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A prolific food writer in her own right, starting out decades before blue eyed Jamie Oliver and friends, Leith is a culinary force to be reckoned with. Having run her own catering business, opened a Michelin-starred restaurant, founded one of the UK’s leading cookery schools, been a novelist and a newspaper columnist, a TV judge on the Great British Menu and awarded a CBE, she is more than qualified than most to cast an opinion.
The traditional cookery book is dying out, Leith warns in the Radio Times. The emphasis is on gorgeously shot images, often dubbed “food porn” rather than instructional recipes.
Leith wrote her first book, Leith’s All-Party Cookbook, in 1972. She laments the days when you "could still buy a good cookbook in paperback with no pictures at all", which would probably be unsales worthy today, she reflects. "But those books were much used: they lived in the kitchen and got splattered with custard and gravy."
“Today, if we cook, we google it. New cookbooks lie on the coffee table and we drool over Tuscan landscapes and rustic bread ovens. Before ordering in a pizza,”Leith, 75, writes in the Radio Times. An astute, if all too familiar observation.
Not even acclaimed Mrs Beeton, considered one of the first significant cookery writers of our time, is safe from Leith's cookbook scorn. Beeton fans will be disappointed to hear that "Mrs Isabella Beeton was a blatant plagiarist, nicking recipes and calling them her own. If she’d cooked every dish in her massive Household Management, it would have taken her 50 years. She only lived for 28." Leith has done the maths.
Whilst Leith hasn't named names, in her attack on celebrity chef books, her waggling finger might be pointing in the direction of Oliver amongst others, following “Jamie’s Italy”, a recipe book accompanying the chef’s culinary tour of the country TV series. Undoubtedly there were fantastic shots of Tuscan landscapes to be had, and indeed the very picture worthy rustic bread oven.
Unsurprisingly Leith's comments have sparked a backlash from contemporary food writers reports Good Housekeeping. Some haven’t taken kindly to the ‘pretty but useless’ comments. William Sitwell, the editor of Waitrose Kitchen and author of A History of Food in 100 Recipes, said that Leith was looking at the past through rose-tinted spectacles. He said ‘If cookbooks today were designed in the same way that they were in the 1950s, even fewer people would cook'.
With the prolific number of cooking apps available and the portability of the smart devices into the kitchen the cookbook market is a tough market to crack. It's no wonder prior TV fame leads to more successful book sales, rather than the other way round. Infact Jamie Oliver's rock star chef success is in part due to his TV charisma and appeal to a wider audience. "Cooking became fun, and deeply cool, something boys could do, because Jamie O did it,” Miss Leith admits.
Where do you stand on the debate? Are modern cookbooks useless coffee table props or are they invaluable resources enticing a new generation of men, women and kids to cook?