A Serious Table

Christopher Driver

  • Simple French Food by Richard Olney
    Jill Norman and Hobhouse, 339 pp, £7.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 906908 22 1
  • Living off nature by Judy Urquhart
    Penguin, 396 pp, £5.95, May 1982, ISBN 0 14 005107 4
  • The Food and Cooking of Russia by Lesley Chamberlain
    Allen Lane, 330 pp, £9.95, June 1982, ISBN 0 7139 1468 8
  • Food, Wine and Friends by Robert Carrier
    Sphere, 197 pp, £6.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 7221 2295 0
  • The Colour Book of Fast Food edited by Alison Kerr
    Octopus, 77 pp, £1.99, June 1981, ISBN 0 7064 1510 8

Drake postponed sailing against the Spanish Armada till his game of bowls was over, Nero preferred his lyre to ARP duty, Belshazzar’s feast was rudely interrupted. In that appealing branch of mythology which counterpoints the trivial with the catastrophic, the cooks on HMS Sheffield deserve a place, killed while preparing lunch. Few men seem as innocent and apolitical as a chef who is preoccupied with his craft – though an exception might have to be made for the trusty employed by the Borgias. Frenchmen, perhaps, are too realistic, or live too closely to their chefs, to subscribe to this view: it was a Frenchman who reminded the world that an army marches upon its stomach, and another Frenchman who proved it for the English. As Punch wrote after Alexis Soyer’s self-imposed slavery in the Crimea on behalf of his adopted country:

The Cordon Bleu to the War is gone,
    In the ranks of death you’ll find him.
His snow-white apron is girded on
    And his magic stove behind him.
‘Army beef,’ says the Cordon Bleu,
    ‘Though a stupid bungler slays thee,
One skilful hand thy steaks shall stew,
    One artist’s pan shall braise thee.’

(That field stove, incidentally, remained standard British Army equipment for a century.) Soyer confronted, and by a force of personality equal to Florence Nightingale’s temporarily quelled, traditional British scorn of the most necessary of all crafts. The scorn, tinged with envy, is nowhere better caught than in Kipling’s boys’ story ‘His Gift’, where the useless youth whose middle name is Glasse discovers his métier by the camp fire and is assured by his mentor that ‘a good cook, even on Board of Trade allowance, has brought many a ship to port that ‘ud otherwise ’ave mut’nied on the’igh seas.’

For a hundred and fifty years, ever since the best jobs in London kitchens began going to Frenchmen and later Italians, the British branch of the culinary trade has suffered from a strong sense of its own unimportance. Twenty miles across the Channel, the hand that dipped the ladle might be allowed to rule the world. But not here, and if there has been a more dispiriting task than cooking for the ordinary run of British prime ministers, it must have been cooking for the British royal family (excepting the joyous interlude of Edward VII). All that would now change, no doubt, if William Rodgers and Prince Charles simultaneously arrived at supreme power: the one wrote for, the other confessedly followed, The Good Food Guide. Even gossip fragments like these are clues to the altered sensibility that has put cooks in front of the cameras almost as often as crooks and cricketers, and that counts the world well lost for a smooth liaison: une mousse vaut bien les Malouines. The post-colonial temper of Britain over the past generation or two was not the least significant of the forces that propelled the dames and even the commanders of the Empire out of their reception rooms and into their kitchens. Their lives needed a new focus: they relaxed as though with the relieved expulsion of breath that in a family follows the departure of a particularly tiresome and exacting house guest. Elizabeth David herself – a veteran by marriage of wartime Cairo and pre-Independence Delhi – advised her readers thirty years ago: ‘Devote all the time and resources at your disposal to the building up of a fine kitchen. It will be, as it should be, the most comforting and comfortable room in the house.’

Millions of women, courted by designers, hardware manufacturers, advertising agents and publishers, have since taken Mrs David and her numerous plagiarists at their word. Over a thousand food-related titles are published in Britain every year. Novelists and social scientists spend more of their available time in the bedroom, but everyone else is to be found in that room, nowadays too clinical to be perceived as precisely comfortable, where warmth is more dependable, orgasmic experience promised, and divorce more often averted than provoked, thanks to the newspaper columnists for whom nothing you can buy at the Ann Summers shops out-performs freshly-ground black pepper.

