Food 8. Drink


The author of Flaubert’s Parrot becomes cookbook cop in his entertaining - if slender - addition to the canon of cookery writing. Words: Barry Shelby



Julian Barnes's The Pedant in the Kitchen confirms the following suspicion: food books by good writers with a strong interest in cooking are superior to those penned by talented chefs who have literary ambitions. While this slim volume is just a re- publishing of his Guardian columns (conveniently released in time for the Christmas gift market), Pedant in the Kitchen is something more than

journalism just as his 'Letters from London' in the New Yorker magazine were something more than reportage.

Despite the book‘s title and publicity. Barnes is not quite the pedant that one is led to believe. He is not looking for faultlessness nor does he extol the virtues of following recipes to a T. Indeed, he believes home chefs always have the option of exercising control over the dictates of the recipe regardless of how esteemed the dish's creator may be. ‘The relationship between professional and domestic cook has similarities to a sexual encounter,’ he writes. “One party is normally more experienced than the other; and either party should have the right. at any moment. to say. "No, I'm not going to do that.“

So Barnes is, more accurately, the suffering perfectionist in the kitchen.

Unlike many in that frustrated tribe of over-achievers. he knows that perfection itself is unobtainable. Still, as he puts it. 'cooking is the transformation of uncertainty (the recipe) into certainty (the dish) via fuss'. And fuss he does. particularly over one Nigel Slater recipe for ‘chops and chicory’ that he is convinced can never be realised as easily as the great Slate says it should. Barnes is a cookbook cop. sussing out crimes committed by those repeat i offenders otherwise known as celebrity chefs.

His advice is to avoid cookbooks with gorgeous images: they are guaranteed to lead to disappointment. ‘All cookbook photos give us false expectations,‘ Barnes writes. ‘Maybe we imagine the picture confers higher status; maybe we want advance confirmation of what our supper will look like. Either way, this is foolish. lf the mind holds no pre-existing image. then reality has less to fall short of.’

Barnes' heroes are werthy: Jane Grigson (particularly her Vegetable Book). Elizabeth David and the Polish/French food scientist and dietician Edouard de Pomiane (1875—1964). Never heard of the latter? Neither had Barnes until a few years ago. But Dame David knew Pomiane and apparently this ‘contrarian and provocateur' led the way for a new wave of French chefs in the 19608 and 1970s He is Barnes‘ ideal: Pomiane offers ‘Davidism with a human face and a smile of complicity'. Barnes writes. '[He] gives you a recipe for deep-fried chunks of calf's head and then, as if sensing your uncertainty, adds, “Try this. it is really good.“ His recipe for braised beef rump notes that the meat may emerge grey and unappetising. warning “at this moment you may feel a little depressed'. Barnes is ecstatic. “Isn’t that one of the most cheering and pedant-friendly lines a cook ever wrote?‘

Significantly, Barnes appreciates there's an aesthetic to good cooking just there is one to excellent art. It turns on knowing the rules and when to break them. Nothing pedantic about that in the least.

I The Pedant in the Kitchen (Guard/an Books/£9. 99)

‘I 14 THE LIST 13—27 Nov 2003


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