‘These two cook books say a lot about the confused state of our food culture’
IT IS surely unprecedented for two cookbooks, authored by young women, to launch in the same week – and match each other not only in price but also apparently in theme and content.This rather intriguing scenario has arisen with Flora Shedden’s first book, Gatherings, and Ella Mills’ fourth, Deliciously Ella With Friends, leading one to infer that between them the popular Scottish 2015 Great British Bake-Off runner-up (a show with 13 million viewers) and the wildly successful food blogger (with one million Instagram followers and 200,000 daily website hits) must have something important to tell us.
And indeed they do: that cooking is undergoing a massive populist shift to harness a new demographic, whose resentment at previous generations for visiting upon them such horrors as the horsemeat scandal, mad cow disease, foot and mouth, egg scares and e-numbers still simmers.
Both books beautifully capture the emergent eating trend of the better-off millennial: cooking from scratch for friends at home, sharing dishes made with on-trend ingredients and eaten off exquisitely beautiful tableware – and wilfully eschewing tradition.
Cue photographs of young people (mostly twentysomething women) seated around scrubbed pine tables or decked with expertly-placed fairy lights, wild flowers and floral teacups.
And here’s the rub. It doesn’t seem to matter that neither cook can claim to have had any formal training, far less nutritional or food science qualifications. Both are consciously and conspicuously non-prescriptive.
Deliciously Ella With Friends is particularly fond of the aspirational setting – a visual technique that is surely designed to make the less fortunate reader feel inadequate for not having that number of friends to cook for (the reality is that some 42% of the meals eaten in the UK are by single diners), or to mask the look of the food itself. Let’s face it, vegan (or, as Mills puts it, plantbased) dishes such as cashew sour cream and guacamole, or marinated cauliflower steaks with nut roast are not always the most photogenic. Talking them up, her language tends towards the simplistic. She’s “excited” to share her recipes, adding taste descriptions like “beautiful”, “creamy”, “incredible” and explaining that peanuts do add texture. Her baked sweet potato and sesame falafels are the “perfect al desko lunch”. They’re easy to make. The most complex recipe I spotted is for sweet potato noodles with a satay sauce.
Gatherings is a rather more sophisticated affair. A clever juxtaposing of the classic and the modern puts pearl barley and mushroom risotto beside speedy spicy tacos; beetroot, caraway and feta burgers with a duck salad with poached eggs; Meikle Logie lamb just a page behind sloe gin-braised venison. Shedden demonstrates how to make on-trend sides such as labneh, nut butter, preserved lemons and, in a nod to Glasgow, her own floral version of Empire biscuits. Despite a liberal use of locally sourced meat and frequent references to home, Gathering’s vibe is more cosmopolitan than kailyard.
Given the 21 year old author’s GBBO experience, and the fact that she is about to open a bakery in her hometown of Dunkeld, the lack of emphasis on sweets and desserts is a relief. Her flexitarianism seems a contemporary approach to a well-balanced diet.
Mills, on the other hand, remains evangelical about veganism. The 25-yearold daughter of supermarket heiress Camilla Sainsbury and the former Labour minister Shaun Woodward, who attended St Andrews University and recently married the son of Baroness Tessa Jowell started her blog Deliciously Ella when she changed her diet following diagnosis of a debilitating condition. As she cut out meat, dairy, sugar and gluten she apparently recovered, but she has come under some criticism for appearing to have advocated “clean eating” to her mainly female followers and 1.2 million readers of her previous three books.
Here, she adopts a gentler approach, writing that “no-one likes to be made to feel guilty about anything in life, especially the way they eat”, accepting that “food is often attached to a lot of emotions and possibly deep-rooted insecurities”. Nonetheless, her recipes remain dairy-, meat-, gluten- and refined sugar-free and she encourages readers to spread the word: don’t preach but lead by example, is her new advice.
SHEDDEN does not agree that cutting out sugar or fat or carbs or any one food group is wise, and is “not on a mission” despite being of the generation with “arguably the most delusional approach to food”, when all sorts of chemical-based and processed snacks and meals were the norm, and at the same time warnings about additives, E numbers, MSG and processed foods were coming in daily. The result, she says in her introduction, was that eating disorders in her friends were common.
The divergent stances of these two books say a lot about the state of our food culture. If they bring young women, and future mothers, back to the kitchen with an understanding of the benefits of cooking from scratch with fresh local ingredients and eating in a convivial setting, then they will have served a useful and much-needed purpose. Either that, or they’re an indication that we’re more confused than ever.
Ella Mills, the Sainsbury heiress, is fond of photos of young women seated around scrubbed pine tables decked with fairy lights, wild flowers and floral teacups