For the best part of two years, I’ve been art-directing and designing for the digital cookbooks start-up, 1000 Cookbooks. Having been on the inside looking around this incredible resource for so long, I rather vainly considered that my own top-ten list was possibly of interest, not least because it’s been formulating in my head for most of the time I’ve been working on this project. So, start with #10 and then take a look at the rest, none of which appear in any order of preference…
#8 A Tale of 12 Kitchens
If I begin by telling you that I’ve not cooked anything from this book in the six or seven years that it’s been in my collection, I’d forgive you for questioning its legitimacy on this list. It’s perhaps worth asking then at this point what constitutes a good – nevermind a great – cookbook. If the simple answer is a book that you cook from a lot, then there are indeed far better qualified titles to usurp those I’ve chosen as my ten best. But if it is that simple a test, then how many recipes would constitute ‘a lot’? To cook twenty recipes would account for somewhere between 15 and 25% of the content of an average book. Would not having tried the rest of the book – the vast majority of its content – not matter? And are they recipes you return to again and again? For those of us fanatical about trying new things and collecting new books – not to mention working a five-day week and keeping family life ticking over – we’re lucky if we get to try a recipe once, let alone repeat it. Those recipes we adopt and adapt to cook time and again must truly feel like the most precious of compliments to an author who creates and shares their ideas in print. It can’t just be about a quantity of cooking done that makes a book great and it similarly can’t just be about the quality of that cooking, although most of the time a mix of those two things will be enough to elevate a book above most others. I think some of the very best cookbooks, just like the very best novels, can do more. Those books inspire me to want to cook, not by trapping me within the covers of the work in hand, but by encouraging me to go beyond them. They make me think about food, about its progeny, about the culture and the time it’s bound up in, about how we create, how we share and how we enjoy. There’s an element of this in all of my choices. And it’s here, in abundance, in Jake Tilson’s book.
12 Kitchens is a mixture of things: a cookbook, but also a vivid memoir which deals with the questions of why, what and how we cook. It begins from that place where every great cookbook begins – a love of food – but it’s crucially also about our need for food, the routine of food and the discovery of food. Every element of this book has been assembled by Tilson, be it the written or printed word, found or purchased ephemera (till receipts, food wrappers, pages from family recipe albums) or the huge array of candid lo-fi photographs which capture moments of family life and scenes from his travels. A frieze of eight different carrier bags from New York food emporiums gives a glorious ‘feel’ for the produce of that space far better than one might by organising ingredients and composing a method with which to create a homage and tell a story. The recipes themselves cover a spectrum from simple to downright unusual. One recipe for ‘Blizzard Duck’ requests that the duck be boiled, then buried for 15 minutes in freshly fallen snow, and then roasted. I guess you could adapt this recipe for conventional home and weather with ease, but a seven-page collage of text and pictures makes you want to experience it the way that Tilson did. There’s an appendix at the back of the book devoted to ‘recipe page design’ which is completely engrossing. A bibliography and acknowledgements come a few pages later and there is detail and joy in every paragraph. It’s a scrapbook, one that shouldn’t really work or entertain anything like as much as it does, but it’s one put together by a designer and so it has both form and function. There is gaudiness and clunkiness throughout, but they are measured perfectly: reflections and reactions to the world around him.
It’s such an inspiring work and ultimately it charms so much because Tilson conveys every element of the food world he has inhabited with a deft control of language, both visual and written. His enquiring mind narrates 12 Kitchens with passion and admirable integrity.