamented the debasement of French cuisine in a landmark New Yorker article, “Is There a Crisis in French Cooking?” Now he has assembled a number of good essays in The Table Comes First. An avowed Francophile, Gopnik covers France more than any other country, but does include essays on British food and recently confessed to Simon Schama in the FT Weekend that “on the whole you can eat better in London now than in Paris.” Michael Steinberger’s Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine and the Decline of France, published back in 2009 but still au courant, echoes these themes.
Good Old-Fashioned Pies and Stews contains a certain amount of material previously published. Its author, Laura Mason, is a sort of house cookbook writer for the National Trust in England. A number of the recipes in Pies do resemble entries from her previous, more comprehensive efforts but she is a good writer who sets down clear recipes and this would be a good starting point for the uninitiated.
The Oxford Companion to Beer is a dangerous book: Open it and it will entrap you for hours with its slew of authoritative entries from around the globe. The submissions on Britain, its brewers and beers, even public houses, are particularly strong. Deftly edited by Garrett Oliver, the brewmaster at the Brooklyn Brewery.
The more famous and antic Oliver, Jamie, has published yet another cookbook. Mention his name and a certain segment of the culinary world may sneer, but in fact he is no Rachel Ray. Despite the laddish pose and some cutsy prose we admire Oliver’s enthusiasm, accessibility and good works. Jamie’s Great Britain covers food that British people cook rather than cuisine that is strictly British. There is jerked pork from Bristol, vegetarian vindaloo and a dish of Yemeni lamb that he encountered in Wales. They share the pages, however, with tweaky traditional fare too. Every other page may be a lavish photograph, and food porn fails to interest the Editor, but the recipes will be useful fun for anyone unacquainted with contemporary British food. Not published in the United States, at least not yet, but widely available at fair prices through www.abebooks.com and at www.amazon.co.uk.
This year Rizzoli adapted and reissued Clementine Paddleford’s hefty (over 800 pages) and authoritative 1960 meditation through recipes on American foodways. Paddleford was arguably the best known food columnist and cookbook author in the United States before Julia Child consigned her to shadow. Despite the publication of a recent biography she remains unfairly neglected. The Great American Cookbook reflects a deeply personal style and easy erudition. Spice cake, a shrub, golden buck and ‘Lib’s chicken pie’ among other things reflect an unattributed British influence, and recipes derived from lots of other nations appear here too.
Our favorite book of the year may be Northern Hospitality: Cooking by the Book in New England. In it Keith Stavely and Kathleen Fitzgerald address “the complex, colorful, sometimes controversial story of New England cooking” through an unorthodox approach. Northern Hospitality profiles most of the more influential Yankee cookbook authors from the first three centuries of European settlement, then the remaining two thirds of the book reproduces their recipes with trenchant and often amused commentary. Our brief description here cannot convey the startling clarity of the prose. If you give away only one book this year, make it this one and hope that somebody returns the favor.
Matthew Sweet includes no recipes in The West End Front: The Wartime Secrets of London’s Great Hotels. Instead he chronicles the incongruous extravagance of the upper and ruling classes (not quite a congruent field) in the teeth of rationing and the other wartime indignities visited on most of the population. Fascinating, funny and infuriating by turns.
Any imprint from Persephone should please anyone with an eye for aesthetics. All ninety-six of their paperback reprints include beautiful endpapers of artwork appropriate to the title. A number of culinary volumes would doubly appeal to people interested in cooking. Among them are Good Food on the Aga by Ambrose Heath, The Country Housewife’s Book by Lucy Yates and the classic Good Things in England by Florence White. Visit the London shop in Lamb’s Conduit Street if you can; the little rowhouse dates from 1703 and its interiors remain evocative of the era. Otherwise go to www.persephonebooks.co.uk. You also can order a book subscription through the website for either six or twelve months; a new volume of your choice will reach the recipient like clockwork.
The estimable Prospect Books has published Testicles:Balls in Cooking and Culture by Blandine Vie and Giles MacDonogh. Its combination of recipes, observation and lore is typical of the publisher’s intellectually rigorous and engaging booklist. Prospect also publishes a line of elegant little monographs on subjects ranging from the food of a Mediterranean passenger line to that most British preserve, marmalade. Go to https://prospectbooks.co.uk.
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall does something similar through his River Cottage miniglomerate at www.rivercottage.net. His series of Handbooks covers subjects like foraging (The Hedgerow Handbook as well as Edible Seashore), bread, mushrooms, preserves and more.
Other books related to food in general and British food in particular have appeared this year. In some cases their omission from our list is no oversight, because if you cannot say anything nice.... Good hunting and happy hols.
Watch this site for more gift ideas, including food & drink, apparel, kitchen gear, house wares and more, all interspersed with suggestions suitable for stocking stuffers.