Cooking the books

Independent publishers are keeping the art of food writing alive

Cultural doomsayers like to argue that the domination of publishing by large corporations, and of bookselling by mass-market retailers, has dumbed down literary production. The case is dubious in general, but it does have some application to cookbooks.

What the big publishers largely produce is souvenirs: souvenirs of television programmes; souvenirs of the restaurants of celebrity chefs; souvenirs of idyllic retreats in the Périgord or Umbria. Or, from the illustrated houses, there are the themed recipe collections, designed for international markets and with titles such as Tapas! or The Big Book of Barbecues. The allure of these books soon fades. They sit on coffee tables or kitchen shelves for a while, and then their owners, who have usually received them as gifts, banish them to keep company with other rarely consulted volumes.

Food writing, of the kind that discusses food as part of ordinary people's lives and that is intended to be of more than ephemeral interest, is more often to be found at smaller publishers. Two of the outstanding lists are Grub Street and Prospect Books.

The Grub Street list is run by Anne Dolamore, a past chair of the Guild of Food Writers; and food writing, in the Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson tradition, is what she champions. Books such as Lebanese Cuisine by Anissa Helou, Sicilian Food by Mary Taylor Simeti and Catalan Cuisine by Colman Andrews are cultural surveys as well as collections of recipes. Basic recipe collections are inert; Grub Street's books are vital and inspiring. They do not date. It was an appropriate move for the firm to reissue hardback editions of David and Grigson classics such as French Provincial Cooking and Good Things, as well as of one of my desert island choices, Richard Olney's Simple French Food.

Anne Dolamore has done us the service of restoring other backlist gems. Margaret Costa's Four Seasons Cookery Book anticipated the contemporary fashion for seasonal eating by 30 years.

Tom Jaine, the former restaurateur and editor of The Good Food Guide, inherited Prospect Books from the food historian Alan Davidson. The list, including the journal Petits Propos Culinaires, is scholarly, adventurous and quirky; from Jaine's perspective, Grub Street is a mass-market house. "I never expect to sell more than 1,000 copies," he has said.

Histories of British food, from eras dating back to the Middle Ages, have been a speciality. The books record how Britain has welcomed outside influences: this autumn, Prospect will publish a survey of the British and curries, and last year it had the wonderful Persia in Peckham by Sally Butcher. It would be pleasing to discover that Persia in Peckham had sold more than 1,000 copies, and that a little more of the money wasted on souvenirs was being diverted towards Grub Street and Prospect.

Nicholas Clee, the NS food columnist, is the author of Don’t Sweat the Aubergine: What Works in the Kitchen and Why (Short Books). He is a former editor of The Bookseller, and writes about books for papers including the Times, Guardian, and Times Literary Supplement.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Truly, madly, politically