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Is this a cookbook for the average student? I don't think so.
on 21 April 2015
On the one hand I applaud anyone who tries to communicate - against the huge commercial tide of the food manufacturing giants - that cooking from scratch is generally cheaper, healthier, tastier and more enjoyable than buying processed food, ready-meals and takeaways. So I was pre-disposed to like this book. (Bought for my son when he went to uni).
On the other hand, when read objectively, without my rose-tinted foodie-specs on, I actually found the book fairly unhelpful for the audience at which it is supposedly aimed. If you're a parent thinking of buying this, I'd urge you to take a close look at it `in the flesh' before you purchase - and to be honest with yourself about how many of the dishes your teenager is really likely to try when they're away from home for the first time, living on a meagre budget, cooking in a small ill-equipped kitchen that they share with 4/5/6/7 other students, with one oven, one fridge, one hob, and limited prep/storage space... it's a lovely fantasy that they will all bond and decide to pool resources and share ingredients / the cooking, but what are the realistic chances of that happening? Slim, I reckon.
In the preface to the `Store Cupboard' ingredient list, Sam rather patronisingly comments that you shouldn't "rush out and get it in one" (as if any student would do that, the complete list would cost a couple of hundred pounds if not more!). His list makes no distinction between `must-have basics' and `as you need them/can afford them'. He directs readers to "Use it as a checklist before you go shopping" but again, that's a pointless instruction - an average student's shopping list is based on what they're planning to eat for the next one/two/three days, not on a long wish-list of theoretically desirable ingredients. Four types of vinegar? Five types of oil? Four types of rice? Four types of lentils? Four types of flour? Three types of dried paprika? Really not helpful for a student. Even if they aspired to use/could afford to use all these ingredients, where on earth are they supposed to store this stuff as they accumulate it? I'm an experienced / reasonably adventurous home cook with a large kitchen and plenty of storage space at my disposal, and even I don't have all those things!
On top of that, lots of the ingredients included are simply too expensive for the average student. Much as we might hope our little darlings will choose to spend a big chunk of their student loan on gorgeous fresh ingredients from farmers markets and artesan food shops, again, the reality is sadly somewhat different for most. Fennel, salmon, fresh herbs, steak, pine nuts, Parmesan, tahini, fresh raspberries, duck breast, etc, etc... lovely ingredients, but not in the realm of most student budgets (and try finding them in the campus shop or the local convenience store, the only realistic everyday shopping options for lots of first-year students!). Far too may of the recipes fall into the category of `pricey treats' or `if you love cooking' or `special occasion'. Most students just need a storehouse of simple, nutritious, low-cost recipes for one person. Flicking through, I estimate less than a quarter of Sam's recipes are for one person - he does indicate where extra portions can be frozen or eaten cold next day, but the fridge/freezer space is going to be a problem in most student kitchens. There are a few useful tips in the book, to be fair, but also a load of impractical ones - beach fishing anyone? (because SO many UK unis are located near a beach and SO many students possess fishing tackle...) Growing tomatoes and herbs in a window box? (he suggests grow-your-own basil makes homemade pesto "well cheap". Any idea how many plants you'd need to cultivate to reap the amount needed for one small jar of pesto? More than even the most motivated student has room for, that's for sure!) Growing potatoes in an old tyre on the doorstep? (growing yr own potatoes is actually more expensive than most supermarket spuds!). Investing in a food blender/muffin tins/griddle pan/pestle and mortar etc? (Sam does note that these are "next league" items, not essentials, but then three out of the first six recipes in the book require one of these items!)
Scrutinising the recipes further, many examples further illustrate how out of touch Sam is with the average student, even one who can cook quite well, eg, `DIY Cream Cheese' - because every student has a muslin cloth to hand, right? Homemade chicken liver pate - really?? I could go on and on, literally page by page, pointing out what's wrong with the recipes from a student point of view. But hopefully you get the gist.
The reason I can go through the book page by page to write this review is that my son (who these days mostly cooks from scratch, thanks to Jamie Oliver, BBC Good Food/Good Housekeeping websites and his girlfriend) returned his copy to me after two years at uni. Mea culpa, I bought it for him based on the reviews, the attractive design, and if I'm honest, a large dollop of guilt that I hadn't done a better job of teaching him to cook while he lived at home! He sheepishly admitted that he'd found the book next to useless and had only ever tried two recipes from it. Says it all really. This book is more of a comfort purchase for anxious parents like me than it is a practical guide for the vast majority of students.