The Pedant in the Kitchen, by Julian Barnes

Kitchen Shelf by Paula Bailey
Kitchen Shelf by Paula Bailey

To say I have a love-hate relationship with Julian Barnes would be far too strong. But on the spectrum of love to hate, there is a quadrant somewhere towards the centre, in which I repeatedly oscillate between the most extreme parts. That is, in the space of a book I can experience moments when I effuse that the man is a genius – sheer genius! And those moments can then be followed by about a dozen page turns during which I regularly contemplate giving up the book entirely.

I talked with a friend recently about his Booker-winning The Sense of an Ending, and both of us reached the same conclusion; 1) neither of us was entirely sure what had actually happened at the end, and 2) he must surely have been awarded the prize out of sympathy for having been nominated and overlooked so many times previously.

That’s not to say that he is undeserving of the Booker – by no means – but I would question whether he deserved it for that book. Or indeed any of his books in their whole form. Take the first three chapters of each of his books, put them together into a compendium (and weave some David Mitchell-esque multi-story concept around them) and you have a surefire winner.

Because Barnes is a seriously good writer, and as I’ve already remarked, I’ve never read one of his books without at some point being bowled over and caused to utter serious praise. The opening pages of The Sense of an Ending were brilliant and there were some brilliantly disturbing moments in it which have stuck with me. The opening chapters of Nothing to be Frightened of were so jam-packed with insights on the themes of death, fear and God that my copy contains fewer lines un-touched by a highlighter than touched (and the opening line is one of my all time favourites). And I could go on….

So this Summer I packed his short volume The Pedant in the Kitchen for my holiday reading, a mere 136 pages long. I was hoping for some light, amusing, brilliantly observed, witty essays about gastronomy and by and large I was not disappointed.

I was partly drawn to the title because of the way it resonates with my own kitchen demeanour. My wife will frequently call me a pedant for the way I approach a recipe, and just a fortnight ago I unleashed more of an angry outburst upon my kitchen sales than any digital appliance should ever have to bear. (I had resigned myself to the fact it wasn’t likely to measure an accurate 0.3 grams, but I would have settled for an accurate 1g which I could then have meticulously divided up. Alas it couldn’t even deal with that level of precision, and thus its days are numbered and a replacement has become the first item on my Christmas list.)

I’m not ridiculously pedantic. I will amend recipes, substitute ingredients and happily concoct meals off the cuff with increasing frequency. But the fact remains that when following a recipe for the first time, I try to stick to the letter of the law. I figure that the people who pen these things tend to know better than I what works and what doesn’t, and if the dish could have done with a little more or less of a particular item, they would have told me. So I follow the recipe meticulously the first time round, and only after that do I contemplate adapting it, pencilling notes in the margins as I go.

In Barnes, I felt I had found a friend.

Like the author, I came to cooking relatively late and more by necessity than choice. So I chuckled knowingly at the earliest chapters, which described the brilliant home cooked meals with which he grew up and the oblivious mystery of how they ever came to be. My mother was, and is, a great cook and I ate well for all my childhood, whilst never feeling the need to know how any of the dishes came into existence. It wasn’t until I went to university that I suddenly realised how clueless I was and quickly had to learn to cook, in order to avoid the clichéd inevitability of ready meals. I made a vow with myself that I would not buy pasta sauces when they are the easiest thing in the world to make – and with few exceptions, I kept that vow.

I learnt by purchasing a copy of Nigel Slater’s The Kitchen Diaries and more or less began at page 1 and worked my way through. Before long I found I was enjoying cooking more than I thought possible and also found that I was relatively good at it! From there it’s blossomed into one of my favourite pastimes.

And yet, being the logical (or perhaps logic-bound) chap I am, I still made rather frequent, laughable errors. I recall the embarrassment of serving my family what I dubbed ‘winter broccoli’, some bare green stalks resembling leafless trees, bereft of their fluffy ends due to rather vigorous stirring. I vividly remember my parents laughing uncontrollably as I handed them the most limp-looking lettuce this world has ever seen, having reasoned that since boiling water kills germs, that would be the best way to clean said lettuce.

So I appreciated Barnes’ amusing account of his own journey in gastronomy. And even though Slater was my earliest mentor (and The Kitchen Diaries remains one of my favourite books of any genre) I still share something of the scepticism with which Barnes approaches the chefs of the ‘trust your instinct’ school of cookery. My instinct has led to some pretty depressing dishes!

