Showing posts with label food. Show all posts
Showing posts with label food. Show all posts

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Culinary Pleasures by Nicola Humble

Nicola Humble's book is a fascinating review of the way cookbooks have been written, presented and used in Britain since the 1860s; it also functions, extremely effectively, as a social history of cooking and eating.  Presented chronologically, each chapter deals with the most celebrated food writers - Mrs Beeton, Agnes Jekyll, Boulestin, Elizabeth David, Constance Spry, Jane Grigson - and also their contemporaries who may not be as well-known today but whose influence on the way we cook and eat is persistent.  Humble's topic allows her to explore the social changes of the period thematically, too: the significance of gender in food writing, the decline of the servant class and the growth of a professionalised domesticity, the anxieties around the best way to feed children.  Some of these themes will be familiar to those who have enjoyed Humble's The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, as will her prose, which combines a thorough scholarship with great readability and humour.

The book is excellent at tracing the links between social change, class mobility and the transformation of food retail, and developments in food writing.  Modern cookbooks are often criticised as being for reading, or displaying on shelves, rather than cooking from; but Humble shows how this was always an aspect of cookery writing.  Late Victorian and Edwardian cookbooks often had chapters called something like "When Cook is Away", which included simple recipes the housewife might attempt herself, and glossed over the fact that for many readers at this time, Cook was not just away, but gone for good, if she had ever in fact existed.  The more elaborate recipes were for wistful perusal rather than for use.  The two chapters on wartime cookery show how important food writers were to the war effort, providing new ideas for using an increasingly limited range of ingredients, even if the results of their inventiveness were peculiar at best, revolting at worst.    Humble is also very good at analysing the way in which food writers write, the lifestyle that is being endorsed along with the recipes, and the influence on our contemporary views of dishes and ingredients; Elizabeth David's endorsement of tinned tomatoes has gone some distance to make them acceptable to the majority of today's foodies.  The book also considers the ways in which recipes and cookbooks have been presented: the simple hardback, recipe cards, flip-books that allow you to combine three courses in new and exciting ways, and the picture or cartoon books, like Len Deighton's cookbooks aimed at men.  The final chapter, which considers the rise of the celebrity chef and the influence of television on food writing, is a fascinating piece of analysis, and skewers Delia Smith with delightful precision; apparently she finds it disgusting when her fellow TV cooks taste their own food on screen.  This tells you all you need to know about Delia, really, although I am bound to admit that her recipe for flaky pastry is truly excellent.

Best of all, this book has recipes, so you can see for yourself how this type of writing has evolved and how it reflects on itself.  There is a frightful-sounding, necessarily eggless, World War II cake which comes with a rather surprising endorsement from Stella Gibbons.  Nicola Humble is particularly devoted to Constance Spry, and we get her apparently infallible recipe for choux pastry.  From Raymond Blanc's oeuvre we get a terrifying multi-stage recipe for red pepper mousse, the style of which will be instantly familiar to anyone who bought a cookbook in the late 1980s.  A Nigella Lawson recipe for a comforting family supper of fish pie followed by cherries and ice-cream exemplifies the intimate and personal tone that characterises her writing.  This book was not only highly informative and entertaining, but it sent me straight back to reading my own collection of cookbooks, and wondering when I might find the time to cook Jane Grigson's recipe for Paris-Brest, making use of the Constance Spry choux pastry method, obviously.

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. 

Monday, 29 December 2008

Wild Garlic, Gooseberries and Me by Denis Cotter

A Christmas present (thank you darling!) of a lovely book full of gorgeous vegetable recipes. Denis Cotter is the chef at Cafe Paradiso, where I was once lucky enough to eat; the food and the ambience are both delicious. In this book he writes thoughtfully about the types of vegetables he likes to cook, and about the relationship between grower and chef; there is a comfortable blend of personal reminiscence and hard facts, rather like Nigel Slater crossed with Elizabeth David. The recipes are very tempting; I've already tried the swede and leek curry, and was astonished that swede could be made to taste so very good. As a regular receiver of a vegetable box, I think this book will be immensely useful when it is beetroot again for the ninth week in succession. The beautiful photos of West Cork are also very tempting, especially as a trip would have to include a meal at Denis's restaurant. Perhaps when the Euro isn't quite so strong against the pound.