“I am a late-onset cook,” explains Julian Barnes at the beginning of this short collection of essays. Never having even watched his mother prepare meals when he was a child, he found himself dreadfully unprepared for kitchen duty as an adult. (He describes some of his first attempts as “criminal.”) The result is that, while he now cooks with enthusiasm and pleasure, he does so without the carefree imagination that enables some cooks to waltz into the market, buy whatever is fresh and seasonal, and go home to whip something up. Whipping something up is not, as they say, in Barnes’s wheelhouse.
These marvelous essays are less about food than about Barnes’s relationship to food. They are witty and intelligent, but they give off an endearingly helpless sense that made me want to read bits of them aloud to everyone around me. Here, one of my favorite bits about a pedant’s exasperation with kitchen measurements:
How big is a ‘lump’, how voluminous is a ‘slug’ or a ‘gout’, when does a ‘drizzle’ become a rain? Is a ‘cup’ a rough-and-ready generic term or a precise American measure? Why tell us to add a ‘wineglass’ of something, when wineglasses come in so many sizes? Or — to return briefly to jam — how about this instruction from Richard Olney: ‘Throw in as many strawberries as you can hold piled up in joined hands.” I mean, really. Are we meant to write to the late Mr. Olney’s executors and ask how big his hands were? What if children made this jam, or circus giants?
(I must confess that I have that passage about the jam memorized now, I’ve read it aloud so many times.)
The tone of helplessness and mild exasperation is misleading, however. These essays are full of acute observations from a person who cooks a lot. There is a whole chapter on favorite cookbooks, and it’s quite clear he knows what he’s talking about. As far as pedantry goes, he mentions that he’s not alone:
I don’t necessarily prefer being cooked for by a pedant, but I do have deep fellow-feeling for what is going on around the stove and inside the head. And I would include all the higher levels of the profession in my camp too. Chefs may be as experimental and inventive as you like (though much apparent originality turns out to be mere theft), but they know that a dish, in order to be the dish they are proud to serve, must be created in a very, very precise way, with the smallest latitude for error. ‘Oh, that’ll do’ is not a phrase often heard in top restaurant kitchens.
This book is entertaining and satisfying from beginning to end: thoughtful, informative, personal, funny. It calls its pedantry a handicap and makes it a virtue. On behalf of the rest of us pedants in the kitchen, I declare it a manifesto.