Gotta do the cookin’ by the book

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Are cookbooks marketed towards students making unfair assumptions about their target audience?

With The Times recently crowning the relatively unknown Good Food 101: One Pot Dishes as the best cookbook for students, the credibility of the vast array of cookbooks written exclusively for the student cook has undoubtedly been called into question. What is it that differentiates a ‘student cookbook’ from the average offering from the likes of Jamie and Nigella?  Such titles come with an expectation of easy-to-source ingredients and relatively uncomplicated recipes, but it is debatable whether such works really empower students, equipping them with the tools to become able chefs, or merely reinforce the patronising assumption that students need guidance in even the most basic of tasks. With just as hefty a price tag as standard cookbooks, many may question whether they are really worth the investment. With these issues in mind, we put two bestsellers on trial to discover if they are really as student-friendly as they claim, and ask if they can salvage the reputation of the ‘student cookbook’ as an essential item on our shelves.

The hugely successful From Pasta to Pancakes: The Ultimate Student Cookbook (Quadrille, 2009) by Tiffany Goodall can be seen adorning the windows of many a local bookstore and advertises itself as the definitive guide to culinary success at university. Moreover, with each page featuring step-by-step photos, this is a sensible choice for those who equate mastering an omelette with quantum physics. With the novelty factor of being “written by a student for other students,” the book’s appeal is largely due to Goodall herself, as she fills each page with witty anecdotes from her time at Newcastle University. Guiding the reader from recipes for ‘Food on the Move’ through to ‘House Parties’, it is difficult not to be charmed by Goodall’s relaxed, un-pretentious style. Her bubbly personality thus makes it disappointing that the food itself does not live up to expectations. Despite the appealing names given to the likes of ‘The T Club’, ‘Hot Hot Lamb Curry’ and ‘Gooey Leek Gratin’, there is little here to excite food lovers.  A cynical reader may deplore the overtones of Jamie Oliver in phrases such as “I love recipes where you just chuck everything in, bung it into the oven and that’s that” and feel the book is guilty of concentrating on style over substance.

Moreover, whilst complete beginners will appreciate instructions on how to handle the very basics from poaching an egg to boiling pasta, Goodall seems to assume her reader’s previous cookery experience stretches little beyond pressing buttons on a microwave. Surely even the most basic of chefs can manage without instructions on how to make ‘Jacket Potato With Beans And Cheese’. At times this level of simplicity appears patronising rather than helpful; her warning “make sure you have clean hands all the time when you are cooking” immediately evokes memories of GCSE Food Tech classes.  What is more, there is a fair bit of gender stereotyping here with regards to tastes. The chapter ‘Healthy Days For The Girls’, featuring an assortment of (admittedly delicious) salads, soups and stir-fries, seems to assume that male students are totally adverse to healthy eating, with their assigned chapter being laden with red meat, cheese and ‘Mashed Potato Variations’. Although she makes the comment that her recipes under the heading ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’ are “definitely not exclusively for the boys,” the reader may feel the division of chapters was pointless in the first place.

As well as being overly quick to assume the tastes of each gender, there is an implicit suggestion running throughout the book that students have the simplest of palettes and can only tolerate the most recognisable of fruit and vegetables. Surely one of the great things about cooking at university is being introduced to new ingredients by friends from overseas; I for one have been treated to exquisite meals by my Korean and German friends. It thus seems odd that Goodall assumes we will be impressed by the likes of ‘The Ultimate Cheese on Toast’, which articulates clichéd conceptions of the typical student as lazy and slobbish in the kitchen. That said, the more dazzling dishes such as ‘Vegetarian Pasta Heaven’, the fragrant ‘Prawn And Coconut Stir-Fry’ and wonderful ‘Thai Fishcakes’ make a welcome change from the carb-fest of other pages. Had Goodall included a few more exotic concoctions and a few less tips on buttering toast, many may be less reluctant to part with the £12.00 asking price.

The second most popular student cookbook of recent times, with the imaginative title The Student Cookbook: Great grub for the hungry and the broke (Ryland Peters and Small, 2009), offers a much more extensive choice of recipes and caters to more adventurous cooks as well as mere beginners. I was pleased to find this book succeeding where Goodall fails, in recognising that despite a limited budget and lack of time, students want to eat more than simply pasta and potatoes. From ‘Moussaka-filled Aubergines’ to ‘Risotto Primavera’; ‘Minted Courgette Frittata’ to ‘Stuffed Peppers’, this book allows those with a love of the kitchen to really treat their taste buds. Vegetarian dishes such as ‘Butternut Squash, Sage and Chilli Risotto’ show imaginative flair and are tempting enough even for the most devoted of meat eaters. That said, there is no shortage of classics such as ‘Beef Fajitas’, ‘Thai Green Curry’ and ‘Toad In The Hole’, as well as great snacks such as ‘Sesame Sweet Potato Wedges And Guacamole’ that are fun to prepare and perfect for DVD nights with flatmates.

Along with mouth-watering dishes, all publishers know the key to the success of a cookbook lies in the pictures, and the stunning photography and design make each of these dishes look gloriously appetising. I thus found this a welcome contrast to some of Goodall’s offerings such as ‘Jim’s Fried Breakfast’ that had that look of dog’s dinner about it.

The author also offers handy (and un-patronising) tips for essential kitchen equipment and cupboard items, including how to make the most of spices and herbs that can jazz up even the most simple of dishes. Moreover, most recipes include items found in the store cupboard, easy-to-source herbs and for the most part, relatively cheap ingredients. However, it must be said that attempting to master many of these meals will be more damaging to your wallet than going with Goodall, particularly the likes of ‘Rigatoni With Pork And Lemon Ragu’ (for special occasions only, I feel). Nevertheless, featuring culinary offerings from Italy, France, the Mediterranean and beyond, the book recognises that students have just as sophisticated taste when it comes to food as anyone else, and the volume of recipes means you feel you are really getting your money’s worth.

The Student Cookbook succeeds precisely because it rejects general assumptions about the student community, wisely avoiding the gender stereotyping and over-simplified recipes that plague many a student cookbook. Indeed, only the title allows it to be grouped under such a category, ignoring convention and allowing innovation in ingredient choice and technique, reassuring students everywhere that there are authors who recognise our ability to produce more than just beans on toast.

Kate Bone

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