20 May 2018

The Pedant in the Kitchen by Julian Barnes

Does anyone else prefer to read about cooking over being an active participant?  I could live on the simple things like scrambled eggs or avocado on toast.  No matter how many times I chide myself for browning the onions before the garlic has been peeled, or even worse, the butternut squash is still in its original form - I never learn.  It's just a job that must be performed while I daydream about something else.  And then there's the cleaning up afterwards.  But I do find that a novel is all the better for a run to the shops, measuring out tea or an aromatic kitchen as the scones bake.  My husband is not allowed to delete the episodes of Nigel Slater's cooking show that I've already watched and when friends visit England I ask for the Waitrose newspaper.

I've never read anything by Julian Barnes before but it's been nice being introduced via his kitchen.  Knowing that his 'junk drawer', as it's called in our house, has contained a couple of spider corpses and a blanched almond makes him seem less intimidating.  And Barnes made me laugh with his frustration over recipes that failed to turn out as promised, reminding me of a cookbook I bought by Tamsin Day-Lewis.  The photo of a chickpea and spinach soup looked just like one I absolutely loved at a cafe in Hampstead.  Following the recipe, it called for a tin of diced tomatoes which turned the whole thing...well, not like the photo!  The soup was delicious but not what I was hoping for.  And then there's laissez-faire measurements....

'...For recipe writers, onion come in only three sizes, 'small'. 'medium', and 'large', whereas onions in your shopping bag vary from the size of a shallot to that of a curling stone.  So an instruction such as 'Take two medium onions' sets off a lot of pedantic scrabbling in the onion basket for bulbs that fit the description (obviously, since medium is a comparative term, you have to compare across the while spectrum of onions you possess).'

Thus explaining why Barnes refers to himself as The Pedant in the Kitchen.  Some of his actions may seem slightly pedantic, but in many instances he makes a very valid point.  Does anyone really need Vichy water when cooking carrots?  I laughed at the image conjured up while reading that he yells out 'someone is lying!' when a completed recipe is achingly disappointing and suggesting a Depression Probability rating should be included.

I laughed out loud several times while reading this book, and enjoyed anecdotes about the writing of other chefs and cooks. 

'Not that Jane Grigson was a food luvvie - her views were always very clar, never soggy.  She knew what she didn't like and what didn't work.  Wild cabbage is 'very nasty indeed'; most Englsih turnips are only 'suitable for the over-wintering of herds, school-children, prisoners, and lodgers'.

You'll thank me for leaving out the details for skinning eels, or what Barnes imagines Heston Blumenthal would do with a human brain, should one ever be offered up, but the addition of licorice is mentioned.

So if I ever have the chance to meet Barnes in person, the ice breaker will be discussing the state of our junk drawers, and just who is the Canadian who tried to make pesto from dried basil?

Full of witty observations and refreshing honesty when it comes to cooking in the age of Instagram, this is a wonderful book for other 'pedants in the kitchen' or for those of us who just love reading about it.

Grill Mates by Kim Roberti

7 comments:

  1. Pesto from dried basil? No, no, no, Darlene - I don't believe it. Your elderflower consultant is shocked.

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    1. It would be nasty stuff, indeed! By the way, the elderflower syrup over strawberries was delicious.

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  2. I share your enthusiasm for scrambled egg or avocado on toast. Actually I like to eat a small amount of whatever is offered but I seldom cook for myself unless it is a soup - that way there is very little washing-up. I do like to read about food though.

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    1. A pot of soup is perfect, isn't it. The variations are endless and timing isn't something to stress about. I think we're the same person, Toffeeapple!

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    2. You are so right about the timing. I do, however, have a timer to hand when starting to sauté the aromatics at the beginning since I have been known to drift deeply in to a book - which presages disaster.

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  3. I went in search of this book about 5 seconds after seeing it on your sidebar... I've only dipped into it a little but it's delightful! I was just laughing about the recipe for the cherry tomato dish that involves halving and seeding 300 of the little monsters. Thanks for the fun!

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    1. That made me laugh too, Audrey...Barnes gets full marks for tenacity, but life is too short for such fiddly recipes. My mind would have gone straight to calculating the equivalent in tins of diced tomatoes.

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