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. gmail.com