The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Deirdre Macken macken.deirdre@

Cook­books aren’t just in­struc­tions for pre­par­ing food. They are con­ver­sa­tions with the au­thors, and how well you cook can de­pend on how well you get along with that imag­i­nary cook on your shoul­der. When I open a cook­book, I know I’m go­ing to chat with the au­thor of that book — some­times it’s an in­te­rior di­a­logue but often enough I’ll openly plead with the au­thor, se­cond-guess var­i­ous choices and, in­evitably, tell the au­thor ex­actly what I think.

This might be why I feel ner­vous when a friend presents me with a beau­ti­fully wrapped, ob­long gift. Some­times you know you’re go­ing to hate a cook even be­fore you flick through the book with Post-it notes at ready.

Take Jamie Oliver. I love him but I can’t deal with him. He goes too fast and he’s too en­thu­si­as­tic. Some­times, when I’m pow­er­ing through his recipes, I want to say: Hang on, I’m tired, ner­vous and 20 years older than you, so will you please take a breath? Jamie’s 15-Minute Meals leaves me gasp­ing.

Stephanie Alexan­der is so ad­mirable that I know I don’t be­long in her class. Heft­ing that en­cy­clo­pe­dia of hers on to the bench feels like a com­mit­ment I’m not ready to make. They say she wrote the bi­ble of cook­books and that’s the prob­lem. The Bi­ble and The Cook’s Com­pan­ion are books that I will get around to — some day, when I’m older and wiser.

With Karen Mar­tini I feel dis­tracted. It’s like I’m in­ter­rupt­ing her and she’d much pre­fer to be do­ing something else in­stead of tak­ing a dumbo through some bloody sim­ple steps.

Yo­tam Ot­tolenghi I warmed to when I read “if you don’t like lemon or gar­lic … skip to the last page”. I like lemon. I like gar­lic. And I like Yo­tam. But I never have the in­gre­di­ents, so his books have ended up on the An­other Day list.

Nigella Law­son feels like a girl­friend. We’re hav­ing a gabfest. She’s lus­cious and makes me feel bet­ter about my curves. But some­times it’s a bit too much. In her lat­est book, I read her pre­am­ble — “I had to cook my­self strong” — and I thought: I don’t want to do ther­apy with Nigella, I just want the choco­late cake.

Luke Nguyen. Great. Love watch­ing all those great places he goes to cook. But the cook­book? It’s more a trav­el­ogue than a kitchen guide. I feel like book­ing a trip to France rather than go­ing into the kitchen to cook din­ner.

Pete Evans. Re­ally. I don’t want to join a cult. When he’s telling me how to cook I just want to back out of the kitchen — slowly.

And then I read about A Pla­gia­rist in the Kitchen and, even be­fore I clocked the au­thor, I liked the sound of it. Jonathan Meades is a Bri­tish racon­teur, TV per­son­al­ity and snarly scep­tic. Even bet­ter, he de­scribes his book as “an an­ti­cook­book”. The book, he writes is “a recipe book that is also an ex­plicit paean to the avoid­ance of culi­nary orig­i­nal­ity, to the day­light rob­bery of recipes, to hi­jack­ing tech­niques and meth­ods, to the no­tion that in the kitchen there is noth­ing new. It’s all theft.”

For a thief, he has great style. Take this com­ment about plat­ing a dish: “dec­o­rate with the re­main­ing chick­peas — or don’t bother”. Or how about his take on olive oil — “ex­tra-vir­gin might be a de­sir­able qual­ity in nuns — I don’t know, I have a hor­ror of these poor women un- less they are un­suit­ably dressed in the films of Wa­le­rian Borowczyk and Ge­orges Franju — but applied to olive oil it is close to mean­ing­less.” Or his take on how to saute pota­toes. “Do peel the pota­toes — un­peeled pota­toes are an abom­i­na­tion. Do not blanch let alone boil them. Cut them into pieces the size of a mal­nour­ished wal­nut.” And, fi­nally, his tip for risotto — “stir it now and then, ju­di­ciously: never use a fork. Do not get car­ried away … Cook­ing is not ther­apy.”

This is a cook­book au­thor you want to get to know. You can en­joy the con­ver­sa­tion as you nail an eel to a board and strip it of its skin. You can ap­pre­ci­ate why Duchamp is next to duck in the in­dex and learn about the Bri­tish up­per class while read­ing about bor­age leaves.

I’ve found my kitchen soul­mate. And when I fin­ish this glass of wine on the couch, I’ll take him into the kitchen for a good chat while I do ther­apy with risotto.

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