“The Pedant in the Kitchen”
Anyone doubting that the Brits are different from you and me has only to flip open Julian Barnes’ foray into food, a collection of columns from the Guardian, the newspaper that has become the must-read for Americans stranded with an apparently enslaved press. Not only does the prolific novelist (and translator of “In the Land of Pain”) get away with words like prelapsarian and pertinacity, words editors here would dumb down for a Food Network audience. But he also has more ideas per chapter than any six Americans.
Barnes starts out annoyingly, seemingly very aware that he’s a literary light slumming under kitchen fluorescents. But I was hooked by page 30: “Remember that cookery writers are no different from other writers: many have only one book in them (and some shouldn’t have let it out in the first place). Consider this possibility when a new one is being puffed.’’
My tiny book, a Christmas gift recommended to my consort by Nach Waxman at Kitchen Arts & Letters, is flagged with a couple of dozen yellow Postems marking other Wustof-sharp observations. Barnes and I are in total agreement on shopping for meat or fish, which so often means being taken advantage of by “specialists”: “The unlovely success of supermarkets is due to many factors, but eliminating a potentially awkward social exchange is by no means a minimal one.” His definition of cooking is “the transformation of uncertainty (the recipe) into certainty (the dish) via fuss.” And his take on Heston Blumenthal will save you some hero worship: Admitting that he is “in awe” of the chef’s cooking at the Fat Duck, he then goes on to say: “If you gave him a human brain he might poach it lightly in a reduction of 1978 Cornas and top it with a mortarboard made of liquorice; but he might not understand all that had been going on inside it before he popped it into the pot.”
With anecdotes, insights and the obvious experience of a devoted-to-obsessed home cook, Barnes takes you places most authors can’t. He admits his prejudices but also names names (the tale of the River Cafe’s disastrous recipe for “Chocolate Nemesis” is worth four pounds of the best bittersweet). He teaches, he illuminates, he thinks. And just consider: he’s one among many in England.