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‘In the Kitchen: Essays on Food and Life’

Any reader of my reviews will already know that I am consistently drawn to themed anthologies. I am also a huge fan of food, both of preparing and eating it. It was inevitable, then, that I would pick up In the Kitchen: Essays on Food and Life, which brings together original pieces by many different authors. The gorgeously designed book has been released by the publishing arm of Daunt Books, and it looks to be part of a small series of anthologies on specific themes. I have already read and loved At the Pond: Swimming at the Hampstead Ladies’ Pond (review here), and hope to be able to pick up In the Garden very soon.

The book’s blurb declares that food ‘can embody our personal histories as well as wider cultural histories. But what are the stories we tell ourselves about the kitchen, and how do we first come to it?’ The collection aims to explore whether food, and the process of cooking, can be ‘a tool for connection’, both in the physical space of the kitchen, and in the wider world.

In the Kitchen features work from new-to-me authors, as well as those whom I have read and enjoyed before – Daisy Johnson, Ruby Tandoh, and Nina Mingya Powles, to name but three. There are thirteen essays in total, and each considers various aspects of cooking and eating, and ‘the possibilities and limitations the kitchen poses.’ Throughout, the authors discuss their experiences of cooking in a particular kitchen, or simply being present in one. Almost every essay is bound up with memories; they seem inextricable from the process of using the kitchen as an adult.

I love the way in which each of the included pieces are so very different. In ‘A Life in Cookers’, Rachel Roddy writes about the ovens which she has lived with, from ‘the heavyweight comforter’ of an Aga in her childhood home, to ‘a cream and green electric cooker with hot plates like liquorice whirls’ owned by her grandparents. On said cooker, her grandmother ‘boiled tongue for hours and made pan after pan of a minced beef and potato stew called tattie hash, the smell of which clung to the wallpaper like a pattern, along with worry and love.’ In Ella Risbridger’s essay, the author details the sensuality which often strike her when she is in the kitchen: ‘There is something about the kitchen that invites intimacy. I suppose kitchens are a space for intimacy because I will touch with my hands the things that will go in your mouth; I will taste what you taste; I will work for you, or you will work for me. I will make this for you because I love you, because you need it, because you want it.’

In ‘The New Thing’, Juliet Annan – who taught herself to cook using often vague Penguin paperbacks – details some of the questionable menus which she made for friends in the late 1970s: ‘… October 14 is Whiting and Fennel Soup, followed by Stuffed Cabbage, followed by Apple Steamed Pudding; very heavy. It makes me wonder about central heating – did we not have any? – but even on a summer’s day I see the menu was: Lettuce and Hazelnut Soup, Spiced Chicken with Tomato Salad and New Potatoes and then Baked Alaska and Fruit Salad.’ Annan goes on to remark: ‘… I was cooking dinners like this at least twice a week: the suet pudding years, and I was turning into one.’

Daisy Johnson writes about rituals surrounding food, such as her family’s tradition of making pizzas from scratch on Christmas Eve. She says that this tradition is ‘older than I am and has changed as my siblings and I have grown.’ Johnson goes on to comment that writing about food is ‘almost impossible’, and difficult to capture: ‘I would like to write about the ritual of food. I would like to write about how food rituals grow and about the ones that I have grown with my family and friends. I would like to write about how these rituals have come about seemingly without discussion and are now almost impossible to break.’

In ‘Steam’, Nina Mingya Powles talks about the foods bound up with her Asian heritage, and the almost endless variations of the same dish which can be found from one country to another. She tells us, in her rich and careful prose: ‘My most treasured childhood foods are steamed: dumplings, bao, parcels of sticky rice wrapped in leaves, silky cheung fun. Somehow, steaming feels more alchemical than other ways of cooking.’ As with Powles, for many of these authors, food is deeply connected to their treasured memories, and to fostering a sense of community at different points in their lives. Powles captures this beautifully when she writes: ‘In the kitchen, memories live in the body, just under the skin and under the tongue. Scents and residues from childhood rub off on our hands.’

Rebecca Liu takes a different tack, exploring the recent phenomenon of recipe boxes in her essay. Laura Freeman ponders over the diets of famous writers; for example, Iris Murdoch’s ‘surprise pudding’, which she served to her friends, and which turned out to be ‘a single Mr Kipling cake’. Ruby Tandoh writes of Doreen Fernandez, who ‘travelled widely across many of the 7,641 islands that comprise the Philippines, documenting the ways in which multiple cultures (and multiple colonisers) have… often synthesised to create the diverse and endlessly inventive foods of the country.’ The essayists draw their inspiration from a wealth of different sources – films, literature, love affairs, or the country of origin of a former partner, for example.

