I have to admit Julian Barnes has a special place in my life! I’ve only read two of his books and the first (The Sense of an Ending) inspired me to start this Blog and my project of reading the Bookers , while the second, this one, has somehow managed to kick-start my deader than dead writing ambitions and get me to do a review again! So, Mr. Barnes…Thank you & here’s to you! On to the review…
A charmer of a book this one! Easy, amusing and appealingly anecdotal, it will cause you to relive your own culinary journey with a smile on your lips and maybe even a song in your heart! The title is apt and Barnes admits upfront to being a late bloomer where cooking is concerned and by consequence (that’s his excuse anyway ), a pedant in the kitchen. And although unlike him, I tend to cook instinctively with what I like to call a flamboyant nonchalance (well, it’s my blog ) I remember a time when I was as pedantic as they come, early on when I was just starting out! Although I’ve shed a lot of my nerves when it comes to cooking, I still feel the pedant in me emerge while tackling a new recipe for the first time! It makes me feel like a student taking a test even when there’s no examiner in sight…nobody except my own judgmental self that is! Even today, I have a fair amount of cookbooks stashed away on my bookshelves, bought from an often misguided enthusiasm that stemmed in equal measure from a desire to extend my range of recipes as it did from the lure of those gorgeous pictures that go with! But as Barnes so wisely informs us, “Never buy a cookbook for its pictures,” they’re almost always heavily edited, and most attempts at recreating the finished product are fated to end in disappointment! How right he is! Most of my cookbooks have never seen action, except for a couple of favourites that I go to on occasion. I feel the need for the regular culling that Barnes recommends and that as a book lover I struggle with
I love too how this book feels like a conversation between friends, as if Barnes were sitting in my den, sharing stories over coffee and cake! Oh that it were so! The situations described are easily identifiable: whether it’s the debate over heaped or level spoonfuls, the use of exotic ingredients and/or substitutes, a question of temperatures (centigrade/Fahrenheit/gas marks), the vagaries of cooking times, the finer points as to what qualifies as a ‘good quality wine’; we’ve most of us faced these issues ourselves while cooking and Barnes speaks for us all when he discusses these in a mild-mannered polite sort of way! And although I have never dared to call an author with a problem as Barnes has (I find that at once rather funny and courageous), there are times when I have abandoned recipes over what a more seasoned cook might consider trivial technicalities. That’s just the way the cookie crumbles!
The book should appeal to anyone with an interest in cooking, from the seasoned chef to the wet-behind-the-ear cook just starting out on his own culinary path! The former will enjoy the memories it awakens (or perhaps not, if he/she’s written cookbooks that haven’t been well received ), and the latter can find all sorts of useful advice, gently delivered. For my part, I found it funny without giving offence and insightful without being arrogant. One of my favourite quotes is one where Barnes comments on the evolution of cooking through the ages, “ Indeed, we are in many ways less sophisticated and less successful than previous generations. Machinery has made us lazy; the acceleration of life has made us impatient; air-freight and the deep-freeze have thinned our sense of the seasons; while the easy availability of foreign produce makes us disdain our own.” Guilty as charged!
Another favourite, “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.” That just made me laugh out loud Well, no such likelihood here – this one’s the perfect recipe for a comforting & utterly satisfactory day of reading. It’s also a great gift for friends that like to cook and read. I’ve already thought of a few of my friends who fit that bill! Even if you’re not into cooking, you’ll enjoy these travails of a cook, who is also an exceptionally gifted writer. Read it!