At a time when conventional wisdom
insists that no one is interested in cooking at home anymore, there
is great joy in realizing that there are many others (EYB members)
who enjoy the creativity and pleasure of sharing good food. So we
wanted to celebrate our members by regularly publishing vignettes
about members and their cookbooks. If you'd like to be featured,
we'd love to have you. Just email us at
EYB member Barbara Sweeney is the feature of this
month's Me and My Cookbooks. Barbara is currently regional editor
of The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide and resides
in Sydney, Australia. Besides her extensive cookbook collection,
Barbara has a stall at the Eveleigh Farmers' Market in Sydney where
she acts as a Talking Cookbook. What this means is that Barbara
chats with people about food and cooking and offers suggestions of
how they might cook the food they had bought at the market. Who
wouldn't love to have that feature at the market? Let's hear more
Cookbooks. They've been a source of nourishment all my life. I
love the physical book itself, the promise it brings and the action
provoked; the shopping, imagining and cooking as you bring a recipe
to life. And then there is the complex array of emotions at play
when the dish is served.
Where did it start? I can picture myself in the
family kitchen in the 1960s mixing up rock cake batter from Margaret Fulton's Cookbook. There were
a lot of food restrictions in our house, mostly financial, so if I
wanted to cook, and I did, I had to select recipes with ingredients
that were either in the kitchen pantry or affordable. And in a
family of nine, eggs were not deemed affordable, which pointed less
to meringues and more to rock cakes. (Mind you, I also remember
cooking the fluffy omelette recipe from that same book, which
required you to whip the egg whites separately to the yolks, so
maybe the rules were flexible.)
The next major influence, and it was major, was the
Life Foods of the World series. I pored over every issue
when it arrived in the post (it was a subscription mail order) and
was as taken with the people featured in those rich, colour
saturated Kodak images, as the food. Don't get me started about the
grey-haired Gallic Brando on page 103 of The Cooking of Provincial France.
Manly and tanned, this Marseille fisherman in his white
capped-sleeve t-shirt and working denims, worn at the knee and
folded fetchingly above his ankles, was a fascinating and exotic
character to a young girl from Sydney, Australia.
This series is still among my most treasured
possessions. I am enormously grateful that there was no question
among my sisters and brother that it would come to me. Mind you,
Mum did give the hardback Cooking of Vienna's Empire to my
sister who married an Austrian and the Japanese spiral-bound recipe
book to another sister who lived in Japan for a while. Thankfully,
they were easily replaced.
As I keyed the titles of my books into the EYB
database I started to feel like an archaeologist. The
Australian Natural Food Cookbook by Jacqueline Parkhurst
and Grains, Bean, Nuts by David Scott
point to my vegetarian, self-sufficiency, back-to-earth phase. I
don't often use them now but they stay on the bookshelf as I just
can't bear to part with that part of myself.
The proliferation of British books and authors - Nathalie
Hambro, Jane Grigson, Clarissa Dickson Wright, Elizabeth
David, Nigel Slater, Delia Smith -
is the consequence of living in the UK in the heady food (and
music) days of the 1980s. I've never understood why British - and
Scottish and Irish food for that matter - has been so derided. It
might be that it's in the genes, but I have always been fascinated
by the regional nature of British food and its history. In
recent years the collection, if you can call it that, has been
curtailed by my pragmatism and how much I loathe carrying heavy
boxes of books every time I move.
I now have a rule. All the cookbooks have to fit into
one designated bookcase. To start, it meant shedding hundreds of
books. Now, if I buy a new cookbook and there is no room on the
shelf, an old one has to go. I subvert the rule constantly. Not
only has the bookcase itself grown larger over the years but also
books are double shelved, tucked in horizontally and stacked on
top. And still I do not stop.
My latest obsession is secondhand cookbooks. You can
pick up classic early-edition books at bargain prices and get your
hands on a title or author you always meant to buy, but didn't.
(Waverley Root, where are you?)
Sometimes, less often these days, I am sent review
copies of cookbooks because of my work. I rarely keep them (the one
exception being the exquisite Gardener Cook by Christopher Lloyd
with its garden-kitchen link, generous host and beautiful
photographs). I prefer to read them then give them away.
In late 2012 I set up a stall at the Eveleigh
Farmers' Market in Sydney and called myself a Talking Cookbook. I
was there to chat to people about food and cooking and offer
suggestions of how they might cook the food they had bought at the
market. It was a hoot and provided lots of fun and interesting
conversations. Especially when I put a stack of cookbooks on the
stand with a sign that read "Free. Take a book if you promise to
cook." People were astounded that I was giving the books away.
(Why, I ask, should I profit from something that came gratis to
me?) It was wonderful to see people browse the stack and select the
book they most wanted. Although, it came at a price: they couldn't
take the book without promising to cook from it.
I had peripherally worked in food styling in London,
so when I returned to Sydney in the late '80s, I knew I wanted to
find work in food. Which is what I've done ever since.
I've reviewed restaurants (I'm currently regional
editor of The Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide),
written food feature stories, judged cooking and regional food
competitions (currently chief judge for the Royal Agriculture
Society Regional Fine Food Show), organised food and cooking
events, including the Crave Sydney International Food Festival's
World Chef Showcase and worked as food producer on the momentous
food project at TEDxSydney 2013.
A few years ago, in a time when the peripatetic life
of a freelance food writer was getting the better of me, I had a
dream about combining my two loves, books and writing. With the
encouragement of friends, who believed in my idea, I staged the
first Food & Words food writers' festival in
Sydney in 2012.
My love of cookbooks - and more broadly food books -
has come full circle. Now, with Food & Words and the Talking
Cookbook, I am looking at and being inspired by books and writers
daily. My personal collection of books is quite small but, I
believe, beautifully formed. As I look at my books, they take me
back to a time and place, to a particular recipe and the people I
fed. That makes me feel good, and satisfied, and rich and full.
You can see Barbara's EYB Bookshelf here.