Cooking the books

I admit it, I have an addiction problem. Cookery books.

booksI like to excuse my terrible tendency to amass great heaps of recipe books (let’s not get onto the ones about the history of food, health aspects of food, ethnography of food, politics of food, even archaeology of food) as being work, so it’s OK. Honest.

As a writer and editor I’ve often worked on food books, whether as the writer, the editor, the copyed, the recipe writer or even the recipe sense-maker. The latter is a special category, incorporating all those who work with Big Cheese Chefs, attempting to make their recipes both affordable (‘Do you have to use a cut of meat that costs £150 and fifteen truffles?’) and workable in a domestic kitchen (‘Most ordinary kitchens do not have blast chillers and three ovens,’ or ‘Can we reduce the serving size from fifty?’). It also comes in useful when dietitians are involved – ‘I think most people might have difficulty measuring 73.8g of flour…’

Living where I do in deepest Snowdonia, there are some things I cannot get exactly when I want them, and one of them is a good Chinese meal. There are some good restaurants, but there isn’t anything really worthwhile under an hour’s drive away and in the present weather – hurricane, anyone? – that’s not really an option. Anyway it hardly qualifies as an impulse if you have to make sure the car’s filled up and then drive halfway over the mountains to get there. My collection of books on Chinese cooking are a little tired, so I ordered everything recent which the library had in stock and settled down for a little experimentation. They’re a mixed bag, and I’m not going to name names because I honestly cannot recommend any of the ones I tried.

What I can do, however, is have a chunter in more general terms. Because so much of my work as a freelance involves working with food books, I am an exceptionally fussy customer. Or am I?

garlicFor example, I don’t think it’s asking too much to expect that a photograph which supposedly illustrates a recipe should actually illustrate  the recipe and not include things which aren’t in the ingredients – such as the chillies and carrots in one I tried, for instance. I know why the stylist put them in, though.

I’ve worked with stylists but it’s not that which gives me the understanding, it’s the fact that the dish, when prepared as given, was beige. Beige with a hintette of green, but essentially beige. Lumpy and beige. Very beige. What a strange word that is when you type it repeatedly, and what a bland and boring dish it would have been to photograph. Quick, sling some chillies on top; nope, that’s not enough – shove some carrots in…

I do tend to feel that if you want to use a photo but can’t illustrate the recipe for whatever reason – seasonality perhaps – then you should use a generic pic. Like the garlic above which has nothing to do, directly, with the text around it. Or you could leave it unillustrated, but that’s not always an option.

My next grumble, one which almost everyone will have experienced at some time but which seems to be becoming more and more common and was certainly present in my Chinese books, is the editing. Not even the editing, really – more the proofreading: ingredients in the method which aren’t in the ingredients list; ingredients in the list which aren’t in the method. Many’s the time I’ve been left standing in the middle of the kitchen shouting at a book (like it could answer) ‘All right, what the **** do I do with all this spinach?’ or ‘What tomatoes?’

I know why this happens. In simple terms, it’s the money.

Editors are not particularly well paid, and proofreaders are paid even less (contrary to the small ads for proofreading courses in the back pages of the Guardian), but even so it’s seen by some publishers – not all, I stress – as an area where economies can be made. And food editors / proofreaders do have certain skills which more general ones do not. Some are a bit specialist (will the recipe, as written, actually work – ‘Yes, I know it’s allegedly tested, but if I add X and then do Y it will curdle, so I doubt it’), and some are not. I once had a chat, for example, with a starting-out proofreader who had been asked to proof a recipe book – very cheaply – and who didn’t realise that the order of the ingredients in the list should always match the order in which they appear in the method.

Then there’s the fact that editing and proofing plain text is much more straightforward – hah, generally, ironic laugh – than working on recipes. Publishers often ask for a ‘normal’ book to be copy-edited at, say, ten pages an hour. With recipes, that comes right down – three recipes, depending on length and complexity, is an average per hour. (Particularly when you have to keep going back to the author with truffle-elimination and serving-size-reduction queries.)

Sometimes – and I’ve worked on both sides of the counter, as it were, so I know what goes on – a stage is eliminated: a copy-editor will be used as a proofreader or vice versa, or someone in-house will do both. The former is just about acceptable, though it depends on the extent of the copy-editing: you can’t spot mistakes or logical leaps in your own work as easily as someone who is new to it, so a proofreader is vital if a copy-editor has had to do a lot of rewriting. But a proofreader is not automatically a substitute for a copy-editor, who is generally expected to take a more wide-ranging view and occasionally rewrite huge chunks. Copy editors turn sow’s ears into silk purses; proofreaders make sure the stitching on the purse is right. They’re different skills. Or they are sometimes.

