As she was out of the room, clearing slugs from her flowerbeds, and stamping on molehills and the like, I had time to snoop around her kitchen. She has about 80 cookbooks, testament to a career in bookselling and a love of domesticity. Her food is always delicious, which is tribute to a lifetime's dedication to the finest cookery writers, plus the concentration of a grand chess master.
As I munched on my walnut bread, however, I was struck by one book's unashamed hubris. Jamie At Home, published five years ago, comes with the subtitle, Cooking Your Way To The Good Life. That's some claim, and it set me thinking.
Food's exalted place was already on my mind. Last week I saw the film of the book Julie And Julia, in which Julie Powell's daily blog of her attempt to cook every recipe in the American writer Julia Child's Mastering The Art Of French Cooking became a runaway success. As she ploughed through 524 recipes in 365 days, Powell was transformed from desk-bound drudge into a fully fledged writer with a promising life of her own. One day she was a girl who couldn't poach an egg, the next she was a sensual woman who could butter a chicken as if she were a masseuse, and boil live lobster with no more thought than peeling a spud.
The holy grail held out from her experience, and from Jamie's rustic recipes, is that by devoting more time and care to what we grow or buy, and how we cook it, we too can achieve greater joy and fulfilment. The hope – indeed the promise – is that by cooking better, we might radically change our lives.
At heart, everyone knows this is nonsense. Of course eating heathily is important. As the avalanche of food programmes and cookery books in the past decade has shown, however, this frenzy of food talk is feeding a hunger far deeper than anything a piquantly marinated piece of chicken or a fluffy souffle can hope to satisfy.
I was therefore delighted to learn one man is about to stand in front of the gourmet juggernaut and bring it – hopefully – to a shuddering halt. Either that, or he'll become just one more squished tomato in life's pot-au-feu. Steven Poole, who's previously written on political language, is to publish You Aren't What You Eat: Fed Up With Gastroculture, which comes out from Union Books this October. Among other aspects of foodism, Poole will puncture the absurdly inflated beliefs that surround our obsession with the culinary world. "Since when," he asks, "did the likes of Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson gain the power to transform our kitchens and dining tables into places where we expect to be spiritually sustained?"
The trend has been gaining momentum ever since the likes of MFK Fisher, from the late 1930s, and Elizabeth David, in the post-war years, tried to show our grandmothers how properly, and seriously, to cook. These women were superb, the kind of writers you can read for pleasure without ever considering picking up an egg whisk. Since then, though, the band wagon has abandoned the narrow, winding paths of true cuisine, and taken to the motorway, where picture-heavy, chatty, feel-good, fussy, faddish books by camera-friendly chefs clock up more sales for publishers than any other genre. Penguin's biggest asset today is not its world-renowned series of classics, but Jamie Oliver. What does that say about readers?
I admit, I'm not immune to the allure of recipe books. As a dreadful cook I persist in thinking a good recipe might magically transform dull or inedible dishes into something I could offer to those more critical, and far more expectant, than my long-suffering partner, who deserves a decoration for what he's had to endure on his plate over the years. And that, I suppose, is precisely what these books peddle: ill-founded but undying hope. What we used to get from religion, now we find in stone-pressed olive oil. Can that be called progress?