The Plagiarist in the Kitchen by Jonathan Meades (Unbound)
Published in 2017, this is not a new book but well worth revisiting as it’s a fun read as well as being spikily full of wisdom about food. It is published by Unbound, a crowd-funded publisher, which means that the books published are ones which would not likely get commissioned, or if so, heavily edited, by a normal commercial publisher. This is why cookbooks are generally so boring.
Jonathan sounds grumpy, bitchy, funny, gossipy and a cook who knows what he is talking about – a rare thing in a publishing climate that is desperate to sign the next TikTok star or bikini-clad influencer or soap actress turned daytime TV presenter. The basic premise is that no recipe is original and we are all plagiarists.
Some of the recipes are very short – “Persillade: garlic, flat leaf parsley; chop finely together” – which is refreshing when the food writer is usually sternly instructed to write recipes in a way that anyone could follow them, step by wearisome step. (Perhaps if people are that stupid, they aren’t cooking from scratch anyway.)
Other recipes are cheeky. ‘Euphemisms’ is a recipe about balls, any balls. “Ingredients: balls, oil/butter, breadcrumbs seasoned with powdered cumin. Whether they belonged to a sheep, a calf or a bull, the preparation is the same. The outer membranes must be removed, then blanch them. Fry them in breadcrumbs.”
At the bottom of each page is a running ticker-tape of various exhortations to the cook: “Don’t walk away… Concentrate… F**k the guests… And all that conviviality malarky… Do not waste bread: oil it and rebake it… Stock!… Get treatment for squeamishness… Vegetarianism is curable.”
He wouldn’t like me, I’m sure, being both squeamish and vegetarian. But I think he’d probably like my cooking.
Several of the stories are lightly disguised mud-slinging at TV chefs and producers. It’s fun to try and guess who they are irl, like the fat arrogant guy that wanted to go to a posh restaurant and that was the last thing Jonathan, at that time a restaurant critic, wanted to do. Jonathan made lunch, a few basics from the fridge seamlessly flung together, probably better and fresher than anything in a restaurant, posh or not.
Eating to Extinction by Dan Saladino (Jonathan Cape)
Dan is a journalist, producer and presenter of BBC Radio 4’s The Food Programme, which is probably the only serious UK broadcast about food. As such, he’s in a great position to write about the world’s rarest foods and the danger of their extinction. What our food lacks today is diversity: it is as uniform as our high streets. Most of the world eats only nine foods, of which three ingredients – wheat, rice and maize – form the bulk.
This is a thick book but easily navigable, divided into a short chapter per rare food story, meaning you don’t have to read it from front to back. It’s an atlas of food for the curious and greedy traveller.
Butter by James Martin (Quadrille)
I’m not a fan of telly chef books, usually ghosted and somewhat impersonal. This is a subject close to my heart, however. Even in the heyday of people thinking margarine was better for you, I never abandoned butter, my one true love. The reason I can’t go completely vegan is… butter. The mouthfeel is exquisite; it melts at body temperature. I can eat it by the slice, no bread necessary. Martin’s book celebrates this ingredient with recipes for flavoured butters and rich paens to full fat glory.
Dirt by Bill Buford (Jonathan Cape)
I’ve read all of Buford’s books, whether it be on football (‘Among the thugs’) or cooking (‘Heat’). His technique is immersive research: he joins the clan he writes about. He spends years undercover, living the life. He is prepared to become a football hooligan, to learn to butcher meat in an Italian village, to work the line in a New York kitchen, to start in his 40s from the bottom, to be abused and humiliated by spotty 20-year-old chefs.
Here he learns to become a classical French chef. He moves his entire family to Lyon, the home of traditional French cooking (not Paris), rents out a flat, puts his kids in the local school, and, by no means a young man, begs for work at Lyonnais ‘bouchons’. It isn’t easy: few want to give him a chance. Follow his journey in Dirt. Does he make it? Will they accept him?
Gastro Obscura by Cecily Wong and Dylan Thuras (Workman)
Authored by the creators behind the website Gastro Obscure, this is a perfect gift for the foodie traveller. If you are travelling, browse the location in the book beforehand and make sure you visit. If you are not, and let’s face it, we haven’t been, the book offers a virtual plane seat on a voyage to far flung gastronomic experiences. For instance, on a recent trip to Egypt I could have visited the 2,000-year-old ‘egg ovens’ for hatching eggs or the ‘wild pigeon towers’.
Ottolenghi Test Kitchen, Shelf Love by Noor Murad and Yotam Ottolenghi (Ebury)
Ottolenghi’s recipes are famous for their long lists of exotic ingredients. This book, first in a series, breaks down his recipe-creating process, which starts with using up what’s already in the pantry. Did you know you should be peeling your chickpeas for hummus? Nor did I. The recipes are illustrated with step by step photos and look so appetising you could almost lick the page.
At Home by Rick Stein (BBC Books)
Stein is probably the nearest scion of Keith Floyd in telly heritage terms: warm, enthusiastic and knowledgeable. Most TV chefs use a ghost writer for their books; if this is the case here, they’ve done a great job channelling Rick. Like the Ottolenghi book, this has a lockdown vibe. He talks of doing his daily steps, revisiting his greatest hits, simplifying those recipes, growing things, doing DIY, buying gadgets from Amazon, the sundowner drink and of cooking dishes he’s never the time to try, restaurants being off-limits. He even had the prototypical urge to perfect his sourdough. In short, he was all of us. The recipes are simple yet considered, and of course the fish dishes are stellar.
Tools for Food by Corinne Mynatt (Hardie Grant)
This is probably a book for the kitchenalia freak, an obsession to which I freely admit. I’ve actually gone through the book and counted that I already possess 75% of the tools mentioned. Good cooking is easier, quicker and more enjoyable when you have the right equipment. Mynatt details the provenance, date and inventor of the best kitchen tools: peeler (Rex, Alfred Neweczerzal, Switzerland); grater (Microplane, Lorraine Lee and Richard Grace, 1994, Canada/USA); rubber spatula (Frank J Sullivan, 1996, USA) are just some examples, with dozens more, from ancient times to the modern day, spanning the globe.
Leave a Reply