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Theresa May has 150 cookbooks - that's nothing, I have 1,790 of them

Theresa May said yesterday she owns 150 cookbooks: if she cooked from a different one of her books every day, it’d take five months
Theresa May said yesterday she owns 150 cookbooks: if she cooked from a different one of her books every day, it’d take five months to get through them, says Xanthe Clay  Credit: HHARALA HAMILTON

Cooking is a political act, or so writer and activist Michael Pollan says. But for Theresa May, it’s the reverse - a way to relax from the day job. She told an audience in Newcastle on Tuesday that, along with walking and watching American crime drama NCIS, she loved cooking “which has the advantage that you can eat it as well as make it.” And she admitted, “I have over 150 cookbooks so I spend quite a lot of time looking at cookbooks.”

It’s a sign of the times, and the new status of the kitchen arts, that she’s prepared to go on the record on her hobby. Look back just a few years and the closest a Prime Minister got to kitchen capers was John Major’s alleged affair with his caterer Clare Latimer (it never happened).

Oh, sure, a recipe of Margaret Thatcher’s came to light recently, a “Mystery Starter”, but as it comprises a can of beef consommé, cream cheese and curry powder, it hardly implies a burning desire to spend time at the stove. 

Now there’s a cohort of politicians who have gone public about their love of cooking. Ed Balls lead the way, appearing on Sports Relief Bake Off and publishing his crabmeat souffle recipe. Then Norman Tebbit wrote a game cookbook, and David Cameron, the consummate metrosexual, professed a love of slow cooking a leg of lamb. 

But does 150 cookbooks make you a food lover these days? It’s certainly a lot of books. Cookery is said to be one of the few areas in publishing to be booming, and certainly the range is huge: I was sent a book on the Italian pizza in Japan recently. But a survey earlier this year by Great British Chefs indicated that while nearly a fifth of Brits own no cookery books at all, only 2 per cent of us own more than 50 cookery books, a mere third of Mrs May's tally. 

We buy books seduced by beautiful covers and the promise of culinary pizazz, only to go back to familiar favourites

So, it seems that a few of us cookbook lovers are buying a lot of books - certainly borne out by my unscientific research of social media, where fellow foodies revealed collections worthy of Cookbooks Anonymous. Do we need that many? Of course not. If Mrs May cooked from a different one of her books every day, it’d take five months - and tackling all the recipes would keep her and Philip in dinners for years.

But few people in the industry expect anyone to actually create many of the recipes. A pal of mine in cook book publishing says that they work on the assumption that on average a book buyer will cook only three of the dishes in any cookery book they purchase.

I asked Jack Monroe, the campaigner and writer of thrifty recipes her thoughts, she didn’t mince her words. “I have 300ish [cookery books] after a recent purge, I use five at most.” I bet she’s not alone - it’s what many of us do, buy books seduced by beautiful covers and the promise of culinary pizazz, only to go back to familiar favourites. 

And - full disclosure - I’m in no position to throw plum stones, eggs or bread rolls at anyone’s cookbook collection. I have more than 1,790 cookbooks stacked in the junk room which is nominally my office. That’s 141,926 recipes. I know the number because I have most of them catalogued on a rather brilliant website called EatYourBooks.com.

This genius tool is a saviour for us compulsive cookery book hoarders, as it can search all the indexes of the books that you own - so that if I’m wondering if there is a recipe for apple pie with cardamom, say, amongst the volumes, then bingo! it’ll tell me where to find it - The New York Times Cookbook, in case you were wondering. Impressive, even if there are a few historic and obscure books that aren’t on the EYB list, bringing my overall total to roughly 2000. 

I have more than 1,790 cookbooks stacked in the junk room which is nominally my office. That’s 141,926 recipes

That’s nothing compared to my colleague Diana Henry, who has twice that number - even after a recent cull. “There are none in the bathroom but that is probably the only room in which you won’t find them,” she admits. “I do use a large number of them, but some I haven’t opened for years - they seem so much a part of my life, however (such as Anton Mosimann’s A la Carte or The Silver Palate) that I wouldn’t get rid of them. They are of a particular time and throwing these out would be like throwing out photographs albums or favourite mementoes.”

I feel the same - along with a niggling feeling that the one book I get rid of will be the one I subsequently need to look at urgently for something I am researching. That’s why the book on Italian Pizza in Japan is still on the shelf. You never know. 

Diana Henry at home with a few of her 4,000 cookbooks  Credit: CHRIS TERRY

Anyway, as a Twitter friend darkly remarked, whether 150 is enough or too much, would depend on which books. May’s said in the past that favourite recipes include rack of lamb with coriander and honey, from the first of Ottolenghi’s cookbooks, spice salted squid, from Sabrina Ghayour’s Persiana, and baked chicken with tarragon and Dijon mustard, from Diana Henry’s book Bird in the Hand.

We can assume that these books are in the collection, and fine choices all. But then May is said to have served chicken lasagne with boiled potatoes to her strategy team before the last election - a curiously pallid sounding meal, especially compared to those zippy “favourite” recipes.

Yes, it might have been Nigel Slater’s recipe for leftover chicken lasagne (and thus have impeccable foodie credentials), or even by the revered American food writer Craig Claibourne as there’s a double-cream laced one in that New York Times Cookbook that he co-wrote. But if I had to put money on it, it would be the oh-so-sensible bacon and mushroom laden version from Save with Jamie