What inspired you to write this book?
James: The history of this book goes through several stages, starting long ago in the early 1970s, and a succession of shared student flats. I did most of the cooking. As members of the household moved away they asked for copies of the recipes that made up the majority of our meals. I wrote out about 50 or so, made a few photocopies of the set, and handed them round. Over the following 20 years, this collection became the basis of our everyday meals as a family. When our two children left home to go to university they asked for a collection of the "family recipes", so I dug out the old set, tidied it up a bit, added a few more regulars that had appeared over the intervening years, and made some more copies (for them and for some of their friends). The final part of the story consists of about five years of gentle but persistent nagging from the wife, son and daughter to "make it into a proper book". So finally I did.
What is your favourite recipe from this book and why?
James: That’s a difficult one! The recipes in the book are there because they are all favourites. But I think the most significant recipe for me is Wholemeal Bread. I started making bread back in the Miners’ Strike of early 1972, when the closure of bakeries meant that supplies of bought bread became intermittent. Having discovered just how easy it was to do, how much better it tasted, and how much my fellow flatmates liked it, I never went back to the "bought stuff". Since then I have always made all the everyday breads for whatever household I was in. In 1986 things started getting even more serious, when we moved to a village with its own windmill. Now, not only do I know exactly how my bread is made, but I know in which field the wheat was grown and what strain of wheat I am using, and I can grind the flour to exactly the degree I need.
If you could have dinner with any chef, who would it be (and what would you eat)?
James: Madhur Jaffrey, whose TV series and books inspired me to a love of traditional Indian cooking. This is a theme that is only minimally represented in "Food Assembly Instructions", but is the second theme which figures large in our domestic meals, and especially when entertaining. What would I eat? Absolutely anything she cared to put in front of me!
What did you find most challenging about writing your recipes down?
James: By far the most challenging part was not the recipes themselves, but the style in which they are documented. I believe one of the biggest barriers to learning to cook is the writing style of many (most?) cookery publications. A recipe book for everyday use does not have to be a work of great literature, enjoyable for its prose. It has to be as simple to follow as a set of Ikea instructions. It must be possible to start from step number 1, and having completed that proceed to step number 2, and so on until the finished dish turns up at the table. This must be true even if multiple recipes are being prepared for serving together. I was determined to keep strictly to this rule. Too often, so-called "great" cookery writers require you to read the entire recipe from start to end, assimilate it, work out where and when to start, and how to interleave the various tasks to pull it all together. By far the worst phrase to encounter half way through a recipe - and sadly much too commonly seen - is "having previously...", as in "5. Add the sliced beef, having previously marinated it in red wine for 24 hours." So there you are, with your onions frying gently in the butter, the sauce ingredients mixed in a bowl, and the rice just coming to the boil. The guests are finishing off their pre-dinner cocktails, and you reach step 5. Before you is a whole piece of beef, still wrapped as it was in the supermarket. It is neither sliced (a few minutes’ work if only you had the time) nor marinated (a whole day, which you definitely do not have)...
What do you hope that your readers will learn from this book?
James: Very simply, I hope they will learn that they can cook after all, and that making varied meals, using fresh ingredients, is neither difficult nor time consuming.
Do you have any other works published or planned?
James: Published, yes, but in very specialist circles. I have a number of papers in journals like "Physics Review" and "Nature" on topics of elementary particle physics, and more recently I have had articles published in computing journals such as the "IBM Systems Journal". As far as future, more popular works go, I have no personal plans, but other people seem to have plans for me! I am trying to resist growing pressure to write another recipe book on the many breads I make (which number rather more than just the three selected for "Food Assembly Instructions"). Maybe one day I will give in.