Some of the outstanding moments in the book, which made me laugh and cringe as I recognised my own pedantry in cold hard prose, include his description of the annual cookery book cull (p25-32), or the corresponding inventory of the utensil drawer (p122) complete with giraffe-handled salad servers, deeply unhygienic-looking spatulas (spatuli?!), an odd number of chopsticks and multi-pronged serving forks of dubious origin and purpose.

I enjoyed his rant about the onion dilemma – why do chefs consider them to only come in three sizes: small, medium and large? And how does one tell what constitutes a medium onion without first comparing it to all the others in the shop? (p21) And although in theory I am an advocate of supporting local butchers, fishmongers, green grocers etc, I’ve had enough exchanges with scornful specialists who make me feel like a cretin for asking what they deem to be obvious questions to agree that ‘The unlovely success of supermarkets is due to many factors, but eliminating a potentially awkward social exchange is by no means a minimal one.’ (p78)

And my favourite section of all came early on:

The Pedant approaches a new recipe, however straightforward, with old anxieties: words flash at him like stop-signs. Is this recipe framed in this imprecise way because there is a happy latitude – or rather, a scary freedom – for interpretation; or because the writer isn’t capable of expressing him- or herself more accurately?

It starts with simple words. How big is a lump, how voluminous is a slug or gout, when does a drizzle become rain? Is a cup a rough-and-ready generic term, or a precise American measure? Why tell us to add a wineglass of something, when wineglasses come in so many sizes? Or – to return briefly to jam – how about this instruction from Richard Olney: “Throw in as many strawberries as you can hold piled up in joined hands.” I mean, really. Are we meant to write to the late Mr Olney’s executors and ask how big his hands were? What if children made this jam, or circus giants? (p19-20)

I sympathise. I still have to ask my wife quite regularly if my peaks are the requisite softness or stiffness when beating eggs, and each time I wince at the implicit potential for innuendo. Why do these chefs dabble in such ambiguity? To make pedants like me red-faced, no doubt!

So all in all I enjoyed the book, but as I have already alluded to, I often feel that Barnes fizzles out or loses my interest partway in, and this was no exception. Some chapters felt thoroughly skippable and little in the second half of the book made me laugh or nod in agreement as I had done early on. As I’ve pondered why this was, I’ve come to two conclusions about my relationship to Barnes.

  1. Barnes and I both fish from very different ponds.
    I think one of the things I find hard is that Barnes wears his influences on his sleeve, and his influences simply aren’t ones I share. I owe none of my culinary heritage (consciously at least) to Jane Grigson, so long and frequent heartfelt references to her work do nothing for me. Similarly, I’ve never read Flaubert and I’m not especially interested in French etymology, so huge swathes of Barnes’ writing is thus lost on me.

    Of course, I can appreciate that he is an expert on some things of which I know little, and there is plenty to admire about expertise of any sort. But I guess I just find some of his philosophising a little niche, and it is often the case that the second half of his books fall back on his specialisms; once he’s made his case through universal observations, he returns to his beloved subjects and I zone out.

    Perhaps I just need to get over myself and read some Flaubert…

  2. One, or other, or both of us has a second half problem.

    Maybe Julian Barnes is just very good at starting books. And maybe he’s just not great at finishing them. Perhaps he launches into something brimming with brilliant ideas, but he uses them up too quickly, or finds he can’t sustain them for the course. Or maybe he loses enthusiasm as the project goes on, eager to get onto the next work. I can understand all of those possibilities.

    Or perhaps the problem is with me? Maybe I get bored with his style too quickly. Perhaps I’m so wowed by novelty and bored into impatience that I simply lack the stamina to sustain my enjoyment of his books for the full duration. But in my defence, his books are often short and I read far longer with more enjoyment, so I’m not sure that’s necessarily the case.

    So maybe the problem lies somewhere in between. Perhaps the subjects he addresses don’t warrant the length he gives to them? Perhaps an 80 page book would have been better than a 136 page one. In which case, who’s to blame? The publisher for insisting that the word count be of a more marketable size? The author for padding out the material further than he should have? Or me for being unwilling to fork out for a hard copy of a book that amounts to little more than a collection-of-blog-posts size?

    Who knows?

Either way, reading this book was largely – if not wholly – enjoyable, and in addition to helping me laugh my way through the first day of my holiday it also helped me think further about my relationship to this undoubtedly important author.

I will continue to read his books with eagerness and hope that we will sort out our differences through some novel in the not too distant future.

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