‘These two cook books say a lot about the con­fused state of our food cul­ture’

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS - CATE DEVINE Gath­er­ings by Flora Shed­den (Mitchell Bea­z­ley, £25) De­li­ciously Ella With Friends by Ella Mills (Yel­low Kite, £25)

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

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