Stripped to the bare essentials

Food for thought: cookbooks

Gastro-porn suggests various definitions. One was given on the Paul Whitehouse comedy series Happiness when Johnny Vegas, watching Nigella Lawson on TV, reached into his trousers. Another came from the food-writer Joanna Blythman: gastro-porn is the kind of programme we watch while consuming a ready meal. In a 1977 article in the New York Review of Books, Alexander Cockburn wrote: "True gastro-porn heightens the excitement and also the sense of the unattainable by proffering coloured photographs of various completed recipes . . . The delights offered in sexual pornography are equally unattainable." Gastro-porn offers satisfaction but never delivers it, and is therefore addictive.

Publishing industry research shows that cookery book aficionados try out only two or three recipes from each book on their shelves. A dismaying revelation perhaps, but judging by the buoyant market, nothing to worry about. People will always feel the urge to go back to the shops for more. Nigella Lawson, Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay are among the most popular authors in the UK. They are the latest in a line going back through Keith Floyd and Anton Mosimann in the 1980s to Fanny Cradock and Philip Harben in the 1950s and 1960s. Yet the rise of the cookery star has coincided with a decline in the amount of time people actually spend cooking.

Of course, there are many genuine cookery enthusiasts, who will buy, say, The Moro Cookbook and work their way enthusiastically through Sam and Samantha Clark's dishes. Many more buy those books _ as they would a travel narrative such as Chris Stewart's Driving Over Lemons _ in order to dream of escape to an idealised Spain. They may even admit the dishes in to their repertoires. But they soon discover that, perhaps as a result of their defective techniques or inability to source precisely the right ingredients, the recreation of Iberian delights in their own kitchens is elusive.

For the rest of the population, gastro-porn has no allure. Sea bream with roasted fennel, olives, clams, garlic and thyme (from Ramsay's Kitchen Heaven) is not a dish for the harassed parent on a limited budget. Those of us who are interested in cookery wring our hands over the reliance on convenience foods in many households.

But it is our own appetite for cookery as escapism that has created this division between foodies and those who, thanks to the dominating influence of gastro-porn, have come to think that cooking is a pursuit for the leisured classes.

We crave recipes; but what we need - cooks and non-cooks - is techniques. Most recipes employ a shorthand: they cannot include all the procedures that the cook might need to follow in order to achieve a successful result. If we lack the hobbyist's ardour, we take one look at these recipes and give up. Only Delia Smith has been effective in promoting basic cookery skills, which are far more valuable to the home cook than any number of lists of ingredients and instructions. But even Delia has not been able to halt an overall decline in our willingness to spend time in the kitchen handling fresh ingredients.

A further connotation of porn is that it is obscene. You might use that word to describe a worship of food as a consumerist ideal divorced from the practicalities of cultivating and preparing it.

Nicholas Clee's Don't Sweat the Aubergine: what works in the kitchen and why, will be published in October by Short Books

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