British food writing comes of age

Felicity Cloake
Opinion - Books Monday, 20 March 2017

As the second Jane Grigson Trust award is about to be announced, Felicity Cloake reports on how food writing has become engagingly personal


Once upon a time, not so very long ago, it was considered rather bad form in this country to talk about food; even to compliment the host on their cooking was not quite the done thing. Some might attribute this to the quality of British gastronomy - as the Hungarian-born author George Mikes put it, "On the Continent people have good food; in England people have good table manners" - but more likely it was a product of the same high Victorian world view that regarded bodily appetites of any kind as deeply suspicious and best kept hidden, a view that was to linger on in our food writing long after sex itself became almost passé. I'm pleased to say that, on the strength of the entries we received for the second annual Jane Grigson Award for new food writers, such attitudes appear to have finally gone the way of the crinoline and the over-boiled vegetable.

Much 20th-century food writing, with the honourable exception of Jane herself, puts me in mind of dreary English classes at school, where we were taught, puzzlingly, that to express a personal opinion on anything, indeed to have the temerity to start a sentence with the word "I", was a lamentable failure of style. Elizabeth David's prose is a treat to read - I have delicious memories of a week holed up in a chilly gîte with copious amounts of rustic wine and her collected essays - and not short on the odd opinion either, but it's as brittle and polished as a dinner party: the reader is never allowed into the warmth and mess of the kitchen. Her American contemporary Mary Frances Fisher may not be as lauded today, but the frank, intimate way she wrote about food, and the part that food plays in everything else, from love affairs to the dirty business of war, makes her by far the greater artist in my book.

I remember hearing the great Diana Henry talk on her favourite authors a few years ago, and feeling a thrill of kinship as she explained how she'd found herself drawn to the more personal tone popular in America - afterwards we swapped compliments for shared heroes such as Fisher and Calvin Trilling, and I came away high on the feeling that this was the point of food writing: to share not only the joy of food, but the joy that it gives you, in particular.

Diana mentioned Claudia Roden and Jane Grigson that day. For me it was Nigel Slater who showed that recipes could be a pleasure to read, as well as to cook from - having grown up with the no-nonsense advice of Delia Smith and the Milk Marketing Board's Dairy Book of Household Cookery, to open Real Food at the age of 16 or 17 and read an essay in praise of the humble sausage was a revelation. The discovery that food writing could be funny, evocative, beautiful... even a little bit, dare I say, saucy, rather than merely briskly practical, was the start of a long love affair that's somehow, along the way, turned into a career.

That book came out in 1998; Britain changed fast in the waning years of the 20th century, in the kitchen as much as anywhere else. I wouldn't go so far as to claim that the death of Princess Diana unleashed a torrent of emotion on the page as well as the streets, yet it's remarkable how quickly we shook off the shackles of "good manners" here too, and admitted the central, often joyful, sometimes painful part that food plays in all our lives.

There have been some wonderful books published more recently that combine food and, for want of a better word, feelings - not only Slater's own memoir Toast, but cookbooks such as Rachel Roddy's unashamedly personal love letter to her adopted city of Rome, the award-winning Five Quarters. In this internet age, where one can bring up a million ways to make a brownie in a millisecond, we have far less need of mere recipes; what we really crave are stories, and those who entered the award this year were more than generous with them.

Whether it was a journey of self discovery in the company of a couple of hapless pigs, the experience of growing up Turkish Cypriot in North London, or simply the pursuit of the perfect ice cream, the best of them thrilled the imagination as much as the tastebuds, and whetted our appetites for second helpings. It may have taken a while to catch up with the much-trumpeted renaissance in British cooking, but our food writing is finally coming of age - and if this year's award is anything to go by, exciting times lie ahead for those of us greedy for more.

Felicity Cloake is a trustee of the Jane Grigson Trust and a judge of the £2,000 Jane Grigson Trust award, to be announced this evening (20 March).

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