‘The Writing Is as Good as the Food’: Prue Leith’s Favorite Cookbooks
What books are on your night stand?
I’ve recently been forced to cull a few because I couldn’t see over the pile and there was no room for the mandatory mug of tea. So I’ve finally aborted my attempts to read “Ulysses” (I bought a crib for it and found I preferred the crib to the book), and abandoned half a dozen self-published books by friends hoping for an endorsement (sigh!) and one or two books I’d started but somehow run out of steam on. My husband accuses me of slavishly buying any book that is well reviewed and any book anyone at all recommends. So now we are down to half a dozen. I liked “Where the Crawdads Sing,” by Delia Owens — a charming story of a wild girl child growing up alone in the U.S. Southern marshes. Then there’s “The Inevitable,” a really beautifully written book about a difficult subject: assisted dying. I campaign for the right to get help to die if you are terminally ill and living a horrible life. “The Inevitable,” by the journalist Katie Englehart, follows the experience of dying people in jurisdictions where assisted dying is legal. It’s a complex and fascinating subject and Englehart writes with intelligence and compassion.
What’s the last great book you read?
I reread “The Warden,” by Anthony Trollope. It’s been my favorite book for half my life. I love all those Victorian writers like Dickens, Thackeray, the Brontë sisters, but Trollope is, I think, the best. “The Warden” and its sequels in the “Chronicles of Barsetshire” series tell the story of a modest gentle man, trying to do the right thing in a toxic atmosphere of snobbery and smug church hierarchy. The portraits of Archdeacon Grantly, more concerned with the quality of his dinner than the welfare of his flock, and (in “Barchester Towers”) of the aptly named Mrs. Proudie, the bishop’s wife, are absolute gems.
Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?
I’m not sure you’d classify “Gone With the Wind,” by Margaret Mitchell, as a classic novel, but I read it recently and found it just wonderful. Of course, it’s dated and attitudes to slavery have rightly changed, but it’s still an amazing love story, with a heroine who is far from anodyne. On the contrary, she is vain, foolish, spoiled and selfish. But she’s intensely real and you cannot but root for her. And the pictures of the plantation owners’ pampered life before the Civil War, and the devastation after it, are wonderfully vivid.
Can a great book be badly written? What other criteria can overcome bad prose?
Well, I think the obvious example of rather clichéd writing selling like hot cakes is “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Frankly the story and the sex carry you along and you somehow don’t mind that this is hardly literature. But I confess I only read the first one.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
I lead a ridiculously busy life. I’m unable to say no, so find myself working on my laptop in planes, trains and the back of taxis, so I never read a book in the day. Hence the pile of books by my bedside. I cannot go to bed without half an hour’s reading. So, the challenge is not to read The Week, The Spectator or The New Yorker, but to save that time for a book. My idea of heaven would be to be just sick enough not to get up, but not so sick I couldn’t read. Then I could lie in bed all day without a conscience, just reading. Or to manage to go on holiday with all work done, with an “out of the office” message on all devices and with a heap of books. The last time I managed that we went to the Seychelles, and we must have read for most of every day — in bed, on the beach, at the bar. I read two novels and Nelson Mandela’s “Long Walk to Freedom,” which is a book of such courage, determination and hope, it left me feeling wretched. Mandela must be turning in his grave at the corruption and incompetence of the regime that succeeded him.
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
I love the long narrative poems of Alice Oswald, particularly “Dart,” which traces the progress of a very English river from its source to the naval town of Dartmouth and invokes historical characters, real and imaginary, that knew or know the river: fishermen and boatbuilders, ferrymen, lovers, salmon and sheep. I much admire Ian McEwan, Sebastian Faulks and William Boyd. Incidentally, all those male writers write wonderful love stories, but you don’t see them relegated to the “romantic fiction” shelves in the bookstore basement and described as “women’s stories,” chick lit or escapism. Oh no, they are “a forensic exposé of the dysfunctional family dynamic” or a “deep dive into the psychological trauma of love and loss.” Novels by Joanna Trollope, Jojo Moyes and Margaret Atwood are every bit as good.
As for journalists, I like lighthearted columnists who are brave enough in this woke world to say what they think, even if I heartily disagree with them. In British newspapers that means Rod Liddle, Jeremy Paxman, Rachel Johnson, Mary Wakefield.
What three cookbooks should every reader own?
Well, this, I hope, is a chance to blow my own trumpet. You’d expect me to say “Leith’s Cookery Bible,” which covers just about everything and has been in print for 31 years. It’s the European equivalent of “The Joy of Cooking” for my mother’s generation of Americans. Or my latest, “Bliss on Toast,” which started as a column in The Oldie magazine, with just an iPhone pic taken in my kitchen of something on toast. I didn’t provide a recipe, just a caption that listed the ingredients, maybe smoked salmon, cream cheese, wasabi, with a honey dressing on rye, or the New York Bostock of frangipane and flaked almonds on toasted brioche. But my publishers insisted on proper instructions for each recipe and professional mouthwatering pictures and a Keen Cooks chapter on how to make your own flatbread or Hollandaise if you really want to. And I’m glad to say the book is selling better than any of my more serious other cookbooks.
My third essential book would be any one by Yotam Ottolenghi. My most thumbed one is called “NOPI” and it doesn’t have a dud recipe in it. All the recipes are fresh, interesting and with a bit of zip, due I think to Ottolenghi’s Israeli and Italian background.
What book, if any, most influenced your decision to become a baker?
