On Cooking

Well, books about cooking really.

I’m always intrigued by fictional meals in novels. For some reason, they bring the author into the room with you, like those little printing errors that you’re quite glad were never picked up by the publisher’s proofing system, because they might just be original typos from the author’s fingers. I always wonder why authors chose that specific meal for their character to eat, and the personal research (i.e. eating) that the author did in preparation for writing that particular passage.

Food is fascinating in its apparently endless capacity for symbolic indication. In Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar are we supposed to read some psychological subtext into Esther’s meal of chicken slices and caviar? Frederick Henry’s meal of pasta and cheese in a trench on a battlefield in A Farewell to Arms speaks of the Italian reverence for food, and such is the scene’s quiet enticement that it almost acts as an advert for eating pasta and cheese in trenches on Italian battle-fields. In J.G. Ballard’s High Rise, Dr Laing’s meal of barbecued Alsatian forms a frame for the narrative and signifies perfectly the entropic social deterioration that is the novel’s plot. But perhaps the less said about char-grilled dog meat, the better.

Diamond Grill, the great little foody memoir of Chinese Swedish Canadian Fred Wah, is replete with recipes and gastronomic anecdotes. Food in this book, as elsewhere, becomes an important marker of ethnic identity, and the crises that can ensue therein. Wah remembers how, as a teenager, his mother would advise him to chew parsley before a date, so as not to upset his girlfriend, presumably the daughter of a meat-and-potatoes interior BC family, with his garlicky breath. This does not impress Mr Wah senior, who sees in this concern for his son’s snogability a tacit betrayal of a proud garlic-infused Chinese heritage. One of the real heroes of the book is the short order cook Shu, who mans the kitchen in Wah’s father’s restaurant, the titular Diamond Grill. Shu at the stove is all Confucian calm and balance, and he’s as adept in the mysterious alchemy of ginger, garlic and soy as he is at flipping out the quintessentially Canadian ‘stack-a-hot, links’; pancakes and maple syrup with a side order of sausages.

The meals in Thomas Pynchon’s novels, like so many of the passing details of his narratives, often leave me unsure whether I actually read what I thought I did, or merely dreamed that I read it. I’m pretty sure there’s a long passage in Mason and Dixon devoted to the skill of a French pastry chef in producing croissants of such lightness that they can defy the laws of physics. Actually, there is a great little blog post that details some of the food references in his books, in all their gonzo glory.

As a kid, I enjoyed poring over my mother’s Delia Smiths. My father was the real cook in our house and he didn’t have much time for good old Delia, but even the great gastronome could sometimes be spotted consulting Ms Smith when in a culinary quandary. Looking at these older books now, I am always surprised at how text-heavy they are. I don’t know which cookery publisher first acknowledged the need for lots of photos in cookbooks, but now such books are a positive glut of colour. This is no doubt part of the appeal of cookery books to the British public, who love looking at pictures of delicious food, but who are generally non-plussed when it comes to making it for themselves.

Indeed the photos in cookbooks have become so important that often you now find at least one accompanying every recipe, which must seem unspeakably decadent to those purveyors of cookbooks from the 1970s, when you were lucky if you got a snapshot every few pages. They were more innocent times perhaps. A while ago I read a magazine article about the trickery that goes into producing those hyper-real photos in the modern cookbook. I suppose we assume these days that photos will have been air-brushed, but this article claimed more nefarious deceptions, like smothering food with washing up liquid to give it an appealing glossiness. Does anything better exemplify British culinary apathy than rendering a plate of food inedible in the process of beautifying it?

There is a range of doorstop cookbooks that offer a comprehensive guide to the cuisine of specific countries. I’ve seen one for India, France and Italy but I’m sure there are others. A few years ago my family bought me the Spanish version, 1080 Recipes by Ines and Simone Ortega. While I love the book, I don’t use it much to cook from; I don’t think I have broad enough culinary shoulders to tote the weight of an entire nation’s food history. As you might expect, the recipes in the book feel very Spanish. They are bold, rigorously unfussy and, in places, downright odd. The recipe for huevos revueltos con arroz y gambas really is just scrambled eggs with rice and prawns, and I’ve never attempted the kind of Swiss roll (Spanish roll?) made out of mashed potato and tuna mayonnaise, but I’m sure it would be delicious in the right context, i.e. chilled and thickly sliced with a cold beer in the sunshine of a hidden courtyard just off the Ramblas.

Tessa Kiros’ book Falling Cloudberries is probably my favourite cookbook. Like Fred Wah, Kiros has an interesting lineage, and the book includes her family tree of Swedish and Greek Cypriot forebears alongside the recipes. And like Wah, Kiros explains the ways in which the recipes connect her to these people, which makes the book an interesting study of diaspora, as well as a great kitchen reference point.

Nowadays, my cooking has to be tailored towards the tastes of an increasingly fussy two-year-old, which means I cannot be as adventurous in the kitchen as I used to be. So the book I end up reading most often in the kitchen is not really a cookbook at all. Niki Segnit’s Flavour Thesaurus explores the chemistry, anthropology and cultural connections of flavour. It does contain recipes, but these are really a side order that accompanies meticulously researched details of why certain flavours work together and why some do not. Segnit is a woman who knows tasty from tasty. So I often read her little entries on each flavour yearningly, dreaming of more elaborate meals I have made, while I’m waiting for the kids’ potatoes to bake.

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