'Food books form a bigger part of our lives than ever before'

People have predicted the death of cooking almost as many times as they have predicted the death of reading. Yet food books form a bigger part of our lives than ever before, as I discovered as an assessor for this year’s Andre Simon Book awards for food and drink writing. These are books of everyday enchantment, which seem to promise us an escape into different ways of living. Maybe we feel the need of those comforts now more than ever in this world of division and Trump.

The Andre Simon Trustees and I sifted through more than 140 books before arriving at our shortlist of eight. As yet another stacked cardboard box full of cookbooks arrived at the house, I kept thinking, how many recipes does a person need?

One of the trends that we noticed as we whittled down the entries was that food has itself become a battleground. We were taken aback by the number of books devoted to clean eating of one kind or other, whether it called itself that or not. Perhaps we shouldn't have been so surprised. In 2015, Deliciously Ella by Ella Woodward (now Ella Mills) became the fastest selling debut cookbook of all time, since when the UK bestseller lists for cookery have been dominated by ‘wellness’. We leafed through many books that preached denial and fad, or that promised beauty and inner ‘glow’, if only we could give up such basic and lovely items as bread or pasta.

A more encouraging tendency, however, was the remarkable number of high quality food books published in 2016 that were about widening rather than restricting the British palate.

Our shortlist recognised writers who are playing with adventurous ingredients in fresh and interesting ways, such as Felicity Cloake and Gill Meller, whose debut cookbook, Gather, a volume of seasonal recipes with a slightly Nordic devotion to foraging, includes a chapter devoted to squirrel recipes. I can’t pretend to have tried any of these but I can’t recommend Meller’s recipe for fish soup highly enough. He is one to watch.

There’s also a new adventurousness about the cooking of the past. Our shortlist included Pride and Pudding, a marvellously eccentric celebration of historic British puddings by Belgian photographer Regula Ysewijn, which resurrects such oddities as sack posset and quaking pudding. Another scholarly gem was The Oxford Companion to Food, an astonishingly comprehensive reference book that covers everything from the history of Cheddar to the old myth about the moon being made of green cheese.

 One of the biggest trends this year was global cuisine. UK cooks have always been more eclectic than cooks from Italy or France, but this year, there were books from more varied regions than ever, such as the marvellous Longthroat Memoirs by Yemisi Aribisala, a series of brilliant and witty essays celebrating Nigerian cuisine which won the John Avery prize. Nigerian food has been been ‘misunderstood, atrociously photographed, not yet given its due’.

Our shortlist also included Fresh India by Meera Sodha, a wonderfully rich and varied collection of vegetarian Indian food by the author of Made in India. The overall Andre Simon prize was deservedly won by Fuchsia Dunlop for Land of Fish and Rice: Recipes from the Culinary Heart of China, which celebrates the food of the Jiangnan region of China. This is a book that combines soulful travel writing and scholarship with gorgeous recipes, from golden scrambled eggs with shrimp to silken tofu in a broth that thickens ‘like some extraordinary subterranean flower’.

Perhaps the most encouraging trend of all was the glimmer of a backlash against the vogue for clean eating books. We awarded the Special Commendation prize to Flavour by Ruby Tandoh. On one level, this is just a deeply accessible collection of comfort food recipes, from panna cotta to courgette fritters. But it is bound together by an unashamed celebration of flavour, against the ‘obsession with wellness in food culture right now’. Tandoh’s joyous call to arms – contained in her subtitle – is simply to ‘eat what you love’. It’s a sign of how anxious our relationship with eating has become that this should now sound like something subversive.

Bee Wilson is the author of This is Not a Diet Book and First Bite (both Fourth Estate) and was an assessor for this year’s Andre Simon Book awards for food and drink writing.

The André Simon Food and Drink Book Awards were founded in 1978 to recognise the achievements of food and drink writers. It is the longest running award of its kind. Previous winners have included: Elizabeth David and Rosemary Hume (the very first winners), Michel Roux, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Nigel Slater and Rick Stein.