The Cookbook Shelf Personality

May 7, 2015

Five months into the study, Research Assistant Amy Godfrey explores the cookery bookshelf, and wonders what it says about ourselves and our eating habits.  


We’ve all done it; bought books that we’ve never read and probably never will read, but we keep them on our bookshelves because they make us look smart/educated/in the know. This is because our taste in reading-matter says something about us; it gives clues to what our interests and inclinations might be. But what about our cookery book collection?


Food and cookery has become increasingly fetishized and in a time when the hours of cookery programmes on TV is increasing, whereas the hours spent cooking in homes is decreasing, perhaps a person’s cookery book shelf can tell us as much about their eating habits as their shopping trolley.


During this study, we have met people who cook from memory, from recipes on the internet, scraps of paper saved from the newspaper and all manner of cook books. In this blog we would just like to share with you some images of people’s cookery books that we’ve collected. First, just to be fair, I’m going to show you some of my own!



These  photos above are from my own, not very extensive, cookery book shelves. You can see the ones I have used recently; these are are sat on the top because I am too lazy to put them away properly. It is interesting to think what they might say about me; that I used to be vegetarian, that my partner is from the Lake District, that I like collecting wild food for free. And, just in case you were wondering, yes that is a blow torch under the books – it’s for making crème brulee but I’ve never used it! These are my most treasured recipe books;  these worn and tattered old exercise books full of newspaper clippings and hand-written scribblings.


These are recipe books handed down to me from my paternal grandmother. They are full of all the delicious recipes she used to make for me and my brother when we were young and for my dad, when he was young too. They are the little piece of her I have left. The notes on newspaper recipes that suggest a little less sugar, a little extra butter, mean more to me than anything I could buy in a shop. When I open them and use her recipes, I can almost smell her distinctive Easter holiday smell and hear the burr of her soft Irish-Liverpool accent.


And from our study participants...what have their cookery book shelves revealead?


We have seen a great many recipe books now.  Favourite ones, hand-written ones, huge collections, small collections, recipe books bought for a specific purpose, gifts, hand-me-downs… I like the ones that fall open on particular pages, splattered with ingredients in a way that tells us that these books are really used.


Some people have also shown us fascinating books about food, not just full of recipes but histories, social commentary, advice and guidance, squeezed in between a thesaurus and a book about the London Docks.




It has been interesting to see the shift in what’s included in the list of ingredients – a move from butter to margarine and then back to butter again – olive oil is a regular feature, despite being used predominantly for removing ear wax in 1950s British kitchens. The proliferation of Mediterranean vegetables and items such as cous-cous, quinoa and tofu nod to our globalized food system.



Specialist cookery books for gluten free cakes, for example, that aim to create a basic sponge from everything from mashed potato to lime marmalade are a far cry from the post-war cookery books that fashion exotic sounding dishes from the most mundane of ingredients. Now that we are suffering an over-abundance of food, our recipe books are more concerned with exquisite and knowing flavours, health and identity far more than filling hungry bellies and creating variety from the same old ingredients.


We were particularly delighted by a recipe book that a colleague showed us. She used to be a student of home economics  and, after discussing the recent advice from the Food Standards Agency to avoid washing your chicken, she brought in one of her own cookery books, proudly displaying the instruction in the recipe for Chicken Morengo to ‘Wash the chicken’! I expect most Home Economics students these days would also be confused by the instruction on the previous page to ‘Light the oven’.




We are grateful for what these generous people have shared with us.


Please take a look at these photographs and, like we have been doing, look past the lists of ingredients and methods and try to work out what the significance of the books and their stories are.



Have you got any wonderful recipe books you would like to share? We would love to see them on our facebook page at


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The project is a collaborative project by  the University of Hertfordshire between the Centre for Research in Public Health and Community Care and Hertfordshire Business school.