William Skidelsky baulks at cookbooks

Most recipe books today assume that their readers can't be bothered to cook

A change has taken place in the way cookery books are written. Very broadly speaking, cookery writers used to assume that most of their readers were reasonably competent, and probably reasonably active, cooks. They did not aim to teach them how to cook. Rather, they aimed to bring a new breath and exoticism to their cooking. Elizabeth David's Italian Food is the classic example of a book written in this spirit; two others are Jane Grigson's Good Things and Claudia Roden's Book of Middle Eastern Food.

A growing number of today's cookery books, by contrast, make the assumption that their readers either can't cook, or don't have time to do so. Inevitably, this changes the whole nature of the enterprise. A cookbook becomes an advertisement not for a particular cuisine or style of cooking, but for the idea of cooking itself. It has to work against a presumed resistance on the part of the reader. The reason for this change is pretty obvious. We are becoming a nation of convenience-food addicts. The shelves of supermarkets groan with pre-packaged foods: 51 per cent of all ready-meals produced in Europe are consumed in the UK. The notion of actually preparing meals regularly for oneself has become quaint, faintly ridiculous. Given this, it is hardly surprising that cookery writers no longer take for granted that their readers regard cooking as a worthwhile enterprise.

Yet there is a contradiction here. A cookery book that sets out to convince its readers that cooking has a point is a bit like a novel that sets out to persuade its readers of the wonders of reading. You cannot do this and simultaneously tell a good story; and similarly, many of today's cookery books are remarkably unexciting. They tend to be written in an ingratiating, patronising style, which to anyone who does not share the presumed outlook of the reader is highly irritating.

One of the latest of this breed is Tom Norrington-Davies's Cupboard Love: how to get the most out of your kitchen (Hodder & Stoughton). It is explicitly aimed at the time-strapped professional who usually buys convenience food. Its premise is: you can cook conveniently yourself, if only you ensure that you have a well-stocked store cupboard. To be fair to the author, Cupboard Love is much better than most books of this type. Norrington-Davies used to cook at the Eagle, the famous gastropub in Farringdon, London, and besides its pleasingly emphatic tone ("Adding a stock cube to anything makes it taste like a Pot Noodle") his book contains plenty of sensible advice. But this only ended up making me frustrated. Instead of writing yet another cookbook for non-cooks, why didn't he attempt something more ambitious?