Monday, January 4, 2010

Review: Culinary pedant at work

For Christmas, a friend of mine bought me Julian Barnes's The Pedant in the Kitchen, the sole Barnes book I didn't have in my collection (although there are one or two that I still have to read, regretfully). And it got me off my lazy holiday bum and into the kitchen, so that I was creating some culinary masterpieces instead of eating refrigerated leftovers.

Barnes is quite the talented novelist - humorous and touching in each volume, absolutely stand out in his debut Metroland. In The Pedant in the Kitchen, he has collected seventeen short essays on food and cooking, describing his anal-retentive habits in the kitchen and his desire to keep by the (cook)book as he embarks on his culinary journeys. He can't stand celebrity chefs who create tv-tie-in cookbooks; he really doesn't like it when the recipe calls for a 'medium onion' - for how are you to determine what is medium? - and he truly disdains those who buy cookbooks for the pictures because, sagefully, he realises that no one is able to recreate the images, no matter how talented the cook preparing them is (so much goes into enhancing food photographs that it seriously would be impossible).

Barnes uses his masterful and trademark wit to detail his experiences and blunderings in the kitchen thanks to the help - and hurt - of Marcella Harzan, Jane Grigson and her Vegetable Book, Elizabeth David, Nigel Slater's Real Cooking, and The River Cafe Cookbook (in all its colours). He gives advice which includes - paraphrasing - you can never have enough cookbooks, but you always should feel as if you have too many; never buy a cookbook that has a tricksy layout, pretending to give advice on how to cook a three-course meal; don't buy the chef's recipe book when you leave a restaurant; never replace your old cookbooks for newer editions; and again, never buy a cookbook for the pictures. There is some solid advice from someone who came into cooking rather late.

The author informs us of how, in middle-incomed England, men generally stayed out of the kitchen, that it wasn't until Barnes was a twenty-something living on his own that he found the wonders of cooking, simply because he was forced to. He writes about former male incompetence:
[It] was clearly limited to such matutinal dabbling. This was made plain one
time when my mother was called away. My father prepared my packed lunch and, not understanding the theory of the sandwich, lovingly inserted extra items that he
knew I especially liked. A few hours later, on a Southern Region train to an
out-of-town sports field, I opened my lunch bag in front of fellow rugby
players. My sandwiches were sodden, falling to bits, and bright red from the
paternally cut beetroot; they blushed for me as I blushed for their contriver.

This then changes and Barnes starts eyeing his mother's cookbooks, starts going to the local fishmonger, his 'tattooed comedians': '"Have you got any bluefish?" I asked. "Bluefish," the monger repeated as if it were no more than a feed line. "We've got white fish, pink fish, yellow fish..." As he scanned his slab for further hues of jocularity, my heart sank.' He's unafraid to talk about botched dinner parties, or food gatherings with friends as he likes to think of them, because in the end cooking should be human, something that everyone should be able and technically is capable of doing. He appreciates that, and by the end of this wonderful little collection, you'll be able to too. At the very least you'll be able to laugh - or chortle - at these anecdotes, advice snippets, and axioms.


Kari said...

This is why I couldn't be a cook—I would definitely buy a cookbook for the pictures. I need the idea of what it's SUPPOSED to look like.

Sal, you've talked up your cooking quite a lot on this blog. I expect some kind of Brooklyn potluck someday.

Salvatore said...

I know, I've talked up my cooking/baking habits quite a bit - probably too much. At some point I should do a potluck or dinner. Working on perfecting Swedish sugar cookies now...