Writing a cookbook has been a dream of mine for a long time: for much, much longer than I have actually been a food writer (which in itself is more than twenty years). As a child I used to go in the kitchen and mess around with stuff in pans. Sometimes I would talk to myself as I cooked, as if I were one of the chefs on TV. And then I grew up and became a food writer. in the years since, recipe books have been my constant companions.
But somehow, the form that my food writing has taken over the years has almost never been recipes. I’ve written about appetites and the history of forks. I’ve written about ultra-processed food and the joy of a perfect pear. But until now, I’ve only written a handful of recipes (mostly for my tiny book This Is Not A Diet Book, which gave me a taste of how lovely it is when you meet someone who has actually cooked one of your recipes and – even better! – enjoyed it and made it again).
When I finally realised that the time had come for me to write a cookbook, I knew that I wanted to write about ways to make cooking much, much easier, whether you are cooking alone or for a crowd, for everyday midweek dinners or special celebration meals. I usually struggle with titles but this one came to me quickly. I was amazed to find that no one ever seemed to have called a book The Secret of Cooking before. The title referred to the fact that in Renaissance times, long before printed cookbooks were an everyday thing, there were volumes called ‘books of secrets’ which included food recipes alongside many other prescriptions for making life better. In a typical book of secrets, there might be cures for melancholy or baldness alongside recipes for jam and pies. What I loved about the title was the sense I had that cooking is still one of the greatest secrets to a happier life.
My only problem was: what on earth was the secret of cooking and how could I ever presume to discover it?
And then I realised I actually did have an answer to the secret of cooking, an answer that is all too often ignored. The secret of cooking is…the person who cooks. The kind of cooking you will want to do – or more importantly, be able to do – on any given day depends entirely on YOU and your circumstances. A chef’s cooking is not the same as a home cook’s cooking. The way we cook depends on how busy we are, the culture we grew up in, whether we are disabled or not, our passions and preferences, the food shops we have access to.
It is the human standing at the stove who brings the words of a recipe to life (or who summons up a meal without any recipe at all, drawing on memories so deep they seem to be instincts). Each of us carries into the kitchen our own particular tastes and values, our passions and blind spots, and our motivations for cooking – or not cooking. Whatever the meal or the occasion, the person who cooks is by far the most important element. Recipes are just ‘notes on a page, waiting for you to bring them to life’, as the Italian food writer Marcella Hazan wrote in one of her cookbooks. If we want to eat a more delicious dinner, we need to look after the cook. That means finding the ways of cooking that work for you, no matter how anyone else does things.
Once I had this thought, I felt so excited to go in search of cooking secrets which – with luck – would be helpful to different people at different moments of life and simply to make it more possible to opt to cook on those days when you feel flat-out or just plain flat. Anyway, I’ll share some of my discoveries on this blog in the hope that you find some of them as helpful as I have.