A few weeks ago M vented his not inconsiderable spleen upon Amazon at a certain well-known book on baking – deriding its pretensions and poor writing. Worse still, he called into question the recipes themselves. Indignant responses followed almost immediately from other readers. Did M not realise how well-regarded The Author was? Did M not know that The Book had inspired countless happy droves to dizzying new heights of Culinary Nirvana? To ratchet things up a notch, within hours, The Author himself responded; quite stung, it seems. (Amusingly, the first indignant reader comment did not arrive until 15 minutes after The Author* posted a link to the review on Twitter. Vanity surfing much?)
So, has M just been a mean bitch** and a shameless troll? Or is the Emperor in a slight state of undress?
Let’s take a look at The Book. It is truly a handsome beast: large format, hardback, stitched in signatures of reassuringly heavy paper. The graphic design is good, and the text eloquent and passionate. And the photography? Glorious: full page photos that just have you salivating. I imagine this simply flew off the shelves the Christmas it was published, eliciting many an “ooh!” and “ah!” from the casual reader. Could one possibly bear to take such a beautiful specimen of the bookbinder’s art into the kitchen where it might – perish the thought – become soiled with use? No, its purpose is to adorn the coffee table. (See the hysterical http://catalogliving.net for ideas.)
Although the Amazon debacle is amusing, I’m interested in the wider world of Gastroporn. Why does it exist? Does it benefit mankind?
Like proper pornography – if such a thing can ever be considered proper – we have a small group of experts doing something the rest of us find awkward and just a bit embarrassing. Just like porn, the buzz amongst reviewers is triggered by the caress of novelty against a jaded palate. At their worst, books and television like this put people off actually getting mucky in the kitchen, and instead buy more merchandise or visit the authors’ restaurants.
Now, I have been told that “high end chefs don’t write how-to-cook books”, and accept that if the author has a Michelin star or two, he’s not obliged to explain how to fillet a fish or knead dough. Sometimes I see recipes from these people, and think, “that might be fun to cook”, and then look at the recipe closer, and realise there’s not enough information on the page for me to recreate it. This necessitates spending a lot of time cross referencing other sources in an act of gastronomic reverse engineering. (Some of the recipes on this site are here as a result of that work.)
Now I do understand – and almost forgive – the need to get a book published for a particular marketing deadline can mean that testing, and in some cases proof-reading, fall by the wayside. Perhaps the book needs to be churned out quickly lest the author fade in the public’s imagination. Case in point is the lovely Lorraine Pascale’s Baking Made Easy, which could have been very good, but ends up a promotional vehicle, with more photos of Lorraine than cookery. (I hope Edd Kimber’s forthcoming book isn’t a rush job.)
On the other hand, we don’t want cookbooks that are simply dry technical manuals, although see the excellent handbooks for the City & Guilds diplomas if you do. (You won’t find these at Waterstone’s; try Foyle’s or Nisbet’s.) Writing should be more than mere documentation. Nigel’s saucy prose eggs the reader on, and Nigella practically flirts one into the donning the apron. Who can not read Pomiane’s recipe for chocolate mousse without smiling, and making a note to pick up some eggs, cream and chocolate on the way home? Ditto photography. A few action shots of the tricky steps (difficult, I know, when you’re cursing) and a shot of the finished product are both useful and likely to spur us into action.
My objection to gastroporn is when it masquerades as a collection of recipes. You’ll notice that a bookshop does not put The New Joy of Sex on the same shelf as The Story of O. I propose gastroporn and cookbooks be likewise separated.
*One notes that The Author tweets with a vigour that surpasses even Stephen Fry. One also notes a few of the five star Amazon reviews are good professional copy but the only review each of these users has ever contributed. Entirely plausible The Author is perfectly sane and reasonable, but is being represented by some vile astroturfing PR firm.
**The intemperate nature of the review may be connected to a failure in the kitchen. We’ve all been there.