This column is frequently written at the kitchen table, not because this is the most comfortable place to work, but because something is usually on the stove or in the oven that needs watching, or one of the young Helpdesk apprentices is cooking something new and requires a bit of maternal supervision. At the moment soup is being prepared under my watchful nose.
The kitchen is where the rubber meets the road in family life. It is not only the source of the meals that quite literally sustain us, but the place where our aesthetic judgements are formed, social skills are honed, and so many moral and intellectual virtues are learned, including: precision in the preparation of food, attentive patience while it cooks, generosity in sharing what is prepared, self-denial in walking past half a cake or a lonely last piece of pie sitting out on the counter, respect for the wisdom of years when, for example, one’s mother explains that pouring the cream directly into a hot, acidic sauce will cause the recipe to split (first ladle some of the sauce into the cream to warm and temper it), mortification of the flesh when a recipe goes awry and there is nothing else to eat, and of course diligence in cleaning up afterwards. In his column this week, our editor, Christopher Altieri, points out that it’s hard to trust someone with great things, episcopal things, if he’s never learned to clean a kitchen properly. Kitchen virtues are indeed virtues for life.
[Writing paused here for a meal of tomato & garlic soup and fresh bread prepared by the nine-year-old apprentice. Ice cream followed and clean-up close on its heels.]
It always seems odd to me that there isn’t more written in fiction about food. Obviously food writing is a genre in itself, but in many novels there are few scenes of cooking or eating. There are of course myriad books where food takes on either a mystical or erotic quality (often both) — novels like Chocolat, by Joanne Harris, and many far less accomplished stories — but that isn’t the sort of thing I mean. Food in these books is a fairytale element, a metaphor. You would never keep them on the cookbook shelf.
As a child, many of my favourite books were replete with descriptions of meals, both everyday and celebratory. The Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder and the Anne of Green Gables books by Lucy Maud Montgomery are two prime examples. Both of these series featured so many descriptions of food that some enterprising author-editors had produced cookbooks from them: books that live in the kitchen. They made the stories real and relatable. How better could we enter into the lives of beloved characters, historical or imagined, than to work as they worked, eat as they ate?
[Writing suspended again to prepare dessert — oreo cheesecake — for tomorrow’s lunch with friends.]
As an adult, I still cannot resist the siren song of a good cookbook.
[Stopped writing to pull some favourites off the shelf; got distracted and read for twenty minutes standing at the kitchen counter.]
Honestly, the only thing that stops me reading Giorgio Locatelli’s Made In Italy in bed is that if, in a bit of a doze, I dropped the book on my face — this has been known to happen when reading after hours — I would require reconstructive surgery to set things right. It is a massive book.
I could live for a year on the salads and antipasti alone.
[Speaking of salads, the potatoes for tomorrow’s potato salad need boiling, and the eggs, too. I’ll be right back.]
Books that live in the kitchen are nothing new. The name Mrs Beeton is still a byword for domestic competence. First published as a single thousand page volume in 1861, when Isabella Beeton was only 25, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management entered an already crowded market. This could have led to failure, for not everyone has room for a new thousand-page tome on her kitchen shelf, but Mrs Beeton’s work was comprehensive inasmuch as it contained within it parts of most of the other popular cookbooks of the day. This has been called plagiarism, but it must be said that she had a major editorial role in their assembly, standardising the format of the recipes to give simple instructions and clear information about cost, seasonality and yield that was sometimes missing in the original form. It contains some oddities, to be sure — the suggestion to boil pasta for an hour and forty five minutes is, er, dubious — but also many interesting insights into the social history of her era, such as her defense of imported Australian meat. In a book in which nine out of ten pages were taken up with recipes, there must have been something very particular on her mind to think this needed saying. (See my photo for this curious passage.)
Poor Isabella Beeton died in 1865 at the age of only 28, after contracting puerperal fever following the birth of her fourth child. Her book remained a best seller in Britain, second only to the Bible in sales, well into the 20th century, but this never benefited her estate or descendents. Isabella had always been the one with business sense in her marriage, and her publisher husband, Samuel, unable to weather a financial downturn in 1886 by his own slim financial talents, sold the rights to Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management to a competitor barely fifteen months after she died. However sad that turn of events, it is nonetheless a tribute of sorts to Isabella’s management skills that Samuel did not cope well without her. Her success was clearly the result of more than canny plagiarism.
[It really won’t do to continue writing — on Mrs Beeton of all people! — in lieu of cleaning up the kitchen. Hiatus until tomorrow, I think.]
I’ve just put the macaroni in the pan, so, despite what Mrs Beeton says, I have only a few minutes in which to finish this column. I need to set the table, too, so my laptop must be put away.
Next week the Literary Helpdesk will once again import to the kitchen table books from other rooms, volumes immediately recognisable as foreign due to their lack of sauce spatter stains or the light dusting of flour that comes from living on the shelf above the stand mixer. Few people would name a humble cookbook as their favourite thing to read, but maybe we should give them more credit. Equally likely to be picked up when life is at its busiest or its quietest, these hardworking books are, to quote Mrs Beeton, “seasonable at any time.”
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