Best Reads 2013. IX: Julian Barnes, The Pedant in the Kitchen

Julian Barnes, The Pedant in the KitchenHaving recently read The Sense of an Ending and Levels of Life, I couldn’t resist Julian Barnes’s ruminations on cooking, cookbooks, recipes, entertaining guests etc. And I haven’t regretted it either, for this has turned out to be an entertaining read that has managed to take my mind off other, more troublesome things. Just what I needed therefore!

Here are some quotes to whet your appetite:

I once bought an eel from a Chinese fishmonger in Soho, carried it home on the Northern Line, and then realized my next job was to skin it. This is what you have to do: nail it to a door-frame or other substantial wooden part of your dwelling, make an incision on either side of the neck, take a pair of pliers in each hand, grip the two cut pieces of skin, put your foot against the door level with the eel’s head, and slowly haul back the skin, which is firm and elasticated, like a dense inner tube. Afterwards I was glad to have done it. Now I shall know how to proceed if forced to survive somewhere with only an eel, two pairs of pliers, and a door-frame for company; but I don’t otherwise need the activity to be central to my life.

As any domestic cook who’s ever made [a risotto] knows, it’s virtually impossible to do anything during the final twenty minutes or so except stir, add liquid, worry; stir, add liquid, worry, and so on. At best you might have time to leave the hob just long enough to shake an ice-cube into a de-stressing drink; normal sociability is quite out of the question.

… don’t get me wrong. I quite want to cook some of what Mr Blumenthal proposes: though when he tells me that the best way of cooking a steak is to flip it every fifteen seconds, making thirty-two flips in all for its eight-minute cooking period, I am inclined to wonder who will be minding the chips and mushy peas while I flip four steaks 128 times, so I say Pass.

And then there’s Barnes’s definition of cooking:

Cooking is the transformation of uncertainty (the recipe) into certainty (the dish) via fuss.


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