pedant in the kitchen

Here’s a non-fiction humorous title I read (borrowed from the library) just before Christmas. A sense of humour is helpful in remaining calm over the Christmas period when cooking all those different dishes and discovering that the people at Abel and Cole  (who suggested some gorgeous new takes on Christmas vegetable preparation) must have some huge range cooker if they can fit all those roasting tins in at one time!

The author has a brilliant look at all the different recipe books by domestic goddesses/gods that have wowed us with impossible recipes over the years. There’s also practical recipe book-buying information – which ones have lasted the test of time on his shelf of cookery books. Recommended especially for those who are struggling to repeat the finished dish shots from the recipe books. From the numbers of recipe shots I have art-directed over the years I know that much of what is cooked is seriously tweaked and molly coddled to make something worth photographing. For example, ice cubes are perspex, ice cream is mashed potato, and the cannabis in ‘The Cannabis Cookbook’ is… well I can’t say…

The book is well-laid out with good pleasing typography by Richard Marston, and illustrations by Joe Berger.

illustration from Pedant in the Kitchen
Illustration by Joe Berger. (Please excuse the quality of this scan – difficult to keep flat without damaging the spine!)

Here’s a couple of quotes from Julian Barnes’ book:

Unless a cookbook is nothing more than a collection of plagiarisms, a sense of its author’s personality will inevitably come through. Sometimes this is a mistake – that personality may be authoritarian, snobbish, effete, dull. The author, for all their technical expertise in understanding ingredients, may not have a clue about what is going on inside the human beings who buy and use their book. Anthony Lane, reviewing the scarily efficient Martha Stewart, quotes this typical piece of advice about having folks round for a bite: ‘One of the most important moments on which to expend extra effort is the beginning of the party, often an awkward time, when guests feel tentative and insecure.’ To which Lane exactly responds: ‘The guests are insecure? How about the frigging cook?’


If you’re just starting up the vertiginous curve of cook-book ownership, allow me to offer certain words of advice, all of it paid for in money.

1) Never buy a book because of its pictures. Never, ever, point at a photo in a cookbook and say. ‘I’m going to make that.’ You can’t. I once knew a commercial photographer who specialised in food and, believe me, the post-production work that recently gave us a slimline Kate Winslet is as nothing compared to what they shamelessly do to food….

….3) Avoid books with too wide a compass – anything remotely called Great Dishes of the World – or too narrow a one: Sargasso Seafood or Waffle Wonderment…..

….5) Never buy a juice book if you haven’t a juicer.

Back cover copy:

The Pedant’s ambition is simple. He wants to cook tasty, nutritious food; he wants not to poison his friends; and he wants to expand, slowly and with pleasure, his culinary repertoire. A stern critic of himself and others, he knows he is never going to invent his own recipes (although he might, in a burst of enthusiasm, increase the quantity of a favourite ingredient). Rather, he is a recipe-bound follower of the instructions of others. It is in his interrogations of these recipes, and of those who create them, that the Pedant’s true pedantry emerges. How big, exactly, is a ‘lump’? Is a ‘slug’ larger than a ‘gout’? When does a ‘drizzle’ become a downpour? And what is the difference between slicing and chopping? This book is a witty and practical account of Julian Barnes’ search for gastronomic precision. It is a quest that leaves him seduced by Jane Grigson, infuriated by Nigel Slater, and reassured by Mrs Beeton’s Victorian virtues. The Pedant in the Kitchen is perfect comfort for anyone who has ever been defeated by a cookbook and is something that none of Julian Barnes’ legion of admirers will want to miss.