Monday, May 5, 2008

Brilliantly British

According to my brother, I was born bossy. Since he didn't enter the world until I was nearly four, he clearly exaggerates. I prefer to describe myself as evangelical about my enthusiasms. When I find a book I love, for instance, I want others to love it too. Lots of others.

Right now I'm preaching the virtues of "The Pedant in the Kitchen" by Julian Barnes -- a mini-book brimming with wit and wisdom. The much-honored author of "Flaubert's Parrot," "Arthur and George" and "Nothing to be Frightened of" describes himself as "a late-onset cook" who now cooks with pleasure, but "tense pleasure."

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.

I admit to a positive prejudice towards British food writers. If you've read previous posts here you know I love Nigella, Nigel, Tamasin and the ladies of The River Cafe. Barnes's writing centers on novels, short stories and literary essays rather than cookery, but I find his tales of the kitchen just as irresistable as those of my other favorite Brits.

One more excerpt to whet your book-buying appetite;
Like most people I annotate my cookbooks -- ticks, crosses, exclamation marks, emendations, and suggestions for next time. In certain cases next time is never. My annotation of [Richard] Olney's Courgette Pudding Souffle (and I apologize in advance for the language) goes as follows: This dinner for two took me four hours, The mouli doesn't work as he says, and on turning out the souffle collapses flat and the sauce becomes a quarter deep layer on top of it, i.e. a fucking disaster, But all the same: fucking delicious.

In defense of Olney's recipe, Barnes admits he failed to use the right sort of mold. A dish designed to be cooked in a ring mold rarely transfers happily to a different type of pan. But doesn't the above make you want to sit in Barnes's kitchen and peruse the rest of his margin notes?
If you aren't invited to his home in the near future, your next best course is to treat yourself to a copy of "The Pedant in the Kitchen." It's a small book, with a small price tag, packed with entertaining prose. As soon as I finish writing this I'm going to call my brother and command him to buy a copy.

1 comment:

Dana McCauley said...

I loved Arthur and George! How cool that Barnes is a foodie. I just may have to get myself this book for Mother's Day.

Thanks for the recco!