A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
When Bookfox Kate proposed this theme week, I stuck my hand in the air immediately and cried ‘Me me me!’. After all, one of the first pieces I ever wrote for Vulpes Libris was on the pleasure of having favourite cookery books for reading (not cooking from). I was also delighted because it gave me an excuse to write about the latest addition to my groaning shelf of cookery books I don’t really plan to cook from, Jonathan Meades’s The Plagiarist in the Kitchen.
I’ve not read much the work of Jonathan Meades apart from a few pieces of journalism. I know him best as a documentary film-maker and cultural critic on TV. I cannot resist his particular rebarbative charm, I watch and learn from his distinctive take on modernity, and shall be forever grateful to him for helping me articulate a love of modern art and architecture, especially my depraved taste for Brutalism. I am now regretting not having paid attention to his writing; this may be because he took a long stint writing about restaurants in the Times, and while I am one of the last people in the country to have a newspaper delivered through the door, it is not and never has been the Times. I have a lot of interesting catching up to do. Meades is just the same on the page as he is on the screen, and I can see and hear him in my mind as I read: the boxy figure in a slightly rumpled suit squaring up to the viewer, the shock of hair, the shades, the trademark scowl, the deadpan, take-no-prisoners monotone as the presenter stands and delivers in front of uncompromising buildings or landscapes or extraordinary visual effects. I’m struggling to describe the effect, which is profound – all I can do is recommend that next time something of his turns up in the small hours on BBC Four, be sure to watch it.
This time, he has written a book of recipes. He claims to have stolen them all, and this jeu d’esprit is carried through the book. No-one can honestly say s/he has invented a dish, he says. Everything we cook has antecedents. Maybe I read the wrong cookery books to qualify me to argue with him, but I find myself violently agreeing with him – I think this is a bit of a non-point. Surely cookery book writers are mostly compilers and collectors, and so he is merely the latest in a long line of plagiarists and is rudely pointing out their crime. The best books to read are those interspersed with stories of having eaten the dish in idyllic circumstances, or food triggering memories of travels and encounters. Some chefs have a gimmick or a method; but on the whole they are applying the gimmick to existing culinary ideas. Perhaps he is saying they haven’t had the honesty that he has; more likely though this is a typical Meades joke. I certainly wasted some energy wondering why he was making such a strong claim to be doing what Elizabeth David, Alice B Toklas and many others have done before him. I did smile though, so soon after reading Ulrich Raulff’s Farewell to the Horse to see again Montaigne’s amusing take on horse-thievery: Like a horse thief I paint the mane and the tail…. etc.
So, this is a book without original recipes in it. Not a problem, when what makes them enjoyable to read is this incredibly strong sense of the author’s intellect, erudition, taste and voice. Recipes surely are more about taste and experience than wild originality. As a cook as well as a critic of the cooking of others he has jolly good reviews (“the best amateur chef in the world”), and the plagiarised recipes have all the signs, including the useful observations from experience, that the author has cooked them with success. As in all the best cookery books, between the recipes the author drops names and scatters places, occasions and memories with a generous hand. There is a mixture of basics, methods and dishes. Sections are pared down to the simplest – fish, meat, offal (I’m sure you were expecting that), cheese, eggs, sauce. It includes his versions of European classics, from Arancini to Cassoulet. There is a mere handful of desserts.
He pricks pomposity, fashion and ghastly good taste (Various degrees of chastity have spread to other oils he says, as he lays into olive oil snobbery). Words you will not find in this book are: sous vide, compressed, soil, gel (the only mention of foam is in a typically splenetic take down of modern culinary fashion). At no point are you asked to get out a blowtorch. I can hear his voice in my head in the line So far as I recall I have not eaten guacamole that introduces his own much simpler way with an avocado.
So, will this be a book that ends up with food stained pages? Very like my beat-up copy of Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking, I think it will have a few. It is the same sort of mixture of practicality and fantasy. There are splendid small scale ideas in here, as well as the big bow-wow classic recipes, and I’ve already (for instance) tweaked my tortilla method after reading the book. Parmesan biscuits next! A number of the classic dishes have a huge list of ingredients (albeit none of them outrageous – Waitrose’s shelves will not be stripped of anything particularly exotic), and by the time they have all been prepared and subjected to the multiple methods that go into the dish, the end result will come up in near-restaurant quantities. I very much doubt that they will successfully scale down for the small household, and can only assume that Jonathan Meades has many friends. But his methods seem very sound to this reader, and his recipes for less complex foods look achievable. Anyway, why do I read recipes such as Elizabeth David’s Tripes à la mode de Caen (‘Take the whole stomach of an ox’) for any reason other than the pleasure of reading them?
Finally, this book is an Unbound edition, and they have done a superb job on it. The book production is exceptionally stylish, and Meades’s artistic vision and taste are all over it. His culinary laws are printed as a running footer on each opening, and (be warned, those of a timid disposition) they end …GET TREATMENT FOR SQUEAMISHNESS…VEGETARIANISM IS CURABLE…. It has a good index (vital in a cookery book), a booklist, and the splendid list of subscribers (it’s a weird habit, but I love reading lists of names). I love the Unbound idea – the founders in their foreword date the idea of publishing by subscription to the late 18th/early 19th c, but I was taken back to one of my favourite publishing entrepreneurs, John Ogilby, who lived and died in the 17th century and had the idea of luring subscribers to finance luxury books down to a fine art. This is an affordable luxury – a great addition to a readers’ collection of cookery books.
Jonathan Meades: The Plagiarist in the Kitchen. A Lifetime of Culinary Thefts. London: Unbound, 2017. 176pp