I have just read Julian Barnes’ The Pedant in the Kitchen, a slender, amusing challenge to sludgy writing of all kinds. I read it in an evening and found it very bracing. It’s come at exactly the right time for me, as with my new book coming out I’ve been asked to write bits and pieces about cooking for various food mags and websites. Anxiety on the release of a new book always makes me feel rather timid just as you’re supposed to project lots of confidence, and as I think about what to write for these things I have felt myself teetering on the edge of a deep crater of magazine-speak about food. You know the kind of thing: “There’s nothing nicer than lunch made with seasonal produce, sharing good food with family and friends,” and so on. The sort of stuff that is accurate enough, yet utterly banal.
So when I visited the lovely people at Books for Cooks in Melbourne earlier this week (if you haven’t been here and you like to cook, you must! But beware – it is a seemingly endless rabbit warren of cookbook goodies, and they have an online store!) and found this handsome yellow volume I found myself clutching at it like a drowning woman. And I hope it’s going to save me from an infection of triteness, because it’s reminded me that all that is really needed for good writing is the truth. A dash of style helps, of course, but the very appealing thing to me about this book is Barnes’ confidence in his own cranky obstinacy. He’s hilariously uptight about recipe books and their instructions, attributing his pedantry to having grown up in a house where men had nothing to do with cooking, and the “late onset” of his own interest in it.
The result of all this…is that while I now cook with enthusiasm and pleasure, I do so with little sense of freedom or imagination. I need an exact shopping list and an avuncular cookbook. The idea of carefree marketing – waltzing off with wicker basket over the arm, relaxedly buying what the day has best to offer, and then contriving it into something which might or might not have been made before – will always be beyond me.
In the kitchen I am an anxious pedant. I adhere to gas marks and cooking times. I trust instruments rather than myself. I doubt I shall ever test whether a chunk of meat is done by prodding it with my forefinger. The only liberty I take with a recipe is to increase the quantity of an ingredient of which I particularly approve. That this is not an infallible precept was confirmed by an epically filthy dish I once made involving mackerel, Martini and breadcrumbs: the guests were more drunk than sated.
My wrath is also frequently turned against the cookbooks on which I rely so heavily. Still, this is one area where pedantry is both understandable and important: and the self-taught, anxious, page-scowling domestic cook is about as pedantic as you can get. But then, why should a cookbook be less precise than a manual of surgery? (Always assuming, as one nervously does, that manuals of surgery are indeed precise. Perhaps some of them sound just like cookbooks: ‘Sling a gout of anaesthetic down the tube, hack a chunk off the patient, watch the blood drizzle, have a beer with your mates, sew up the cavity…’) Why should a word in a recipe be less important than a word in a novel? One can lead to physical indigestion, the other to mental.
What’s so appealing to me about this is my desire to argue with him throughout the book – a sure sign of engaging writing, don’t you think? But it comes from the fact that he seems to have given free rein to his true self – nitpicky, bossy, anxious and a little pooncy. Of course I have no idea what Julian Barnes’ true self is actually like, but a great energy bounces through this work that I feel it would be difficult to fake. And it leads to this feeling that one could really have a great conversation with this book – the opposite of boring public-relations talk of so much food writing, which is the equivalent of talking about the weather all evening at a dinner party. That kind of thing makes you want to dig your eyes out with a spoon, does it not? I think it comes from a desire to be liked – always death to a piece of writing.
Barnes also gives voice to lots of kitchen quandaries I have never seen written about before – like his passivity in the face of a surly butcher, for example, or the feelings of betrayal when a recipe’s instructions are belied by the photograph in the book (he has a particularly amusing beef with Nigel Slater). I loved it.
Another thing to love about this book is its brevity. I think it must be a collection of columns from the Guardian newspaper – anyone know? Regardless, each chapter is short and sweet and lively. Which has inspired me to rethink this blog a bit – it seems to have morphed from a loose collection of short bits and bobs in the early days to a slightly more essayistic form lately. That has been enjoyable, but it means I keep putting off writing here because I feel I don’t have time to do it justice – and I miss it!
So I declare a return, for the next little while anyway, to shorter posts, with or without recipes that may or may not have anything to do with the post itself. Like the one below for a sort of zucchini gratin.
And while we’re on the topic of conversation, I am booked in for lots of events to talk about Love & Hunger: Thoughts on the Gift of Food, which seems to be trickling into bookshops now – official pub date is Monday. Two of the Sydney talks will be with two of the best cooks among my friends – Caro Baum, at the Sydney Writers’ Festival – and Steph Clifford-Smith, at Newtown Library. We are going to have fun (even if I am rather daunted by sharing the stage with Proper Chefs at SWF – eek!) and we would love to see any of you there.
I’m not sure how much to blab about my book here … while it definitely is on-topic, I can understand if you resent me using this blog as a self-promotional tool so tell me if you hate the idea of me citing events and media stuff here? I won’t be offended, I promise. But just before you tell me to shut up I will put a link to the podcast of an interview I did with the charming Joe Gelonesi on ABC Classic FM last week, and another to a chat at the lovely cooking blog of YA novelist Sophie Masson, with whom I had a wonderful natter about food when we met at the Bellingen festival recently.
Julian Barnes would hate this recipe because I’m not even giving quantities – take that, uptighty whitey Barnsey! This is a dish from an old magazine recipe that I used to have in my clippings folder, can’t remember where it came from, and have now lost. But I just put it together the other night from memory and it was perfectly nice, and very easy. You need:
- zucchinis, sliced
- a few dollops of sour cream
- breadcrumbs, lumpy!
- thyme, leaves picked – lots
- Parmesan cheese, grated
- Toss your sliced zukes in some boiling water for a few minutes until just tender.
- Drain well and mix with the thyme and as much sour cream as you like – I like it quite sloppy – and season well.
- Put this in an oven-proof dish while in a separate bowl you mix up the breadcrumbs and Parmesan – however much you wish of each, but enough crumbs to cover the top of the zukes.
- Chuck the dish into a moderate oven and bake for around 20 minutes or until the top is golden and crunchy.
We had this with roast chicken, some roasted fennel and carrots with chorizo bits. It was all very fine.