Diana Henry explains the art of making a cook book
Alex Bellotti talks to food writer Diana Henry about the revival of interest in home cooking, fans on Twitter, and why she will always appreciate the tactile experience of holding a cookbook.
Ever since she was a child, organising her siblings as they made scrapbooks in their bedrooms, Diana Henry has loved the idea of creating a book. Even in a world now dominated by recipe cards and online guides, the tactile experience of physically holding a well-crafted cook book is, for her, still irreplaceable in a digital age.
As the Telegraph’s star food writer explains, making your cook book is also something that “everyone wants to do now”. With the explosion of street-food culture and a revival of interest in home cooking, it’s no surprise that more people are looking to leave their culinary mark, so on September 5, Henry will be talking alongside Kay Plunkett-Hogge and Pip McCormac on how to make such dreams a reality.
“I think because this sea of writing about food has got bigger, what you need to be sure about is the authority of the person you’re following,” says the Highgate resident. “There is something about the tactile nature of a book. I’ve always really cared about production values, so have something to say, but then make sure it’s got great paper, choose the typeface carefully, really labour over the photography. I know because of the job I do that people get sick of looking at screens; you want to look at something nice.”
Since her first book, 2002’s Crazy Water Pickled Lemons, Henry has established herself not just as an inventive, authoritative voice, but also an original one. As she admits of the book’s title, “it sounds more like a novel”, and the fragments of Middle Eastern poetry and essays inside suggest an all-consuming culture around the food itself.
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Having gone on to publish seven more collections, she believes that the digital revolution has caused some benefits for the industry – her Twitter profile, for instance, allows her to interact more personally with fans of her recipes.
More than anything, however, she simply loves the “world” of food itself, and says that if you can find it in a good book, then you’ll quickly find yourself diving in.
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“Food offers you this world of possibilities. You can travel while staying in your own kitchen; you get to understand a country’s ingredients and reference points.
“I don’t know why it fascinates me, I have no idea. I’ll deal with food all day and then later be in bed reading the history of a cooking pot. I just love the history of it.”
Diana Henry and Kay Plunkett-Hodge will join Pip McCormac for How To Write A Cookbook at the Southbank Centre on September 5. For full details, visit southbankcentre.co.uk
Diana’s four steps for making a cookbook
1. Think of the cookbook’s concept and what you’d like it to be. A really good place to think is in cafes; I’ll sit down with an A4 pad and do a lot of work there. At this stage, it’s often a good idea to think about the title too, because it informs your own feelings about what kind of a book you want it to be.
2. Decide how the book should be visually and how it should feel. Has it got very neutral colours, or has it got bright colours? I do really love books as things in themselves. When I go on holiday in places like Scandinavia, I buy cookbooks and bring them back. I can’t use the recipes as I can’t translate it, but I’m interest in the photography, the paper used – the art of the book.
3. Think about the chapters and the structure of the book. You may decide that the it has an introduction, or increasingly what I do is have no introduction but instead have essays throughout the book. You have to think about the grammar of the book – there’s all this space, but you need to have space and pauses.
4. Finally, start to choose the recipes going into each chapter. I do really long lists of these – some of them are meals I’ve already done for The Telegraph, others are new things. A great way to get ideas is from travelling. For instance, you might go to a restaurant and ask for a recipe for a meal you’ve eaten; alternatively, you might eat something and think, ‘This is good, but I’d do this differently’. It can just be things you’ve eaten one week, things you see, things you discover at the market – it all crosses over.