Cookery Books: Britain's Gift to America

English cookbooks are better than ours, and not only because of spotted dick. A culinary bibliophile's guide to London.
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London is, after all, one of the great cities for a bibliophile to stretch her legs, as well as test her credit limit, but it's a surprise to some that the city is ripe with cookbooks—or as the British say, cookery books. Perhaps this is because quips about British cooking are as old as Hadrian's Wall, even though the British food scene has gotten a facelift in recent years thanks to the chefs, farmers, writers, and food artisans who've shown the world that a roasted bone marrow and parsley salad is no laughing matter. To wit, good luck landing a reservation to eat it at Fergus Henderson's St. John Restaurant. Now, British cookbooks are also getting some fresh respect.

Every time I disembark at Heathrow with an empty suitcase to fill with the dozen or so cookbooks I'll bring back to Boston, I picture myself as the writer and heroine of 84 Charing Cross Road: a 21st-century Helene Hanff, with more domestic yet equally voracious book-acquisition tastes. I dream about sleuthing around the city for a 19th century edition of Eliza Acton's Modern Cookery for Private Families, instructing shop owners, "I'll take it at any cost!" Fantasy life aside, I can at least snag Nigella Lawson's latest, which won't be republished for American audiences for another year, or stalk down the last remaining Jane Grigson titles I don't own. Of course, I could stay home and order Lawson's book through amazon.co.uk and easily locate Grigson's backlist through eBay, but where's the fun in that?

My love of British cookbooks is rooted in nostalgia for the foods I read about in classic English children's literature—the hot currant buns Sara Crewe longed for during her stint as a scullery maid, Enid Blyton's "lashings of boiled eggs"—but the nostalgia is tempered with practicality. British cookbooks tend to give weight measurements for ingredients, which is precisely why I go out of my way to purchase the British versions of British cookbooks rather than waiting for the inaccurate cups-and-teaspoons translations for Americans. My success rate with recipes, especially baked goods, is much higher when I can measure ingredients by pounds or grams on an inexpensive digital kitchen scale. Nonetheless, American cookbook publishers are loath to accept that a growing number of American home cooks actually prefer weight measures to volume measures. Fine. This Yank will buy Brit.

British cookbooks also blend the familiar with the exotic. Newer ones aren't all filled with recipes for steak-and-kidney pie and raunchy-sounding spotted dick, although there are plenty of new releases that celebrate these British classics. (I admit, I'm always game for a fresh twist on sticky toffee pudding ... who isn't?) But I like that modern British cooking feels more adventurous than a lot of American cooking. The British eat more lamb and aren't afraid to forage the hedgerows, while most Americans seem to me to prefer lambs in petting zoos and restrict their foraging to the aisles of Whole Foods. I like that they call their zucchinis "courgettes," that seeds are "pips," and that a cake can be baked in a "slow" oven. (Kitchen Arts & Letters in New York City sells a helpful pamphlet called All You Need to Know About the British Kitchen that deciphers cooking terminology for Americans.) On the familiar side of the equation, of course, British celebrity chefs and their cookbooks are as popular here as they are over there. Even my eight-year-old knows it's time to leave the room when he spots Gordon Ramsay's craggy face on BBC America.

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Diana Burrell is a Boston-based food writer, author, and journalist. More

Once, when journalist Diana Burrell introduced yet another cooking gadget to her tiny kitchen, her husband exclaimed, "Why aren't you writing about food? You should get paid for this obsession with cooking." Thus began her career five years ago as a food writer and recipe developer for publications ranging from The Boston Globe and US Airways Magazine to Oxygen, Clean Eating, and Kiwi Magazine. She has developed recipes for fitness buffs and children with fussy appetites, and interviewed Olympia Dukakis about the best places in New England for Greek food. She has traveled to South India to collect recipes from home cooks and restaurant chefs in Kerala, shed tears of pleasure eating goat cheese in France, and sampled reindeer meat in Norway. (She's now a vegetarian, but not because of the reindeer meat.) Burrell has written three nonfiction books, and she's currently at work on a parenting memoir. She lives in suburban Boston, where, when she's not on assignment, she gardens, collects vintage cookbooks, and plots her next escape to some far-flung locale: next up, South Africa. A graduate of Smith College, Burrell majored in American studies with an emphasis on history and literature. Visit her website at http://www.dianaburrell.com.

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