The online magazine
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of British foodways.


A Note on The Economist

CleaverThe Economist is indispensable. The writing always is clear and the voice always seductive: These people (the articles are unsigned) sound authoritative. The best issue of the year appears last, although some of the in-depth surveys of particular countries or other discrete subjects can be good too.

The holiday double issue always includes a number of “Christmas specials” on subjects of interest to the editors of the magazine (which, eccentrically, insists on calling itself a newspaper). The articles can be topical or evergreen. The ten subjects addressed last year range from angels to oysters and from the evolutionary purpose of music to the “[l]oneliness of the Chinese birdwatcher.”

One of them covers cookbooks and what they “really teach us.” It includes an informative discussion of early cooking manuscripts, with an entertaining treatment of Apicius, and observes that they do not amount to much more than vague, random notations (from the 14th century Forme of Curye: “smyte” a fish “in pecys” and “do hem in a panne.”). The article goes on to make the counterintuitive but convincing argument that “[t]he invention of printing, which might have been expected to lead to greater clarity, initially had the opposite effect.” The reason was the rampant plagiarism that has plagued legitimate cookbook authors ever since. Sloppy translations akin to a game of ‘telephone tag’ and unscrupulous reproductions resulted in unreliable recipes. Thus, The Economist describes how a recipe originally published in the sixteenth century required adding three or four dates to boiled capon; as appropriated by a different author some five decades later, it called for letting the dish sit for three or four days.

Running ServerSimilar miscarriages appear today, in celebrity potboilers rushed to catch the moment of fame without either pausing in the test kitchen or recalibrating the recipes from institutional to domestic scale and equipment. To avoid liability, hacks also paraphrase legitimate writers without much understanding of the technique described in the original recipe, often with disastrous results for the unsuspecting and uninitiated cook who needs guidance the most.

As the article moves smoothly from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, however, the reader pauses before halting with alarm at the nineteenth century. The author states that the “dominant note in Renaissance cookbooks was order. Books combined recipes and household advice,” which is fair enough, but that format hardly distinguishes the era from the eighteenth or nineteenth century; for example, Mrs. Beeton’s book, which the author discusses in detail, did not include “Household Management” in its title as a lark. Furthermore, the article ascribes the reason why Renaissance writers offered the same advice to pleasing God, but the Renaissance in Italy, where modern cooking got its start, was predominantly a secular affair and publishing after all is a commercial venture. God did not buy many cookbooks, but the people who did probably wanted advice on running their households no less than the people who would buy Mrs. Beeton.

Mrs. Beaton's VegetablesSome of the arguments are more than a stretch but it can be hard to test them because unlike our usual practice at bfia, The Economist frequently fails to identify sources. A cookbook published at the outset of the English civil war calls the paterfamilias “Soveraigne,” a common trope in any age, but even so, the author declares that “[c]ookbooks were thus a bulwark against the tumult of the times.” They must have provided solace to the people whose lands were despoiled by the rival armies.

On introducing Mrs. Beeton herself, The Economist notes her plagiarism and declares she started a revolution in cookbooks. The article also states that Mrs. Beeton’s landmark book appeared originally as a supplement to one of her husband’s magazines and was the first to present recipes in modern format by listing ingredients, specifying amounts and providing systematic instructions.

However, the reader of Kathryn Hughes’ biography, The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Beeton, will know that Household Management did first appear in installments, from 1859 to 1861, but not as a supplement to the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine. Furthermore, as Elizabeth David acidly observed in 1968, Mrs. Beeton did not originate the recipe format that she used. Instead, she appropriated the format initiated by Eliza Acton in 1855, along with hundreds of her recipes, and merely moved the ingredient lists to a different location on the printed page. If this began a revolution, which is unclear--Hannah Glasse’s Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy included quantities and procedures and itself was a runaway bestseller for over fifty years following its first publication a century earlier in 1747--then Mrs. Acton, not Mrs. Beeton, started it.

The article in The Economist ascribes the popularity of Mrs. Beeton to the loss of rural skills, including cooking, among the urbanized English, but provides no breakdown of its sales by locality to prove the point and misses the larger and largely positive forces that also created an audience for the book.