The separate essays have been arranged into three sections, entitled ‘Coming to the Kitchen’, ‘Reading and Writing the Kitchen’, and ‘Beyond the Kitchen’. So many of the authors have been wonderfully inventive and, as I have demonstrated above, have gone in very different directions in what they have explored here. A loose structure, such as the one which the separate sections gives, is effective.

I found In the Kitchen both immersive, and highly entertaining. I was awed by the variety which it contained, and took something particular from every single piece. Every essay made me contemplate something, and – as well as making me feel very hungry! – connected me with a lot of memories in the various kitchens which I have known during my lifetime. I can only hope that Daunt Books expand this as-yet small collection, and in the meantime, I look forward to reading much more of the publishing house’s back catalogue.

If you are a self-confessed foodie, like I am, In the Kitchen will be an incredibly valuable addition to your reading life. I relish books like this, which push me in the directions of different cuisines which I am not as familiar with as I would like to be, recipes which I have not yet tried, and techniques which I have not explored in my cooking. I very much look forward to implementing everything which I have learnt from this excellent collection in my own kitchen.

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One From the Archive: ‘Eat Up!: Food, Appetite and Eating What You Want’ by Ruby Tandoh *****

First published in July 2018.

Anyone who knows me will know what a huge fan of food I am.  I adore cooking new recipes, playing around with flavours, and visiting new restaurants.  It comes as no surprise, then, that I have wanted to read Ruby Tandoh’s Eat Up!: Food, Appetite and Eating What You Want ever since it came out.  Many will remember Tandoh from The Great British Bake Off, of which she was a contestant in 2013.

In her insightful introduction, Tandoh gives her reasoning for writing such a positive 9781781259597book about food; it directly goes against the wealth of dieting and fitness crazes which have swept the United Kingdom over the last few years.  She begins by rubbishing the often contradictory dietary advice which we hear almost daily on the news: ‘We don’t want to go hungry, we don’t want to be too greedy, we don’t want to live too exuberantly, we don’t want to be a kill-joy.  We fret about our size and shape, and too often police the bodies of others.  We accept the lie that there’s a perfect way of eating that will save your soul and send you careering blithely through your eighties, into your nineties and beyond.  Do what you want, we’re told – but you’ll die if you get it wrong.’

The main exploration in Eat Up! is ‘everything that happens in the peripheries when we take a bite: the cultures that birth the foods we love, the people we nurture, the science of flavour and the ethics of eating.’  Tandoh recognises the splendour of all food, regardless of its preparation; she shows the myriad ways in which food is directly linked with how we feel, and what we need in our lives.  ‘Not every meal,’ she writes, ‘will be in some sunlight dappled orange grove; sometimes what you need is a pasty by the side of the M4, and there’s no harm in that.’  Food can also be used as a tool in order to bring people together; it ‘transgresses the “boundaries” between here and there, us and them, me and you, until we are all just bundles of matter, eating and being eaten.’

The celebration of food is linked in with Tandoh’s own memories: the blackberry bush near her grandmother’s Essex garden; eating a huge Indian takeaway with her girlfriend when both were suffering with influenza; the food which comforted her when her grandfather died.  She also touches upon her own relationship with food in the past, and the eating disorders which she has dealt with in the past.  Eat Up! is highly revealing in this manner.  Never does it feel preachy, or as though Tandoh is hard done by in any sense; rather, it feels like sitting down and having a conversation with the very best, and most intelligent, of friends.

The history of food, and the ways in which we eat, have both been touched upon here.  The research which Tandoh has done is impeccable; facts and statistics blend seamlessly into her narrative.  So many issues are explored which can be linked to food and eating: those around weight, how we eat in public, the joy of seasonal eating, the diet industry, culture, eating trends, food as power, comfort food, and the scientific processes of digestion, amongst others.  This varied content, all of which has food at its centre, is fascinating, and makes for an incredibly engaging and coherent book.