Cookery is the ultimate quietism in circles where the alternative is a prosperous but discontented leisure. It is the least contentious of the useful arts, except within the band of its own practitioners, who squabble without issue, like the neutered tomcats not a few of them are. It is difficult to make a conscious and precise political statement in a recipe, or to find the culinary counterparts to Guernica or Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, capable of earning their creators obloquy, exile or death. Marinetti’s fascist-surrealist manifesto, La Cucina Futurista, with its diatribe against unmanly pasta asciutta, was at once a singular exception and a total failure: pasta only began to dwindle on the dinner plates of Italy when democracy returned and, with it, the international waist-line neurosis.

Unconscious politics are something else. It is not merely that, as is properly said, the absence of politics is itself a political statement. The language of cookery is studded with value words (often, it is true, for want of an adequate range of descriptive ones), and following Brillat-Savarin, much can be told about a man or woman not just by what they eat but by the advice about it which they choose to follow. Although, on the lips of a housewife or a food critic alike, ‘complicated’ is a word that generally expresses disapproval of the dish or meal in question, the recent flight into cookery can also be viewed as a flight from other kinds of complexity, an alternative to participatory democracy. It takes the single-minded devotion of a mullah to master the repertoire displayed in a single serious cookery book, and many people have dozens or hundreds, besides their clippings from the Sunday magazines. Without critical self-limitation, super-cook quickly becomes super-bore. By comparison, a virtuoso sight-reader on the piano can gut the oeuvre of a prolific composer – Chopin, say, or Rachmaninov – inside a week, and remain a human being at the end of it, with time to read the paper, and sign a manifesto or two.

Affronted conscience and intellect, as well as surfeited palate, affect the notes with which professional chefs trumpet a return to first principles. ‘Faites simple,’ said Escoffier as Edwardian richesse – the cuisine of the absurd – swelled up and burst in the 1900s, and salaams have been performed in front of Richard Olney’s Simple French Food by some of the most precious amateurs in New York and London. (Oddly, when so many food books of little worth are published here – the unspeakable in pursuit of the edible – this frugally illustrated, decently produced book at a fair price has taken eight years to cross the Atlantic.) Mr Olney, like but unlike Robert Carrier, is an American who has exported himself to countries where there is no damned nonsense about democracy in matters cultural. He is a cook and a teacher of cookery who commutes between Provence and London, and he takes his craft with intense seriousness. The result is not for the throw-it-together school (improvisation in the kitchen, though admirable, still has to obey instinctual rules). Nor is it for the squeamish. For instance, no book known to me is so lucid and particular about the four stages of edibility characteristic of the broad bean, which in England was only properly understood by a few country-house gardener-cooks until Cypriot greengrocers multiplied in London and taught us to pick, buy and eat at a stage that economically permits the pod to be consumed as well as the bean. Again, even the scatter of ‘Survivors’ cookery writers, of which Judy Urquhart’s Living off nature is a fair representative, are no more surgically explicit than Olney about the killing, butchering and dressing of a rabbit for the table: ‘Cut off the head and split it in two symmetrically (it will add flavour, and many people enjoy nibbling at the cheeks and brains).’ Lamb’s testicles or ‘frivolities’ (an American usage unknown to the OED) are treated with similar reverence: ‘dipped in batter and deep fried, they are exquisite.’

Mr Olney’s demeanour towards the title of his own book resembles that of a concert artist who is brought up short by the implications of a composer’s instruction, semplice, on the printed score: anything so easy is bound to be excessively difficult, especially with modern tools. And so it is in cookery: ‘Were one to accept unaltered natural flavours or simplicity of execution as fundamental to the concept of simple food, rustic cooking (which necessarily embodies complicated aspects, one of its roles being essentially alchemical – the magical transformation of poor or vulgar elements into something transcendental) could not be admitted.’ To Olney himself, nothing is alien: ‘the octopus is a rougher beast than the squid, but certainly not unworthy of a serious and unprejudiced table.’ Prejudice at his own table ought logically to favour transformability in a foodstuff over more instant forms of appeal. Fillet steak is the gastronomic equivalent, not of haute couture, but of prêt-à-porter. It is more virtuous to act the alchemist – to beat an octopus against a rock or soak tripe for 24 hours as the mere prolegomena to actual cooking – and if the Toulonnais (as Olney tells us) are popularly put down as mange-poulpes by more conventionally snobbish French appetites, they should take it as a compliment.

