Browsing the food section of a bookshop can be a little bewildering. Will that expensive cookbook be the one you cook from, or will it sit prettily on a shelf, never to become food-spattered? If you do cook from it, will it encourage you in the direction of other good cookbooks, or does it guard your attention jealously, not wanting you to stray from its own backlist? One of the first things I do is to see whether the writer has included a bibliography or attributions in the text itself and although the inclusion of these is not an absolute prerequisite for purchase, over time I have learned that the books that include them can be the most enriching when it comes to building my own culinary library.
A good bibliography, in the end matter of a book, serves as a family tree. Attributions in the text help establish the author’s point of view as a new contribution to a pre-existing discourse, and a cookbook that does either or both of these is the kind of cookbook I love the most. They serve as a kind of fast-track quality control when you trust the author, meaning you are less likely to spend precious sums on cookbooks that turn out to be duds.
There’s a generosity of spirit too. Authors who name their influences and pay their dues to colleagues are staking their claim to the future alongside the past. A new branch of culinary discourse cannot grow without roots. I can’t help feeling a little sad when I pick up a cookbook where the influences are evident yet see no acknowledgement thereof. As I see it, it abstracts the writer from the culinary future, unwilling to join in fully with the conversation.
Am I a rarity, though? Is my love of a good bibliography old-fashioned and out of step with modern cookbook publishing?
“It’s not usually necessary in recipe-led cookbooks, but where there’s a travel element or narrative, or where the author quotes extensively from other works, then there’s an argument for including a bibliography,” says Sarah Lavelle, publishing director at Quadrille Books.
“Where they’re a genuinely useful addition to a book, then yes. I believe it gives you an additional glimpse into the author’s life and tastes and, if you love the book you’re reading, it will point you towards publications you might never otherwise have discovered.”
Lavelle makes a good point. A book by a very famous TV chef, with his own research and development team, possibly ghost-written or in conjunction with a named co-author, is less likely to include references and/or a bibliography. And in this context, where the preamble to each recipe is pedestrian, the inclusion of references seems superfluous, even if it’s obvious what -or whom- inspired the author. This can lead to accusations of theft of ideas even though this is not a legal concept most cookbook authors can rely upon (although there are a few exceptions to the rule). Indeed, I have seen uncredited recipes in cookbooks with high volume sales, which are very similar to other people’s work. We’re not talking about tweaked Victoria sponges, a recipe for carbonara, or yet another variation on a brownie g-string.
I am not drawn to these cookbooks; they bore me. They might teach you how to cook a particular meal, but I don’t think they encourage versatility and exploration in the kitchen. There’s little encouragement to think about cooking and food in the context of your own life, and although these books may be marketed as useful for people who aren’t too confident in the kitchen or lack time to cook, the skills and background they impart can be single-track. As a genre, they are invested in keeping you as their sole customer instead of encouraging you to read and cook widely.
In contrast, we have the writings of Nigella Lawson, whose rich seam of sources I have mined for decades. From her early food columns in British Vogue to her most recent book. At My Table, her influences are varied. Though her later books haven't included a separate bibliography, her roots, from the kitsch to the literary, are delineated in the text. When I bought Lawson’s first book, How To Eat, I was working in the NHS, and on a night shift, I would run to the hospital library during my break and use their computers to go online, to chase down all her references. In the middle of the night in that deserted library, which was quiet apart from the odd cry emanating from the labour wards directly above and the noise of the dial-up modem, I had an entire culinary roadmap at my disposal.
I have written before about how I categorise my food library. I tried ordering books by region or country and found this to be unsatisfying. I had similar problems with genre as a classification because some books (often the truly great ones) defy this. The Black Sea by Caroline Eden and Mamushka and Kaukasis, both by Ukrainian chef/ stylist/food writer Olia Hercules are illimitable when it comes to categorisation if you aren’t satisfied by the overly-broad ‘food’ and ‘travel’ categories, as I am not. Eden's book possesses an extended bibliography because, as its publisher, Sarah Lavelle, told me, "it is covering locations that haven’t featured in much English-language publishing, and partly because there are so many literary references in the text." Alongside a general reading list organised by region, taking us from a collection of Bulgarian folklore facts and the decadent jazz age of Istanbul, then back again to Hercules's Mamushka, there are an additional eight pages of sources cited from Mark Twain's 'The Innocents Abroad' and The Hemingway Cookbook to the strange history of mad honey in Trabzon, (from The Modern Farmer).
Take 'Longthroat Memoirs' by Yemisi Aribisala, a book of essays about Nigerian food and one of the most sensory and magical books on food I have ever read. There's a chapter about okra called 'okra soup, gorgeous mucilage' addressing a foodstuff whose descriptions in other texts as slime or goo turns a dish "the colonisers rejected into a source of shame", but Aribisala goes on to highlight the vast areas of the globe where okra is much enjoyed, locating this vegetable within a story of colonialism and the forced and unforced movement of people. She references Siddhartha Mitter's Oxford American piece, talks of its move into fine dining via Senegalese chef Pierre Tham and provides the reader with helpful footnotes and a bibliography for further reading. 'Draw' is what Aribisala calls okra's mucilaginous strands, which link bowl to spoon to mouth- and us- scattered as we are across the world, so Nigerian food- previously unknown to me- becomes not so different after all.
Nigella Lawson's bowerbird way of gathering food-writing treasures for our perusal has been an enormous influence. A Lawsonian reference, if we widen our search to include not only her books, but her articles, TV shows, and social media accounts too, acts as a quick, easily-found guide to the very best in food writing and cooking skills, from well-established ‘grande dames’ Anna Del Conte, Claudia Roden, and the much-missed Laurie Colwin, to new and emerging cooks and writers. There are clever coinages (‘procrastinating’) via a reader and baker called Aya Reina- first cited in ‘Simply Nigella’ - which was the subject of a recent piece in the New York Times by Julia Moskin that failed to correctly attribute its source and an account of how Oscar Wilde’s ‘black feast’ inspired a dish tinted goth-dark with squid ink. Then there’s the many family members, friends, and strangers who have provided her with recipes and helpful advice, often via social media.
Circle back to Anna Del Conte, and you have someone who, in turn, cited Lawson as an influence in an interview with The Guardian newspaper: "Nigella has taken a lot of my recipes, always giving me full credit, and somehow always makes them better," which has led to amusing Twitter exchanges whenever Lawson discusses her marmite pasta recipe only to be told, by irate followers, that she is desecrating Italian food and Lawson reminds them of its original (Italian) creator- Anna Del Conte herself.
This is gastro diplomacy and the ability of these writers to bring people together through shared experiences at the table has at its roots a scholarly generosity when it comes to crediting the work of others. If you want to build your own culinary library, their books are a great place to start.
Who else am I learning from?
Jenny Baker's Cuisine Grandmere. From Florence Arzal to Anne Willan, there's a wealth of references to French food.
Felicity Cloake's columns in the Guardian trace the evolution of recipes through technique and author. They're endlessly fascinating jumping-off points for further study.
Zarela Martinez's Food From My Heart: Cuisines of Mexico. References in English and Spanish.
Maricel Presilla's Peppers of the Americas. Scholarly and expansive.
Sue Quinn's Cocoa. A comprehensive guide to the best writing about cocoa which compliments the info-rich text.
Niki Segnit's Lateral Cooking. One of the best bibliographies I have seen. So generous.
Ruby Tandoh's Eat Up. Ditto. You'll lose years of your life chasing down Tandoh's eclectic references.
Wendy Trusler and Carol Devine's The Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning. Less food-focused but provides essential context.