Prue Leith: “Mary Berry is the real thing, a serious writer, not just a telly star”

Whatever happened to proper cookbooks? asks the Great British menu judge

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As Mary Berry rules the small screen with another series of The Great British Bake Off, how many of her ten million viewers know that she has a lifetime of food writing behind her, with more than 70 cookbooks to her name. 

She was professionally trained (catering college and the Cordon Bleu school in Paris) then did recipe testing and cookery advice for consumers for years, did thousands of cookery demonstrations and taught hundreds of students.

It’s not an accident of telly that she seems to know her onions – or millefeuilles or ganache. She really does. Unlike many bestselling foodies, she is the real thing, a serious writer, not just a telly star.

The first cookery writer I’d ever heard of was Mrs Isabella Beeton [extract from her cookery book below], and she 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. Her success lay in her husband’s amazing marketing machine. She churned out the recipes and advice and he flogged them. 

The first cookery writer I ever actually met was Marguerite Patten, who graduated from wartime advice on thrift to writing. Her Cookery in Colour sold millions, the first book to illustrate every recipe with a photograph.

The real revolution came with Elizabeth David. In the 1950s and 60s she introduced the chilly Brits to sunny Mediterranean food, and taught us that olive oil was not something you got from the chemist to put in your ears.

She didn’t bother with precise measurements: she expected the reader to have some experience of wielding a wooden spoon. Any pictures were commissioned from an artist and were atmospheric, rather than instructional. On top of that she mostly refused all radio and TV. A PR man’s nightmare.

And then suddenly television dominated the cookery scene. Writers like Robert Carrier, Claudia Roden and Delia Smith [below] became famous through their telly programmes. In the 1970s most food on television came from the BBC Education department and it was instructional rather than entertaining.

But in the 1980s, Keith Floyd leapt onto our screens with Floyd on Fish (telly with a book attached), drinking as he cooked and shouting at the crew. Cooking as entertainment had arrived. 

Jamie Oliver did the same trick at the end of the 1990s, with his Naked Chef (again, telly plus book) pulling in a whole new audience who saw him as a kind of rock star rather than a cook. Cooking became fun, and deeply cool, something boys could do, because Jamie O did it.

Since then the surest way to getting published as a cookery writer has been to be first famous as a chef (Gordon Ramsay, Tom Kerridge, Marcus Wareing, Rick Stein, Yotam Ottolenghi et al) and then to have a successful telly series. Then every publisher is interested.

Amateurs can do it by winning MasterChef (like Thomasina Miers), but only a very few journalists and home cooks, however good their writing, get their books published before they’re on television. And getting on television is even harder than getting published. Nigella Lawson and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall both managed it without being famous chefs first. But it’s rare.

Now the look of the book dictates the sale. In my day you could still buy a good cookbook in paperback with no pictures at all. I doubt if that would sell today. 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. 

Prue Leith features in Sunday’s edition of The Reunion, 11.15am Radio 4 FM. Her new novel, Food of Love: Laura’s Story, is published by Quercus on 17 September (£19.99 hardback)

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