In the run up to Christmas (yes it has started, we have our Christmas cards out and we are only moments away from fake snow on the windows) I thought I might suggest some new releases for those seeking inspiration for the present list. Remember, a book is always welcome… well, it is in my house.
The first, A Book for Cooks, is a blatantly self-indulgent hint to any of my nearest and dearest looking to buy for me. Not history, you may think initially, however bear with me: history is about people and ‘we are what we eat’. (In my case this is clearly several fat capons and an awful lot of butter, I sometimes wonder if my attraction to the past is nothing more than a hankering after a more woman-friendly age when the pins-ups were by Reubens rather Hello magazine…) So first up is an unusual but lovely look at the historical development of food, eating, design and the cookbook. A Book for Cooks is Leslie Geddes-Brown’s list of the 101 best cookbooks of all time. In cookbook terms, all time dates from the early 16th century when recipes began to be written down and published. Prior to that it was an oral tradition where crucial ingredients and cooking times were passed on by a clip round the ear to the nearest scullery boy.
Anyway, Leslie lists her defining cookbooks, from Sir Hugh Playt’s Delightes for Ladies to Laura Santtini’s Flash Cooking: Fit Fast Flavours for Busy People. See, even the titles show you how roles have changed. What makes this fascinating is that it is no mere list. There are cover shots and sample pages alongside a bit of background on the book and why Geddes-Brown feels it deserves its place. Thus you can trace the evolution of both book design and food from sepia-toned pages of close print to airbrushed gastro-porn, from groaning plenty to minimalist smears of sauce. Does anyone remember the food of the 70s? The piped rosettes of cream? The mini mandarin segment garnishes? Relive it here with Robert Carrier! This book will provide a stroll through the ages in taste-around.
One can of course take exception to inclusions and exclusions from the list. Where is David Thompson and his seminal work Thai Food? So beautifully bound in pink silk, 688 pages of recipes, more information on how to bash lemongrass then anyone needs in a lifetime of course, but surely the ultimate book on Thai cooking and marking a change from the overwhelming dominance of European cuisine to an interest in authentic Asian flavours? However, whether you agree or disagree with Leslie’s choices her book is fabulous. You will rediscover old friends in cookbookland, uncover some gems you really should have read and then spend a fortune on abe.com trying to source out-of-print but totally necessary cookbooks to round out your own collection.
If philately is more your thing then cooking then how about First Class: A History of Britain in 36 Postage Stamps? Chris West is an enthusiast and there is nothing like a person with passion to tell a good tale. Chris’s passion, like many a scrubby schoolboy, is stamps. Stamps talk to him (well Charles talks to trees and it hasn’t seemed to hold him back), they are beautiful objects, potentially of value but always of interest. He takes 36 stamps from the 1840 Penny Black, the world’s first postage stamp, via the World Cup Winners stamp in 1966, to the mini-sheet which commemorated the wedding of William and Kate in 2011. There are sporting stamps, royal stamps, stamps for weddings and jubilees, stamps marking the fall of empire and the defeat of Hitler, stamps for the king who abdicated and the princess who died. We get pictures of the stamps, a background to what they commemorate and what its says about Britain that this event made it to a stamp. And the changes in stamp design from the monarch’s head to more evocative and often quite beautiful designs chart social change. This is a personal and idiosyncratic book, it’s passionate and witty – it has lots of little gems which are bound to come up in a pub quiz, but most of all it’s fun to read.
And finally, for those who love maps: Simon Garfield’s On The Map: Why The World Looks The Way it Does. Maps are one of those things which are both beautiful and necessary (is it the Amish that believe that if something is necessary it should also be beautiful?) Well, maps definitely fit this bill. I speak as someone who is cartographically challenged. I have to hold the map ‘the right way up’, stand beside a clearly designated landmark, double-check the compass and even then like as not head off confidently in the wrong direction. In truth I have given up, I always take a map when I go tramping but I find it best also to pack a friend who can read maps and then I just follow him. Anyway, Simon Garfield’s book looks at the maps which have defined the world, from the gloriously illuminated ‘There Be Dragons’, past the indispensible A-Z, to the ‘Big Brother is Watching Me’ of Google Maps. There are bits about the mapmakers and a look at fictitious but still part of our lives maps like the Monopoly Board or Treasure Maps. I would love to tell you this is a beautiful book in itself (I am a sucker for a beautiful book) but tragically not, it is illustrated but in cramped black and white which in no way conveys the beauty of the maps themselves. However it is well worth getting for the content alone. There is heaps here to amuse and amaze and masses of factoids to drop into the conversation when you want to impress with your erudition (come on you can’t spend all evening discussing Strictly). Most of all it is a great read, both funny and interesting it just rollicks along.
So there you are, three ideas for Christmas presents. Who else do you have to buy for? Come into the shop or drop us a comment below or an email and we can make suggestions for you.