Cooking the books

Laura Tennant says fancy recipes won't help you answer the question: What's for supper?

Another volume of foodie porn arrived on my desk the other day, and didn't it just tick all the fashionable cookbook boxes. Tom Aikens Cooking (Ebury Press) supplies a back-to-basics title, exquisite food photography and an introduction that might have been titled "My struggle". "They say that creative minds are a little on the edge of madness," muses Aikens, who goes on to discuss the search for ultimate perfection and other pseudy guff.

Aikens, who won two Michelin stars at only 26, is a supremely talented chef. But I couldn't help wondering, as I leafed through the recipes, if what the world needs now is another poor translation of restaurant food into home cooking by a white male wunderkind who's never had to scrape a shepherd's pie into the bin because his fussy five-year-old won't eat carrots. When chefs (and they're usually men) cook, they like to claim it's high art, but when parents (and it's usually mothers) cook, as they have done at home for millennia, they know it's craft: the quotidian skill of feeding a family, thriftily and well, day in and day out, breakfast, lunch and supper, without pulling fish fingers from the freezer more frequently than your conscience will allow.

This is the knack we Brits have famously lost, leaving us fat and alienated from our own kitchen tables, so it's good news that cookery classes are returning to schools. The trouble is, they're optional. (Given that a survey conducted by British Food Fortnight has just shown that British men are now more interested in cooking than their French counterparts, perhaps it will be boys who take up the oven gloves, to impress their future girlfriends.) The lessons should be compulsory. What does the "five pieces of fruit and veg a day" mantra avail children if they don't know how to cook them?

Which brings me back to my original theme. Before food was the new rock'n'roll, British women, with the help of Mrs Beeton and later Delia Smith, were getting on with feeding their families. It was called household management and taught as domestic science. Our restaurant culture may have been moribund, but if my grandmother's kitchen was anything to go by, eating out bore no relation to the delights of eating in. (Quite unlike the urban French, who enjoy excellent restaurant food but are indifferent home cooks.)

So, reader, if you are looking for an answer to that eternal question, "What shall I give them for supper?" step away from the lantern-jawed chef and his recipes for tomato-and-basil jelly with tomato mousse, go back home to your kitchen, and pick up that worn, neglected volume, as likely as not written by a woman, which tells you how to knock up a decent chocolate cake, make pea-and-ham soup, and stretch a chicken further than one meal. It really could be the only cookbook you'll ever need.

This article first appeared in the 16 October 2006 issue of the New Statesman, The war on youth