For the best part of two years, I’ve been art-directing and designing for the digital cookbooks start-up, 1000 Cookbooks. It’s been a fascinating and extremely creative project to be involved with and one with real ambition: to be the ultimate online resource for food lovers, offering the very best recipes and food writing. Currently, that quality of large content is only accessible in print form.
There were various stages signposted for the start-up’s development and the first major one was realised a couple of months ago with the unveiling of the inaugural ranking of the most essential cookbooks of all time. These rankings were based on the votes of leading chefs, food writers, bloggers and various other food professionals from all over the world. In time, that dynamic ranking will show the full 1,000 titles. For now, the top fifty titles have been ranked in accordance with the hundreds of votes in so far. Go take a look.
You’ll find a seemingly endless number of lists to pore over, and numerous category searches which allow you to filter the books which have been selected. You can lose hours looking through hundreds of classic works (this I know from harsh paid-work-distracting experience). And you’ll discover just as many unknown gems which you’ll jot down onto Post-It notes as you go or ‘favourite’ or ‘share’ from within the app. And then you’ll get in touch with every food person you’ve ever met to debate the merits of the number-one book, the most voted-for author and the top-ten choices of that nice bloke off the telly.
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, here goes, and in no particular order…
#10 Quick and Easy Meals for Men in the Kitchen
A few weeks ago, my best friend reminded me of the Groundhog Day routine of my student mealtimes. Back then, rice with salad cream was my day-in-day-out twenty-pence lunch for as many consecutive days as my stomach could tolerate a combination of starch and thick, eggy vinaigrette. I challenged him, in much the same way that I had for each day some twenty years previous, to name me a more cheap and filling dish. Back then, my meagre student grant – the last year of student grants! – could only stretch to industrial-weight packets of rice and family-sized jars of condiment. Not before nor since had the SIX ITEMS OR LESS [sic] lane of Somerfield, Bath seen such brutal mass distributed onto its conveyor belt from just one small basket. With money so tight, my cooking skills were rarely tested beyond simmering rice or pasta for ten minutes and unscrewing the lid from a jar of sauce.
So, I guess this is as much a sentimental first choice as it is a practical one. It was the first cookbook I ever purchased and, soon thereafter, became the first book I ever cooked from. By today’s behometh standards, it was little more than a glorified pamphlet, but its 80 pages were more than ample for someone with so few dishes in his so-called repertoire. Which is not to say that I devoured recipes from it left, right and centre: I didn’t. I went to those recipes which I recognised first, and so learned how to make a Bolognese sauce, and then learned how to turn that into a lasagne. I made onion soup. I found a recipe for chocolate mousse. Hell, I was now up to three-course entertaining, had I the inclination.
It was the book that did what any cookbook must do to be considered useful and important: it made me want to cook. And, very slowly, it taught me how to vary what I cooked and made me want to share it.
I now know that the recipes in this tiny till-point purchase captured the very essence of Floyd: his joie de vivre splashed through many of the book’s snappy little intros, and an unpretentiousness in the food on offer and the words he used to instruct and encourage. There are some brilliant recipes in here, ones which I still use today, such as his chicken livers with marjoram, and ones I still want to cook, such as his double-crust apple pie. There are some wonderful curios, too, such as the book beginning unapologetically with two recipes credited to a different cook (the chef, Clive Imber); an ‘Eat More Meat!’ chapter that would send shivers down the muscled spine of Arnold Schwarzenegger and vegetables referred to in their abbreviated form as ‘veges’, which I still can’t look at without wincing. And nice to notice only today, in the small print of the publisher;s imprint page, a home economist credit for Sunil Vijayakar, who I would have the lovely pleasure of working with many years – and many, many cookbooks – later.
So, Floyd was my first and so is my first top-ten choice.