Sunday, 20 February 2011

The Pedant in the Kitchen by Julian Barnes

This delightful little book comprises seventeen essays on the act of cooking, the frequent shortcomings of cookery books and writers, and the manifold betrayals that kitchen gadgets visit on the cook.  Julian Barnes moves elegantly from his own clumsy first attempts at cooking (tinned peas, tinned potatoes and bacon chop, anybody?) through an engaging critique of some of the better-known cookery writers, concluding with some philosophical musings on cooking as a moral act.  Barnes is a self-taught cook - in his generation, boys were not routinely taught cooking - and he views his pedantry as a direct result of this: without the culinary instinct that some acquire through early involvement in cooking, he is entirely dependent on the recipe.  This leads to an understandable irritation with vague notions like the "medium" onion and with inaccurate timings in recipes; chefs are particularly prone to these, forgetting perhaps that the amateur cook does not have an army of sous-chefs at hand to chop the vegetables.

Barnes's text is witty and erudite. His sources include Edouard de Pomiane, whose recipe book La Cuisine en Dix Minutes attempted to adapt French tradition to mid-twentieth-century lifestyle, the doyennes of food writing Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson and Marcella Hazan, and writers less associated with food like Conrad, Larkin and Ford Madox Ford.  He takes issue with some other writers: Nigel Slater is neatly skewered, as is the River Café Cookbook's recipe for Chocolate Nemesis, which never, never works.  An enjoyable collection for anyone who likes to cook, the book also has charming illustrations by Joe Berger.  I love the one above, but my favourite is on page 123, and shows a sinister mincing machine attempting to escape from a kitchen drawer.  Joe Berger is partly responsible for the highly entertaining Berger and Wyse food cartoons that appear in the Guardian magazine every Saturday.  The paperback version of the book is still in print, but secondhand hardback copies are to be had for a penny. 

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