The Pedant in the Kitchen is a lot of fun. Peter spotted the book in a swing through Hodges Figgis in Dublin, glanced through it, and handed it to me, saying, “This guy is our kind of people.”
I opened the book at random and found:
“How many cookbooks do you have?
(a) Not enough
(b) Just the right number
(c) Too many?
“If you answered (b) you are disqualified for lying or complacency or not being interested in food or (scariest of all) having worked everything out perfectly. You score points for (a) and also for (c), but to score maximum points you need to have answered both (a) and (c) in equal measure. (a) because there is always something new to be learned, someone coming along to make it all clearer, easier, more foolproof, more authentic: (c) because of the regular mistakes made when applying (a).”
The author then lists his twenty or so most-used cookbooks, which live in his kitchen (as opposed to the many others which reside in other parts of his house). Of his list, we have fifteen of his twenty, in just about the same order of importance. This impressed me, since I have to confess I love it when people agree with me.
The book has many other charms. Mostly it’s about Julian Barnes’ attempt to bring precision to the art of cooking: but there’s more to the book than that. Bits like this:
“Anthony Lane, reviewing the scarily efficient Martha Stewart, quotes this typical piece of advice about having folks around for a bite: ‘One of the most important moments on which to expend extra effort is the beginning of a party, often an awkward time, when guests feel tentative and insecure.’ To which Lane exactly responds: ‘The guests are insecure? How about the frigging cook?'”
“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 first sentence: ‘2.5 kg ripe vine cherry 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, juice all over the place, flicking out their seeds 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.”
“What do cookbook writers want? Mute obeisance? What kind of relationship would that imply? You’re not a spud-bashing squaddie after all, and they can’t put you on a charge for insolence, dumb or otherwise. Remind yourself who paid money for whose book. The only way to earn their respect is to rebel. Go on: it’s good for you. It’s probably good for them too.”
“Kitchen shops sell a lot of useful gadgets and time-saving equipment. One of the most useful and most liberating would be a sign that the domestic cook could place to catch the eye in moments of tension: THIS IS NOT A RESTAURANT.”
…Definitely a recommended book.