The Prospect Behind Us
Part 1, page 5

Meanwhile the long series of Oxford Symposium Documents had begun to appear, first for 1981 and then (excepting 1982, when there was no symposium) for every subsequent year. The index, recently compiled by Russell Harris, to these volumes shows what a huge resource they collectively represent, and what a wide range of subjects has been covered. A curious feature of the series, from the publisher's point of view, is that the first volume was by far the least impressive in appearance - a miscellany of different typewriter typefaces and layouts within - but was also by far the most popular and profitable, now out of print again after three impressions. Perhaps the combination of novelty with a general and attractive theme (National and Regional Cuisines) goes a long way towards explaining its success.

The production of facsimile reprints of old cookery books continued until 1985. One of these, A Book of Fruits and Flowers (1984), was edited by C. Anne Wilson, whose brilliant but relentless exposure of the manner in which the original book had been cobbled together in 1653 seemed to some people likely to be a self-defeating feature for a publisher intent on achieving good sales figures. Ah, we replied piously, what we and our public seek is the truth. The same explanation had served for our publication in 1983 (in two instalments, in PPC 13 and 14) of the major essay by Jennifer Stead which revealed, shortly before we published a reprint of the first edition (1747) of Hannah Glasse's The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, that Mrs Glasse had been a plagiarist on a grand scale and that her presentation of herself as a pioneer in writing plain, comprehensible recipes and in banishing fancy French tricks from the kitchen was an audacious feat of deception. Many of her 'plainly written' recipes had been composed by the (presumably male) author / compiler of The Whole Duty of a woman two decades earlier and pinched by her verbatim, while her own book included a number of the expensive French recipes which she professed to despise.

Two of the facsimile reprints were facilitated by Stephanie Hoppen, through whose hands many old cookery books were passing at that time. But for her kindness, we could not have republished Charles Carter's The Complete Practical Cook of 1730; and it was from her that we acquired a copy of Adam's Luxury and Eve's Cookery (1744), a remarkable little book whose author or authors are and will perhaps for ever remain unidentified.

In parallel to this activity, we continued the series, which our book on Laos had begun, of specialist works on little known cuisines. Tibet came next, in 1985, followed by Afghanistan in 1986. The author of our Tibetan book, Rinjing Dorje, lived in Seattle, where he once acted as bodyguard for the Dalai Lama, which is why that dignitary gave him a specially blessed white silk square for Prospect Books.

The Afghan book, which appeared under the title Noshe Djan, exemplified two points. First, the author, Helen Saberi, asked that all her royalties should go straight to charities providing humanitarian aid for Afghanistan. This had a quite unmistakable effect in increasing sales, especially among readers of the magazine She, which carried a feature article about the book and mentioned this aspect. Secondly, its history threw into high relief the contrast between what we were trying to do and what conventional publishers were looking for. Helen's book was conceived and originally written as a 'pure' chronicle of how Afghans prepared and cooked their foods. By the time she and her husband Nasir arrived with it on our doorstep it had undergone drastic changes. The influence of the general attitudes prevailing in the publishing world at the time ('please take out the background information and simplify the recipes - you know, adapt it all for use in a typical English kitchen . . .') had drained the book of its true Afghan vitality and of all that the likes of ourselves would regard as really really interesting. This devitalisation had been a distasteful and dampening task for Helen and we hardly dared ask her whether she would now be willing to put it all back in, and more besides. But we did and she was.


The Prospect Behind Us - Part 1, page 6
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