June 14, 2013 6:51 pm

Cookbook colossi

Why do some cookbooks dominate the dinner-party circuit for years, like a benign infection?
Illustration depicting 'Cookbook colossi'©Richard Allen

Food books infest my house. The well-mannered ones are on shelves but others, cheeky little numbers, hide under beds or in cupboards. Big lazy tomes lie idly prone on any comfortably horizontal surface and one or two, probably suffering some sort of separation anxiety, always sneak into my bag when I go away.

Many food books are entirely nugatory – another collection of ghosted celebrity “takes” on the classics. Others are “important” books that break new ground, change perceptions and stay quietly in print for generations. But there is another, special family of books that are unlike any other and they fascinate me most; I call them the DPCs – the Dinner Party Colossi.

There have only ever been half a dozen or so books with the power to dominate the dinner party circuit for years, like a benign infection. We’re not talking about a book containing a particularly successful recipe or a simpler new version – Nigella’s Coca-Cola glazed ham, say, or Gordon Ramsay’s personal shepherd’s pie. These are not volumes that inspire better cooking, like Simon Hopkinson’s gorgeous Roast Chicken and Other Stories. No, these are the ones from which menus are drawn whole, books that grasp the paradigm for polite social eating by its ankles and drag it to a completely different place.

The first in most of our memories was, of course, Elizabeth David. Without her oeuvre from 1950-60 one could argue there would never have been the servantless, informal dinner party as we know it today. She took the pot out of the kitchen and shifted it to the middle of the table like a graven image. (To be more accurate, she took the orange Le Creuset out of the Aga and put it in the middle of the stripped-pine table in the knocked-through basement kitchen/dining room – but let’s not be pedantic here.) She also directed the attention of a generation of home cooks and entertainers to the Mediterranean coast of France and Italy.

I admit our native cuisine hasn’t always been up to much but we must surely be unique in this displaced cultural focus. I’m intrigued by the geographical nexus on which we concentrate our culinary aspirations – because it’s constantly on the move.

The first to displace David wholesale was Delia Smith but her hegemony was shortlived. Sure, the recipes “worked” flawlessly – when we still cared about our soufflés detumescing in front of our guests, that mattered a lot – but Young Professionals wanted relaxed international glamour and it arrived in the form of the River Café cookbook (1996). I still remember sitting in an Audi outside somebody’s Docklands flat and wondering aloud if it was “going to be River Café again”. The Conranesque sans serif cover, the achingly clean design – it demanded to sit on a glass-topped table while we necked over-oaky Chardonnay and talked about money. Such was the power of the book that the nexus focused tighter over an imaginary Tuscany or Puglia.

Then, abruptly, it shifted south and west to an entirely notional Moorish sphere of influence taking in southern Spain and northern Africa, defined by Moro: The Cookbook (2001). Remember that couple of years when you couldn’t move for couscous? When tagines occupied every granite worktop and Sam and Sam Clark held every party menu in their grip?

While this was going on the focus of “fine dining” took a different route from Paris, birthplace of haute cuisine, to Cataluña and the high art of the modernist gastronomes. Close observers will have noticed that it has moved again in the past year or so to Scandinavia, where new techniques meet the “found art” of the forest floor. But none of this highbrow fol-de-rol has cut any ice on the dinner party circuit. We don’t serve foams or smears to our friends, we don’t pick our own mushrooms and serve them with live ants.

Instead, the dinner party nexus has again drifted eastward and now hangs somewhere over the Fertile Crescent. The books that have taken us there have come from Yotam Ottolenghi, whose fantastically eclectic vision of Middle Eastern street and home food has seized the imagination of the fooderati.

It’s been a long time since we’ve seen such total domination but it looks like Ottolenghi has achieved absolute arrogation. The past half dozen dinner parties I’ve attended have been so bestridden by his influence it would seem wrong not to add him to the colossi. What’s on the menu tonight? Something from Yemen, something from Jerusalem, something Palestinian and a Syrian dessert. Shall we Ottoleng tonight? I expect so, because it needs to become its own verb. I Ottoleng; thou Ottolengest; he Ottolengs. Oh yes … everybody’s Ottolenging now and we love it.

Tim Hayward is an FT Weekend contributing writer; tim.hayward@ft.com; Twitter @TimHayward

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