Like many books, Household Management is often cited but seldom read by critics. It is considered a bible of British cookery but in fact much of the book is instead a catalog of the exotic. Unlike Mrs. Acton, as Nicola Humble has pointed out, the first edition of Household Management not only includes recipes from all over Europe, but in fact contains more recipes supposedly from India than from Ireland, Scotland and Wales together. This kind of novelty and variety fascinated the middle classes of a confident, curious society with an increasingly imperial, not to say global, outlook.

A Confident and Worldly Middle ClassA confident and worldly middle class

The Economist article is better on Elizabeth David, and makes the trenchant point, usually overlooked by the hagiography industry that encases her reputation, that Mediterranean Food and many of David’s subsequent writings are peculiar hybrids of travelogue, reprimand and, incidentally, cookbook: “David’s books were not so much cooking manuals as guides to the kind of food people might well want to eat.”

The receptivity of the British to exotic foodways brings to mind an interesting corollary. The French have always been more insular about food than their island neighbors, and if France has a grand culinary past, the current state of its cookery is hardly creative. Things had gotten ossified enough that a few years ago The New Yorker ran a long piece chronicling the steady decline of innovation and concurrent rise of gratuitous complication in the restaurant kitchens of France. This decline has coincided with an explosion of creativity in Britain and the United States.

In making the indisputable point that most cookbooks published outside of the English-speaking world are arid and soporific, however, The Economist stumbles again. There is an implication that enjoyable cookbooks do not find a professional or even skilled readership, and that good writing makes bad food. It ascribes the fact that “Britain and America are the two great cookbook-writing nations” to the absence of any “coherent, admirable, traditional cuisine.” This, of course, is rubbish. As Glasse, Acton and latterly Elisabeth Ayrton, Lizzie Boyd and Jane Grigson demonstrate, British food, even if nearly lost to the late twentieth century, embodies each of the listed attributes. American cuisines share them too; like Europe, North America encompasses a number of dynamic regional traditions, from Louisiana, coastal Carolina, more recently California and elsewhere. The Economist also should have reminded readers that Britain and America are not only the great cookbook-writing nations, they are the great writing nations more generally, and publish more titles than the rest of the world combined. That fact alone would explain the proliferation of cookbooks in the two countries. It is joined, however, by the receptivity to other cultures and new ideas that has been a hallmark of the British and American polities for decades, if not centuries.

In the positive column once again, the article ends with some engaging commentary on cookbooks from India. As an aside, however, it would have been courteous of its author to inform readers that in medieval usage, “curye” had nothing to do with India but rather meant something like ‘cooking.’

None of this may matter much; cooking styles are not the most urgent issues confronting the planet. It does, however, start the reader thinking more generally about The Economist. The pressure of deadlines does not explain the flaws in the article on cookbooks; it is a yearend special and the subject is not topical. In fact, the confident language eliding the coexistence of good and bad analysis is typical of the magazine.

The Editor sometimes has noted that the more familiar she has been with a subject before reading about it in The Economist, the less comfortable she has been with the article. That raises larger doubts: Is the coverage of Apicius or cookbooks in India more engaging because, unlike British cookbooks, he and they are unfamiliar to the reader? Is the magazine’s coverage of politics (there was that long dalliance with George W. Bush…) or, maybe, even economics any more reliable?

It is not an unfair question. For example, in her 31 March 2009 review of God Is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith Is Changing the World by John Micklethwait (editor in chief of The Economist) and Adrian Woodridge (its Washington bureau chief), Michiko Kakutani compares the book to its’ authors’ earlier publication to make the observation that:

“One of the problems with The Right Nation [published in 2004] was that the authors selected information and examples that supported their thesis, while ignoring or diminishing data that contradicted it, and they employ a similarly flawed methodology in God Is Back.” (The New York Times, 31 March 2009)

Flat KnifeThis criticism applies to much of the analysis that appears in the magazine itself; the nagging wonder is how many of its purportedly objective articles are similarly skewed by selective citation. Incidentally, both The Right Nation, whose thesis that the United States has become permanently rightwing has been spectacularly undermined by subsequent events, and God Is Back, arguing that religion properly dominates global public discourse, are awful books. It is a wonder, and testament to the cachet of The Economist itself, that either of them found a publisher.

The Economist still outpaces the competition, and does remain indispensable, but it also is exasperating and unreliable. Perhaps identifying the authors of its articles would give the reader more confidence, but that never has been the magazine’s policy, and The Economist is justly proud of its many traditions. So how about some genuine balance based on transparent research, more nuance and a little more fact checking?