Ideologically, the notion that culinary rectitude resides more in the successful treatment of sows’ ears than in an appeal to silk purses may seem obvious enough. In China, it preceded Mao, and will survive him. But in the Soviet Union it has yet to reach the department in the Kremlin where publishing decisions are taken. Lesley Chamberlain, whose Food and Cooking of Russia suggests that she spent her short time in Moscow more profitably than most people do, says that only rarely does a cookery book appear in Soviet shops. She quotes Mayakovsky’s mocking and all too prophetic farewell to good eating in the early days of the Revolution:

Eat your pineapples, enjoy your hazel hen,
Your last day is on its way, bourgeois men.

The ironic consequence is that the Soviet cooking public remains dependent on Mrs Molokhovets, Russia’s strikingly close contemporary of Mrs Beeton, whose thousand-page classic, Gift to Young Housewives, preserves folk and Church traditions that might have perished had the Party displayed the elementary opportunism of Sainsbury’s or Marks and Spencer, or for that matter the British Ministry of Food during the last war, and published its own recipes for the foodstuffs actually available.

But back to Olney. Whether one would wish to dine often at his table is debatable. I would trust his recipes for most things, from hot onion omelette with vinegar to potatoes in beer, and he is sound, too, about the art of menu composition, so often neglected in domestic and restaurant kitchens alike: ‘One of the commonest faults among France’s most talented chefs is a compulsion, fired by the touching and too human desire to flatter a Sybaritic guest, to compose a menu, each of the parts of which may be of an exquisite purity but which, in its plethoric whole, adds up to something in the way of barbaric orgy, leaving the would-be Sybarite exhausted, uneasy in spirit as in body.’ But his conversation, for an age which expects chefs and hosts to double each other’s roles, may lack the sprightliness and range of the scholar-gypsies among British cookery writers – Jane Grigson, Claudia Roden – and his Calvinist tendency to self-examination at inappropriate moments might also prove a deterrent: ‘I know that I have often diminished my table companions’ pleasure in a meal that would otherwise have ravished them by a helpless compulsion to analyse critically each preparation.’

Severities of this kind have limited appeal in the English-language cookery-book market as a whole. They are certainly not to be found where Robert Carrier entertains, to judge by the 15 pages in Food, Wine and Friends, which carry a reproduction of the star himself, hair silvered as a salmon trout, cheeks puffy as a soufflé, skin shiny as a persimmon. It is, as he puts it, a very visual book, and the political message it conveys is that to him that hath, it shall be given: not only Hintlesham Hall to live in, but John Cleese and Joanna Lumley for company, and a useful collection of cashmere sweaters to wear on the HTV series which spawned the book. We further learn that HTV’s ‘imaginative and courageous’ Patrick Dromgoole (a good director of avant-garde plays as an undergraduate, if I remember aright) ‘had the doubtful pleasure of footing the bills’ for the claret granita and the spaghetti with black truffles.

However, Carrier and his feudal retainers can at least cook, and in my experience usually cook well. If you imagined this was the flashiest a cookery book could be, every week there is another flash in the pan: say, Alison Kerr’s The Colour Book of Fast Food. The implicit message of this genre is that if the education your country has given you has left you without the money, wit, technique or inclination to chop with Olney, boil mallow roots with Urquhart, or smooch with Carrier, you can still make something called Isle of Skye soup by opening a can of condensed mushroom soup and heating it with three tablespoons of single cream, three tablespoons of whisky and four button mushrooms. Equality of opportunity, after all, has made British eating what it has lately become. But as in many other contexts, the choices made are rigged, circumscribed or at any rate culturally determined.

A parable: last year the examiners for Art at A level set lobsters as one of the optional subjects for freehand drawing. One comprehensive school in my neighbourhood dutifully spent £32 on four healthy crustaceans for two pupils to practise on and then draw in the examination itself. It is best not to speculate on the destiny of the meat within those gaudy carapaces in sunny classrooms. A chef-surgeon like Olney would probably have been capable of both extraction and repair. But in Britain, that is the kind of skill you learn in Craft, not Art.