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New voices in food
As little as a year ago - can it be that short a time? - it felt as if food writing was in terminal decline. Newspapers and food magazines were dominated by the same old names, generally fostered by a restaurant or TV connection. Some, it was rumoured (choosing my words carefully), didn’t even write their own columns or books.
The outlook was depressing. People, it seemed, would only buy a newspaper or book if a celebrity was behind it.
Yet a miracle has happened. Suddenly newspapers and publishers have realised that you don’t always have to dumb down and that that in order to survive they need to offer something different. That there may be more than one audience for food writing just as there is - to choose another subject close to my heart - for wine. (Not everyone wants to shop for their wine in supermarkets or to buy the same formulaic market-driven brands which is why so many independent wine shops are springing up.)
Much of the credit for this must go to Mina Holland of Guardian Cook who has turned what at first seemed a pure marketing ploy to increase sales for the newspaper into a weekly food supplement of real worth. The platform she has given to unknown writers in her ‘in residence’ slot - a temporary showcase for new talent - breaks all the rules of newspaper columns (the supposition presumably being that readers won’t warm to a writer they haven't heard of) but is paying off magnificently. Writers like Jackson Boxer, Tom Hunt, Rachel Roddy and, currently, Olia Hercules* are undoubtedly stars of the future. They write beautifully, knowledgeably, inspiringly - and at some length. There’s no concession to short attention spans in Cook.
Roddy and Hercules (an improbable surname for such a slender young woman) also have wonderful books out, Five Quarters and Mamushka, which, I suspect, will sell in their thousands. Of course it helps that they’re both young and pretty but that isn’t overplayed and doesn’t detract from their talent. I felt that prickle of excitement that you get when you get your hands on a book that you know will be a friend in the kitchen for months and years to come. They’ve had a permanent place at my bedside since they’ve arrived.
Boxer, the grandson of '70s food writer Arabella Boxer, hasn’t yet been published but on the basis of his residency surely will be (just read this article on making a salad here) and I feel Hunt’s slightly confusingly designed The Natural Cook, published last year, didn't quite show what he’s capable of. I prefer his current series on making the best use of a seasonal ingredient. (The recent one on what to do with the leftovers from a whole baked fish was brilliant.)
Maybe it’s the zeitgeist. Quadrille tried something similar four years ago which launched talents such as Alice Hart, Stevie Parle, James Ramsden and Niamh Shields of Eat Like a Girl but the series was discontinued after a few titles. Even in 2015 it would have taken courage and conviction on the part of editors to commission these books.
A book on Ukrainian cooking is hardly mainstream though I guess Anya von Bremzen’s magnificent food memoir Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking may have helped to pave the way. And given the number of Italian cookbooks in print who has room for a text-heavy volume on Roman cooking? (Me, for one.) Yet I’m guessing their boldness will be vindicated and that we’ll see more writing in this vein. Good.
* and, I should have added, Edward Smith who picked up a Fortnum & Mason award for Best Restaurant Writer and was shortlisted for best cookery writer for his excellent blog Rocket and Squash. Look out for his 'Supplemental'
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