I’m not really a baker. I’m a cook. I got the “Great British Bake Off” judging job because I’ve had a lifetime as a caterer and restaurateur at the top end of the market, a food writer and columnist and my school of food and wine has trained thousands of chefs and cooks, so I have eaten a ton of really fine food and examined countless students’ exam dishes. And I was also a judge for 11 years on the “Great British Menu” TV show — which is a competition for the top restaurant chefs in Britain. I’m a good baker, but not a Paul Hollywood. What I certainly am is a competent set of taste buds.
The books that influenced me as a cook were (besides “The Joy of Cooking”) M.F.K. Fisher’s “With Bold Knife and Fork,” and Elizabeth David’s “A Book of Mediterranean Food.” Both the latter are a real pleasure to read. The writing is as good as the food.
Who are your favorite food writers? Your favorite memoir by a chef?
My favorite memoir by a chef is Nigel Slater’s “Toast,” which is charming, touching and so obviously heartfelt and true. Slater is more a cook and writer than a chef, but to be brutal, most chefs write terrible memoirs. My food hero in history was a Victorian chef, Alexis Soyer, who had an extraordinary life as a top London chef. He was a reformer (he established soup kitchens in Ireland in the potato famine and went to the Crimean War to feed the troops in field hospitals nutritious food). He was an inventor, designing a raft of kitchen kit (a field stove to feed soldiers at the front; a hot-air-driven rotisserie in the kitchen fireplace; a portable flame lamp; a gas grill that could cook an ox and lots more). He gave birth to all sorts of fashionable recipes, entertained fashionable ladies in his Head Chef’s office in the Reform Club and was generally a tremendous show-off and man about town. He wrote piles of books, mostly unreadable.
Do you count any books as guilty pleasures?
No, I regard them as essential, and feel guilty about not reading enough of them, or fast enough. I’ve stopped rereading Trollope because he wrote about 45 novels, and I need the time to read other books. I’m an old lady and running out of time.
What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
That in the United States one-quarter of the money spent on Medicare goes to patients in their last year of life. (From “The Inevitable,” by Katie Englehart.)This so chimes with my belief that we spend too much time insisting on treatments and interventions to prolong life, while actually just making those last months hell for the patient.
What books would you recommend to somebody who wants to learn more about the science of cooking?
For someone genuinely interested in the science of cooking I’d recommend James Beard’s book “Beard on Bread” and Harold McGee’s book “On Food and Cooking.” And for anyone just wanting to make a decent loaf or delicious cake, any of Paul Hollywood’s books are reliable and informative. He doesn’t overload you with science but explains what you need to know.
What moves you most in a work of literature?
A relatable, believable, engaging protagonist. I have to be on the side of the book’s subject, even if he or she is miles away from my life. For example, the lead character in “A Little Life,” by Hanya Yanagihara, is a gay, tortured young man cruelly abused as a child. I’m an old heterosexual woman who had a happy childhood, but I felt I was that young man.
Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
I like biographies and novels, especially historical ones (loved Hilary Mantel’s trilogy). I don’t read many detective novels (although I like the Scottish writer Val McDermid) and I cannot stand fantasy or science fiction — except if handled by supreme writers like Margaret Atwood or Doris Lessing, where the characters and the story overcome my lack of belief in the fantasy world. Don’t like to be frightened so would never read Stephen King.
How do you organize your books?
I don’t.We recently built a great barnlike library of which I was to have half. But my husband cannot go a week without buying half a dozen books. He’s a bookaholic. And he can’t ever sell or throw away books so hisnow occupy 80 percent of the shelf space and I am selling my 2,000 books or lugging them off to the charity shop. Now I give them away when read, only keeping those I might reread or refer to, and all the rest are reference books or cookbooks. (I’ve given away 4,000 of them in the past. I was lucky because at the time, 20 years ago, Oxford Brookes University’s department of gastronomy took them. Today they look everything up on Google and don’t want books.)
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
I was the instigator of the Trafalgar Square Fourth Plinth project(link), which has been hugely successful. When I was chair of the Royal Society of Arts, I thought it would be good if a massive plinth in Trafalgar Square that had been left empty for more than 150 years (since the square was laid out) was finally graced with a statue. It took five years and getting it through 13 committees, but we finally got our idea happening, which was to use the plinth as exhibition space and erect modern sculptures or installations there on a rotating basis. So, I think people would be surprised to find a lot of art books, including one on the Fourth Plinth Project, on my shelves.
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
My first husband (he died 20 years ago) gave me a specially-bound-for-me little booklet of “Le Bateau Ivre,” a long poem by Arthur Rimbaud. I was studying Rimbaud and Baudelaire in Paris at the time, and I was 100 percent in love with Rimbaud. So, it was a good move. I still have it by my bedside.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
I spent most of my life with horses as a child, so I read mostly horsey books like “My Friend Flicka,” by Mary O’Hara, and “Black Beauty,” by Anna Sewell. I was also addicted to Paul Gallico and would not come down to meals because I was weeping my heart out in my bedroom over “The Snow Goose.” Or “Jennie.”
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
Margaret Atwood, Anthony Trollope, Shakespeare. I think they’d get on like a house on fire.
What do you plan to read next?
Barbara Greene’s “Too Late to Turn Back,” an account of her travels with her cousin, the more famous Graham Greene, in Liberia. It was first published in 1938 and is now republished by Daunt. I’m interested in Africa (I was born and brought up in South Africa) and was given it by a friend who shares my reading tastes. I’m off to the States for two months and it’s in my luggage. The purpose of the trip is to publicize “The Great British Baking Show” and “The Great American Baking Show”; to sell my books and do a couple of trials of my one-woman show in both New York and Los Angeles, with the hope that they will go down well, and I can do a big tour all over the States next year. So there won’t be much time for reading, but I don’t feel easy if I don’t have a book in my handbag and at my bedside.