But it does have to be said that some books (and some publishers) are much more reliable than others, and that it’s always been an issue to some extent. One of my favourite titles, Claudia Roden’s Mediterranean Cookery from 1987, is covered in graffiti – things like ‘half qty fine’ and ‘WHERE DOES THE AUBERGINE GO??????’. When M&S published books under their own name, they were meticulous – everything not only got checked and double-checked by the publisher producing the book for them, but was checked again by their own proofreaders, and then went out for testing by their staff (don’t get me going on recipe testing; I’ll save that rant for later). So an old M&S recipe book might be boring – though that’s by no means a given; their French Country Cooking, for instance, is fab – but boy would those recipes work.

And the photos matched.

Now I must go and see if adding chillies to by beige mountain will help at all. I suspect not, but maybe that stylist was onto something…

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8 thoughts on “Cooking the books

  1. That’s hilarious Kate! And depressing. I don’t buy many cookery books, and I think I have been lucky, as I very rarely spot any of the problems you have highlighted. Though I do have a curry recipe book where, against one recipe, I have written, in very large writing, heavily underlined, “ADD AN HOUR!!!”. I like it when there is an indication of how long a recipe should take, but when it is that far out, you end up eating very, very late…

    PS I still find Ken Hom’s books amongst the most reliable for Chinese, but I rather enjoy experimenting with the recipes from the various recent TV series. This is why I don’t buy many books, I rarely follow the recipes anyway!!

    1. Oh, that hour thing is shocking – comes down to testing, I expect. I’m often asked to edit recipes which the publisher assures me have been tested (the author will have told them that), and which quite plainly have not.

      I’m going to dig out my old Ken Hom books from the basement and give them a go instead. I also have one by Yan Kit-So which I remember as being OK (wonder where that’s gone?)…

  2. This is really interesting. I had no idea that the ingredients should be listed in the order used – I must go back and edit the recipes I’ve blogged tout suite!

    I’m still using my M&S cookbooks – as you say, they work really well. In the 90s my job at the charity I worked for was sponsored by M&S, so I had to go and give an account of myself at HQ every year. This was always preceeded by lunch in the canteen, which was always of interest because they would be testing the new recipes for their food ranges out on the employees. If it didn’t go down well in the canteen, you could guarantee it never made it out to the great British public.

    Can I add indexes i.e. the lack of good ones to your rant please? Another part of cutting down costs I suppose, but the lack of them makes a lot of reference books almost useless these days unless you’ve got the time to read them like a novel.

    1. The ordering thing makes the recipes easier to use – you’ll see what I mean!

      The meticulous testing from M&S (and Sainsbury’s – their older books are equally reliable) can come as quite a shock to you when you first encounter it as an editor, but I really appreciate it as a cook, and wish more people were so thorough. Now they sell books published by other people, and I’m not so sure the same standard applies. I saw one of my own in there once and was transfixed – not with joy, but fretting about whether I’d really tested the recipes well enough! (I knew I had, but still… eeek….)

      And YO on indexes. Indexers are not cheap and it’s not a job for a wuss. Or an unpaid intern.

      1. I assemble all the ingredients before I start, so I guess that’s why I’ve not realised the importance of the order.

        I’ve got another bugbear – which Janet has reminded me of with her example – I can NEVER get jam to reach setting point in the time given. It ALWAYS takes far longer. I have a theory that if they owned up to the actual time taken in the books, no-one would ever make jam.

        1. I’ve had this problem too (noticeably with marmelade). One of my friends who used to be a cookery teacher said to make sure I got it REALLY boiling; I think I’d been too cautious as I was always worried about it boiling over. So I used a much bigger pan than normal and went for it – and it worked. I stopped relying on my stupid sugar thermometer too, much better to go for the cold dish and wrinkly jam method of set-testing…

  3. This is fascinating. I’m writing a cookbook at the moment and there’s tonnes here I had only half thought of and I’m awful at making sure stuff is in order. Good reminder to go back and check that before I submit stuff next week. My editor will thank you!

    My cookbook bug bear is caramelising onions for 10 minutes. At 10 minutes, they’ll barely be translucent let alone caramelised. A bit like the jam thing no one would do it if they knew how long it took!

    1. Glad you found it useful – your editor will be pleased (hopefully)!

      With you 100% on the caramelizing onions thing – I remember ages ago Richard Ehrlich wrote a piece in the Guardian on it; I was thumping the air. YO!

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