Culinary Mansplaining · LRB 4 January 2018
‘Jonathan Meades is the Jonathan Meades of our generation,’ reads a puff-quote by the late A.A. Gill on the cover of Meades’s new cookbook, The Plagiarist in the Kitchen (Unbound, £20), but it’s hard to think of any patch less in need of a Jonathan Meades than English food writing. Perhaps this wasn’t the case when Meades was writing his restaurant column for the Times in the 1980s and 1990s, when food culture deserved the inventively digressive broadsides he continues to direct at English blindspots – modernist architecture, provincial glamour, France – in his excellent television programmes. But thanks to some of the cooks cited in his bibliography – Simon Hopkinson, say, whose Roast Chicken and Other Stories (Ebury, £16.99) is a founding text of contemporary cookbook-writing, or Fergus Henderson, whose St John restaurants trained many of London’s newish wave of serious chefs – and to his and Gill’s generation of restaurant critics, the transgressive has become familiar.
He’s not unaware of this, of course, and so, for the first time in his career, tries to make a virtue out of his project’s lack of distinctiveness. The Plagiarist in the Kitchen is, he writes, ‘a recipe book that is also an explicit paean to the avoidance of culinary originality (should such a thing exist), to the daylight robbery of recipes, to hijacking techniques and methods, to the notion that in the kitchen there is nothing new and nor can there be anything new’. What this means is that recipes nicked from an admirably diverse cast of victims are interspersed with discussions of some of history’s ‘higher cribbers’: Borges, Montaigne, Stevenson, Eliot, Mann and Harold Bloom; Michel Tournier and Alain Robbe-Grillet; pretend pretenders to the throne, Perkin Warbeck and Lambert Simnel; Napoleon’s chef Dunand; and ‘the genitally preoccupied Roman epigrammatist Martial’.
I found some of the recipes in The Plagiarist in the Kitchen so fantastical, in terms of the quantities and marinades and lengths of time called for, that I wondered if the whole thing was an elaborate joke I’d missed. Meades’s take on an Elizabeth David recipe for sauce au vin du Médoc, which David credited to ‘Madame Bernard, the wife of a wine-grower of Cissac-Médoc’ (Meades wonders whether David ‘emulated [the] deadpan cunning’ of the painter Christian Schad, ‘and invented it’ herself), inexplicably doubles the already large amount of meat in David’s version. What possible reason could Meades have for cooking one rabbit, one hare, 2kg of beef and 1kg of pork for the sake of a single stew? Massive Cité Radieuse dinner parties for twenty? This seems unlikely: a ticker-tape of advice runs across the bottom of every page, advising readers to ‘concentrate … fuck the guests … and all that conviviality malarky.’ Perhaps he lives off leftovers, like the girl I went to university with who, at the start of each term, filled the freezer with 150 home-cooked portions for one in takeaway tins. The medieval quantities continue, peaking in his recipe for cassoulet. Stage one, the boiling of the beans, requires pork rind, 500g of salt pork, one end of raw ham on the bone, 250g of diced raw ham and ‘one large garlic boiling sausage’. Stage two involves eight Toulouse sausages, 500g of pork loin and 500g of lamb shoulder, all roasted in duck fat. Stage three, assembly, calls for another base layer of pork rinds and eight confit legs of duck, before the finished thing is ‘sprayed’ with more duck fat. Shopping around online I struggled to get the price of this bestiary below £70.
Similarly alarming is a recipe for hare marinated in sloe gin, cloves, orange peel and pork rind, then cooked for four hours with chocolate, prunes and minced offal, before the hare’s blood is added to the gravy at the end (‘get treatment for squeamishness … vegetarianism is curable’). This is titled ‘Hare: the only way’, which recalls the culinary mansplaining of Charles Arrowby in Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, the Sea: ‘Bananas should be cut, never mashed … oranges should be eaten in solitude and as a treat when one is feeling hungry … views which I hold on the subject of food approximate to absolute truths.’ An Arrowby recipe is included in Kate Young’s Little Library Cookbook (Head of Zeus, £25) which also has a plagiaristic premise: she writes up meals and recipes described in works of literature. That would be a bit too cute for Meades, even if his Lancashire hotpot is ‘stolen word for word from Anthony Burgess’: ‘Season well, cover with good stock, top with oysters or, if you wish, sliced beef kidneys. There is no need for officious timing: you will know when it is done. Serve with pickled red cabbage and a cheap claret.’
Henderson’s version of this clubby vagueness is more appealing – ‘press the ducks’ legs into the carrot bed, skin side upwards, season the dish, and pour chicken stock over until the ducks’ legs are showing like alligators in a swamp,’ The Complete Nose to Tail (Bloomsbury, £40) suggests – because it’s offered up in a spirit of generosity. Meades’s weariness is a pose, but I wonder if the people who find it most amusing keep that in mind, or whether they see his aphorisms (‘fine diners – an anagram of tossers’) as Hitchens-style truth bombs. The most sensible general advice for reading cookbooks applies here as much as anywhere: fillet it for a handful of inspired, useful, memorisable things. In The Plagiarist in the Kitchen these include deep-fried eggs and a brilliant recipe for the ‘vaguely improbable’ vitello tonnato; recommendations of butchers who stock dried pig’s blood, testicles and chitterlings; a recipe for stracciatella that trumps Jamie Oliver’s latest concept, 5 Ingredients (Michael Joseph, £26), by weaving magic out of three: boiling stock poured over a paste of eggs and pecorino romano. Perhaps in ten years’ time The Plagiarist in the Kitchen will look like the ‘anti-cookbook’ it claims to be. Grace Dent was recently named the Guardian’s chief restaurant critic; her predecessor, Marina O’Loughlin, now sits in Gill’s chair at the Sunday Times. Perhaps the bluffly blokeish voice will become the exception, rather than the rule.
Meades makes only a single dismissive reference to the ‘berries, grasses, seaweed etc’ of the New Nordic chefs who are probably the most influential figures in cooking at the moment. Magnus Nilsson’s Fäviken (Phaidon, £35) calls for potatoes boiled with armfuls of autumn leaves, and cakes baked from pine bark and birch sap. Christian Puglisi’s Relae: A Book of Ideas (Ten Speed, £40) disputes Meades’s view that ‘anyone who claims to have “invented” a dish is dishonest or delusional or foaming,’ and celebrates the gargouillou salad, ‘sixty different herbs and vegetables intertwined beautifully’ by Michel Bras, whose restaurant last year tried to give its three stars back to the Michelin Guide. They are all involved in the annual ‘MAD’ symposium in Copenhagen, presided over by René Redzepi of Noma, the first and most famous of these restaurants, which strikes me as just the kind of utopian, obsessive, aesthetically purist event that Meades the filmmaker, rather than Meades the cook, might enjoy.