The two things that Delia Smith has got so very wrong
PUBLISHED: 09:22 22 November 2017 | UPDATED: 09:22 22 November 2017
Opinion: Delia Smith is just plain wrong about cookery books, says Andy Newman
There have been times while I have been writing this column that I have felt the need to get out my tin hat, usually after having a go at something which people seem to regard as sacred cows. In the past couple of years, I have been on the receiving end of, ahem, strongly-held opinions after I expressed my views on subjects as diverse as fish and chips, children in restaurants, and barbecues.
I can’t help feeling that I’m going to need that tin hat again this week, because I’m afraid I am going to take issue with someone who is not just a national treasure, but who is also revered here in Norfolk (even if she does live in Suffolk): Delia Smith.
Now, I take my hat off to Delia for the loyalty she has shown Norwich City Football Club, sticking with them through the toughest of times. And like many people, my first forays into the kitchen were guided by her Complete Cookery Course, a tome which still sits on my kitchen bookshelf.
But for someone who has made their fortune out of our seemingly inexhaustible appetite for reading about food, it does seem strange that last week Delia expressed the view that there is no longer any need for cookery books, and that there are already ‘far too many of them’.
Coming from someone who has published no fewer than 23 such titles over the years, that’s a bit rich. Perhaps Delia feels that she has run her own well of ideas dry; but to suggest that no-one else should have a go doesn’t seem right.
Fortunately, the Great British public seems to agree, given that last year we collectively bought 8.7 million food and drink books, more than have ever been sold before. That list is topped by Jamie Oliver, whose ‘5 Ingredients – Quick & East Food’ has sold nearly half a million copies.
Delia was making two main points: first, that the availability of online recipes has made the cookbook redundant; and secondly, that food today has become too ‘cheffy’. I think she is wrong on both counts.
There is certainly a role for the online recipe, and the internet can be invaluable for looking up a particular dish or ingredient to find out how to prepare it. But to suggest that the web can supplant the sheer joy of flicking through a book, seeking inspiration for what to cook, is nonsense. We use the web to search for specifics; cookbooks encourage us to try something new, an ingredient or a dish which we would never have thought of searching for on Google. I certainly won’t be throwing away my well-thumbed collection of books – including those by Delia herself – any time soon. The sales figures suggest I am not alone.
Ironically, Delia chose the steps of Buckingham Palace to declare that food has become ‘very poncey’. Perhaps she has now reached that stage in life when people cannot accept that the past wasn’t always better – but I can’t imagine many of us would like to return to the culinary desert of the early 1970s, when Delia started churning out her own cookbooks.
These were days when olive oil was only available at Boots, garlic and red peppers were regarded as being suspiciously foreign, and spice was the name of an aftershave. Food was bland, boring and unadventurous.
Delia herself was at the vanguard of encouraging us to broaden our horizons; generations have been inspired by her writing to try something new. So she can’t really complain if eventually we left her style of cooking behind, taking that appetite for new things into food that might be regarded as ‘cheffy’.
When I go out to eat, I don’t see what is wrong with what Delia criticised at as being ‘theatre on a plate’. If we want a boiled egg, most of us can cook that at home (in many cases thanks to Delia herself); when I’m out, I want to be wowed by both flavour and presentation.
At home, there will be many who are happy to stick to the safe and familiar Delia style of cooking; but it is wrong to have a go at anyone who is interested enough to want to stretch themselves and be a bit more creative.
I yield to no-one in my admiration for what Delia has done for British food and home cooking over more than three decades, and we should always be grateful. But we have moved on, and no amount of hankering for the past will change that fact.