Me and my cookbooks

Barbara Sweeney

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 info@eatyourbooks.com.
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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 from Barbara:

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 Time 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.

7 Comments

  • lesorelle  on  2/27/2014 at 8:45 AM

    The Talking Cookbook, what a wonderful idea! Would love to see which cookbooks made the cut — is there a link to Barbara's collection?

  • hillsboroks  on  2/27/2014 at 10:09 AM

    What a lovely farmers market idea! I just printed this out to send to a friend who works for our local farmers market and is always on the lookout for new ideas to improve the market.

  • Queezle_Sister  on  2/27/2014 at 10:47 AM

    I agree with the above posts. This is such an inventive contribution to a farmer's market.

  • GreenWillow  on  2/27/2014 at 10:52 AM

    Thank you, thank you for this wonderful article! As someone who recently added the titles of her collection to the EYB database, I resonated with Barbara's "feeling like an archaeologist" of her own life through that process. Similarly, I have unpacked box after box of books following a move. For me, this turned out to be the highlight of moving as the opening of each box was accompanied by the joy being reunited with untold personal treasures. It is possible that someday I may also need or desire to pair down my cookbook collection ... just not yet.

  • Jane  on  2/27/2014 at 1:57 PM

    lesorelle - I have now added a link to Barbara's Bookshelf.

  • ellabee  on  2/27/2014 at 8:38 PM

    This is my favorite post ever at the EYB blog, not just among reader vignettes. Thanks so much for sharing your cookbook byways, Barbara!

  • boardingace  on  2/28/2014 at 9:59 AM

    I absolutely LOVED this post!!! I was inspired and cheered by all of it, and wow the creativity of setting up a booth at the farmer's market and giving away cookbooks - that was just one part of the post, but I loved it all. What a neat person; thank-you for sharing her with us for a moment!

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