“The Pedant in the Kitchen”; [Julian Barnes]
There are very few books that make me laugh out loud, maybe the stuff I read is too dark or overly academic. But this book had me in stitches, with the author and his wife differing intensely over shared cooking and how to follow recipes. What IS the difference between slicing and chopping an onion, how much is a cupful or a handful, what is a pinch, and when does a drizzle become a torrent? Are we on the same wavelength here, have you experienced this with cookbooks?
Barnes tries desperately to understand and to follow recipes exactly as a pedant would, his wife just goes with her gut and chucks things around. The humour of it all is intensified for us personally because he has more or less written about Dr C and myself, as we argue regularly over some of the “nonsense” in cookbooks written by TV chefs that are misleading at best or, at worst, just cannot be followed.
“I set the chops aside, left the chicory in the pan, and boiled the shit out of it. Thus did this ‘thirty-minute supper’ become a forty-minute one.”
This quote from part way through the book typifies Barnes’ style and the problem: first the recipe didn’t work because it didn’t state the need to reduce the liquid, and secondly it took 10 minutes longer than specified. Thus is a pedant aggrieved ! But the author isn’t just a pedant, he may be a novice cook but he is an expert on cookbooks as he demonstrates the gulf between celebrity chefs and their audience on page after page.
Now, try this absolute gem of a quote:
“It’s not just difficulty, it’s also time. River Cafe Green has a terrific recipe for Penne with Tomato and Nutmeg (and basil, garlic, and pecorino), which I make regularly; the nutmeg is the key surprise element. But I did first have to overcome the recipe’s opening sentence: ‘2.5 kg ripe cherry vine tomatoes, halved and seeded.’ So that’s well over five pounds of cherry tomatoes. And how many of the little buggers do you think you get to the pound? I’ll tell you: I’ve just weighed fifteen and they came to four ounces. That’s sixty to the pound. So we’re talking 300, cut in half, 600 halves, juice all over the place, flicking out the seeds 600 times with a knife, worrying about not extracting every single one. All together now: NO, WE’RE NOT GOING TO DO THAT. Leave the seeds in and call it extra roughage!”
See what I mean? Who in their right minds is going to slavishly follow this recipe chopping and deseeding 300 cherry tomatoes. But who wrote that recipe in the first place, do they really do that in River Cafe, or was it a punishment for a new apprentice chef? This book has loads of hilarious examples like this one, even if you don’t know the specific chefs or restaurants you WILL identify with the problem Barnes raises. Here’s another simple quote:
“How many different ways of cooking stuffed cabbage do you need?”
I have personally groaned variations of this quote so many times, my own personal favourite being “not another Jamie Oliver book, how many ways does he think we need to roast a bloody chicken?”
If you like to cook you will love this book. You will also love it if you use cookbooks in your kitchen or are a “foodie”. If you have a bee in your bonnet about cookbooks or TV chefs and their know-it-all superiority then you should definitely buy this book. And remember, laughing out loud IS permitted. Julian Barnes not only laughs out loud ….. but often phones up these inaccurate chefs too for his own brand of inquisition! LOL!