Cooking, writes Barnes, is the transformation of uncertainty (the recipe) into certainty (the dish) via fuss.
The Pedant in the Kitchen by Julian Barnes
A collection of essays on the art and obsession of cooking well for one’s friends. On his kitchen beginnings:
…as with sex, politics, and religion, so with cooking; by the time I began finding out about it for myself, it was too late to ask my parents. They had failed to instruct me, and I would punish them by not asking now. I was in my mid-twenties and reading for the bar; some of the food I concocted at that time was criminal. Top of my range was bacon chop, peas and potatoes…The key factors governing my ‘cooking’ at this time were poverty, lack of skill, and gastronomic conservatism.
On discovering cookery books:
…I was drawn to Tomates a la Creme, which Pomiane learned from his Polish mother, and which, according. E.D., ‘taste[s] so startlingly unline any other dish of cooked tomatoes that any restaurateur who put it on his menu would, in all probability, soon find it listed in the guide books as a regional specialy.’ You take six tomatoes, halve them, melt a lump of butter, put the tomatoes in a frying pan cut side down, prick their rounded sides, turn again (to let the juices run out), turn back up at once, add 3 fl oz double cream, mix, let it all bubble, serve.
I didn’t much trust this: the quantity of butter was imprecise, the strength of the gas unspecified. Further, it was mid-February, so the best tomatoes I could find were pale orange, frost-hard, and pretty juice-free inside. I fanatically observed the approximations of Pomiane’s recipe, while chucking in a little salt, pepper, and sugar in the tiny hope of not disgracing the kitchen…and the result was unbelievably good — the method had somehow extracted richness from half a dozen fruits which looked as if they had long ago mislaid their essence.
So then it was off to www.abebooks.com for a copy of Cooking with Pomiane…
On the use of cookery books:
Let me ask you this: would you use a lawyer who said ‘Oh, I glance at a few statutes, but only to get ideas’?
Speaking for myself, no, I would not. I feel better now about having to look at the recipe for my rustic loaf every time I make it.
The Pedant in the Kitchen is not concerned with whether cooking is a science or an art; he will settle for it being a craft, like woodwork or home welding.
Okay. On lessons learned:
…that the relationship between professional and domestic cook has similarities to a sexual encounter. One party is normally more experienced that the other; and either party should have the right at any moment, to say, ‘No, I’m not going to do that.’
I ain’t never deboning no chickens neither. On the inconstant nature of recipes:
You never step into the same stream twice, and a cook never steps into the same recipe twice. The cook, the ingredients, the recipe, and the resulting dish are never exactly the same. It’s not exactly post-modernism, and it might be heavy-handed to invoke Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, but you know what I mean.
There is something equally enjoyable on every page. Cooking, writes Barnes, is the transformation of uncertainty (the recipe) into certainty (the dish) via fuss. The aforesaid fuss leading to the assigning of one to five hangman’s nooses to a meal going south in the kitchen while his hungry guests are whooping it up in the living room. Highly recommended.
Book Review Monday Chatter Julian Barnes The Pedant in the Kitchen
Dana View All →
Author and founder of Storyknife.org.
I’ll add this to my “To Read” list. I love books about cooking. I sometimes put down my ‘regular’ books and read a cookbook for pleasure.