Interview with William SitwellJune 28, 2013 by Lindsay
William Sitwell describes himself as “a writer, editor (of [our indexed magazine] Waitrose Kitchen), and presenter who can’t stop eating.” He talked to us about the unique approach and inspiration behind his new book, A History of Food in 100 Recipes (to enter and win one of three free copies, check out this blog):
“I suppose it all started when a friend of mine, Harry Dalmeny, telephoned me. ‘There’s a sale at Sotheby’s you should come to,’ he said. ‘I’ll send you a catalogue.’ Harry was chairman of this London auction house. I liked the idea but was a little wary. The last time Harry had got me to Sotheby’s it was with the idea of buying a 17th century settle. This rare period oak chair had my name carved onto it, albeit by an ancestor. We thought it might be an amusing thing to have in my hall. But when it got to £8,000 in the auction it became less amusing and I withdrew.
A day later and a catalogue arrived. For sale was an enormous collection of food related books and paintings that were the collection of the late Stanley J. Steegar, a New Yorker. There were cookbooks stretching back centuries and collections of the latest celebrity chefs too.
Perusing it I came across the most beautiful picture of a pig. It was an early 19th century illustration and from a collection of some 20 books from that period.
I felt that I ought to own whichever book contained this pig so duly went along on the day and started bidding.
I held my nerve when the lot came up and came away with a box of books that would fill a shelf in my study. That shelf was filling up with foodie books and added to the other foodie things I have around the room – large photographs of figs and a Damien Hirst-style shark in jelly (a bit of fun I’d commissioned for the food magazine I edit).
Back home as I added the books to my shelf I began to get a little worried. Not only had I paid far more than I could afford for this collection but had the pig led me astray? These ancient tomes looked a little dusty and dry. What purpose would they serve apart from filling a shelf?
But as I popped each one on the shelf I began to leaf through the pages. There were large dictionaries and then much smaller almost pocket-size books. I started to read the introduction of a book by William Kitchiner called Cook’s Oracle.
It begins: ‘Among the multitudes of causes which concur to impair health and produce disease, the most general is the improper quality of our food…few persons bestow half so much attention on the preservation of their own health as they daily devote to that of their dogs and horses.’
I was gripped. Here was a writer two hundred years ago grappling with exactly the same issues that I commission and write about today. Kitchiner continues in his opinionated and witty vein and launches an attack on those who had written cookbooks before him. Most, he writes, were of no more use ‘than reading Robinson Crusoe would enable a sailor to steer safely from England to India.’ Recipes left him bewildered, he explained, instructions were too vague. He was fed up with notes to use ‘a dust of flour – a shake of pepper – a squeeze of lemon.’ The recipes in his book would actually work.
I turned the pages of another book, this time the work of Jules Gouffe. His Royal Cookery Book of 1868 attacked ‘the perfect uselessness of such cookery books as have hitherto been published.’
This was all striking a chord. Because every time a new cookbook landed on my desk it came with a similar note from the PR. At last, the definitive recipe book, the authentic one, the one that works, the recipe book to inspire a generation.
I spent more time perusing through my books before delving deeper back in time. I soon came across Hannah Glasse who in the introduction to The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy in 1747 declares that her book, ‘far exceeds anything of the kind ever yet published. I believe I have attempted a brand of cookery which nobody has yet thought worth their while to write upon.’
Colourful, sure of themselves, opinionated…sound like any foodies you know? Next I found a Sicilian called Archestratus who back in 350 BC strode around Europe demanding the best ingredients and writing up his views in ancient Greek hexameters. He was probably a bit like Marco Pierre White flinging the contents of a cheese board he didn’t like the look of against the wall.
Thus begun the journey of my book, my mission to discover the characters, the foodie obsessives and the passionate campaigners who have driven the story forward over the centuries. And I would tell their stories by starting with a recipe. That recipe would not be translated or updated for the modern cook, it would be recorded just as it was written.
The bulk of my work was done in the British Library in London; a wonderful, studious place, where you can get your hands on virtually every book that has ever been published. And to hold a copy of a 300-year-old book is a wonderful, inspiring thing that connects you right back with the author. So much for digital, although I do consider carefully its impact in the story.
After six months of intense work and research, done mostly at weekends and evenings (I have a busy day job) I sent in my manuscript. I learnt more than I could possibly have imagined. The story of food is the story of us. What and how we eat says so much about the way we live and have lived. And it’s a story peppered with the most extraordinary characters imaginable. With the odd cute pig…”
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