The best cookbooks from the last 60 years - From Julia Child to Nigel Slater
These culinary tomes have shaped both what and how we eat from the Sixties to today, says food editor Ella Walker
Cookbooks don't just teach us how to make a certain dish, they tell stories, reflect the prevailing food moods of their time, share knowledge and history, and tend to be things of beauty (today that is - before the Eighties, you were lucky to even get a picture of something edible on the cover).
They pinpoint moments and trends, and direct them too, and best of all become dog-eared, splattered with soup, sticky with spilled sugar and annotated with your own musings over time ('Needs more salt', 'Leave out the walnuts...'), so that they become as much a record of your culinary explorations as the original writer's.
Here are some of the most important, scene-stealing cookbooks of the last few decades...
The story of Julia Child writing her opus, Mastering The Art Of French Cooking (1961 - and it's still in print), is the stuff of legend (and Hollywood - Meryl Streep played her in the 2009 movie, Julie & Julia). She is undoubtedly the woman who brought French cooking and French culinary sensibilities to the USA for the first time - from lobster thermidor to crepe suzette - and it catapulted her onto TV to boot.
France was seemingly very much in vogue during the Sixties, so you can understand the similar success of Elizabeth David's French Provincial Cooking (1960) - a staple to this day on many a chef's bookshelf.
The Seventies was not the greatest decade for cookery books (presumably everyone was getting to grips with David and Child's work), but one did manage to make a particularly good impression: An Invitation To Indian Cookery by Madhur Jaffrey, (1973). She was arguably the first person to bring the flavours of India into our homes and to families who weren't of Indian origin, and she nabbed a TV show out of it too.
Classic, solid home-cooking was much-prized in the Eighties, hence the wild success of Delia's Complete Cookery Course (1982) by queen Delia Smith. Rick Stein took the initiative in 1988 and finally started encouraging us to consider fish (not just the battered kind) with his foundational English Seafood Cookery. And for sheer inventiveness and for bringing organic produce into public consciousness, American restaurant-owner and chef Alice Waters' 1982 collection, Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook, is a cornerstone collection of recipe ideas.
The age of the celebrity chef, the Nineties was the ultimate decade for bad boy chefs - if White Heat (1990) by Marco Pierre White is anything to go by. Dubbed the advent of 'gastroporn', it made cooking sexy. A fresh-faced Jamie Oliver then capitalised on that at the end of the decade with The Naked Chef - his attempt to show lads that cooking wasn't just for girls, it could get you girls too.
Meanwhile, the ever charismatic Nigella Lawson, then a food critic, was penning How To Eat (1998) - currently celebrating its 20th anniversary. She made cooking accessible, gave us licence to cheat (ie shop properly and then assemble, rather than spend hours at the hob) and extolled the virtues of paying attention to, and cooking for, oneself (preferably clams with linguine).
As a backdrop to the fiery, sexy side of cheffing, there was the River Cafe Cookbook (1995) by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers, who went on to inspire a whole new generation of chefs (including Oliver) to work with Italian flavours and produce, while Simon Hopkinson got everyone treating chicken with the proper amount of respect, in his trailblazer of a cookbook, Roast Chicken And Other Stories (1996).
The 2000s started with a bang, thanks to chef Anthony Bourdain's expose of the goings-on behind the scenes of New York's restaurant scene, in Kitchen Confidential (2000).
Triggered by his New Yorker essay, Don't Eat Before Reading This, it let the world in on the filthy, raucous, drug-fuelled "nerve-shattering chaos" of professional kitchens, and launched Bourdain's career with it, meaning he got to make - and we got to watch - his hungry, thoughtful and quite brilliant food-documentary series (especially Parts Unknown).
At the rather more gentle end of the spectrum came Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Cottage Meat Book, (right, 2004), a veritable encyclopaedia on eating animals, and then Nigel Slater's first Kitchen Diaries (2005). His 'Real' series of recipe collections had already been a hit, but the Diaries heralded a kind of food writing that was meandering, beautiful, and in time with the daily and seasonal motions of cooking and eating.
2010s - so far
While this decade is not yet over, the 2010s have seen an explosion in vegetarian and vegan cookery books. We've been treated to the colourful Fresh India by Meera Sodha (2016) and Anna Jones' groundbreaking A Modern Way To Eat on the vegetarian front, while the likes of YouTubers BOSH! have made veganism genuinely cool.
In terms of the book that has perhaps had the most impact on how we eat in recent years though, the gong must automatically go to Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi (2010) - it's the reason you can now find pomegranate seeds in every supermarket, and why you're likely to know what sumac is.
And the book set to significantly shape what we eat in the future? It has to be Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat (2017), a tome devoted to the four factors which determine how tasty our food will be; she barely writes recipes, and instead has written a guide to the principles of great cooking - and her accompanying Netflix documentary series is wonderful.