Eat Up! is, pardon the pun, a delicious book; it is warm and understanding, and filled with love and humour.  Such positivity abounds; throughout, Tandoh cheers for the existence of every body, no matter its size or shape.  We all need to be nourished, and we need to feel happy when we eat.  In this manner, Tandoh weaves together a fascinating narrative about food, peppered with recipes for every occasion, and body positivity.  ‘The way you feel about food,’ she points out, ‘sits hand in hand with the way you feel about yourself, and if you eat happily and wholeheartedly, food will make you strong.’  I thoroughly enjoyed the reading experience of Eat Up!, and know that it’s a tome I will dip into again and again.

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‘Eat Up!: Food, Appetite and Eating What You Want’ by Ruby Tandoh *****

Anyone who knows me will know what a huge fan of food I am.  I adore cooking new recipes, playing around with flavours, and visiting new restaurants.  It comes as no surprise, then, that I have wanted to read Ruby Tandoh’s Eat Up!: Food, Appetite and Eating What You Want ever since it came out.  Many will remember Tandoh from The Great British Bake Off, of which she was a contestant in 2013.

In her insightful introduction, Tandoh gives her reasoning for writing such a positive 9781781259597book about food; it directly goes against the wealth of dieting and fitness crazes which have swept the United Kingdom over the last few years.  She begins by rubbishing the often contradictory dietary advice which we hear almost daily on the news: ‘We don’t want to go hungry, we don’t want to be too greedy, we don’t want to live too exuberantly, we don’t want to be a kill-joy.  We fret about our size and shape, and too often police the bodies of others.  We accept the lie that there’s a perfect way of eating that will save your soul and send you careering blithely through your eighties, into your nineties and beyond.  Do what you want, we’re told – but you’ll die if you get it wrong.’

The main exploration in Eat Up! is ‘everything that happens in the peripheries when we take a bite: the cultures that birth the foods we love, the people we nurture, the science of flavour and the ethics of eating.’  Tandoh recognises the splendour of all food, regardless of its preparation; she shows the myriad ways in which food is directly linked with how we feel, and what we need in our lives.  ‘Not every meal,’ she writes, ‘will be in some sunlight dappled orange grove; sometimes what you need is a pasty by the side of the M4, and there’s no harm in that.’  Food can also be used as a tool in order to bring people together; it ‘transgresses the “boundaries” between here and there, us and them, me and you, until we are all just bundles of matter, eating and being eaten.’

The celebration of food is linked in with Tandoh’s own memories: the blackberry bush near her grandmother’s Essex garden; eating a huge Indian takeaway with her girlfriend when both were suffering with influenza; the food which comforted her when her grandfather died.  She also touches upon her own relationship with food in the past, and the eating disorders which she has dealt with in the past.  Eat Up! is highly revealing in this manner.  Never does it feel preachy, or as though Tandoh is hard done by in any sense; rather, it feels like sitting down and having a conversation with the very best, and most intelligent, of friends.

The history of food, and the ways in which we eat, have both been touched upon here.  The research which Tandoh has done is impeccable; facts and statistics blend seamlessly into her narrative.  So many issues are explored which can be linked to food and eating: those around weight, how we eat in public, the joy of seasonal eating, the diet industry, culture, eating trends, food as power, comfort food, and the scientific processes of digestion, amongst others.  This varied content, all of which has food at its centre, is fascinating, and makes for an incredibly engaging and coherent book.

Eat Up! is, pardon the pun, a delicious book; it is warm and understanding, and filled with love and humour.  Such positivity abounds; throughout, Tandoh cheers for the existence of every body, no matter its size or shape.  We all need to be nourished, and we need to feel happy when we eat.  In this manner, Tandoh weaves together a fascinating narrative about food, peppered with recipes for every occasion, and body positivity.  ‘The way you feel about food,’ she points out, ‘sits hand in hand with the way you feel about yourself, and if you eat happily and wholeheartedly, food will make you strong.’  I thoroughly enjoyed the reading experience of Eat Up!, and know that it’s a tome I will dip into again and again.

Purchase from The Book Depository

1

Penguin Moderns: George Orwell and Gertrude Stein

Notes on Nationalism by George Orwell **** (#7) 9780241339565
George Orwell’s Notes on Nationalism is the seventh book in the Penguin Moderns series. I have read a few of his non-fiction works to date, and always find his tone engaging and his content incredibly well informed. Here, in this series of essays first published in 1945, Orwell offers ‘biting and timeless reflections on patriotism, prejudice and power, from the man who wrote about his nation better than anyone.’

Collected here are ‘Notes on Nationalism’, ‘Antisemitism in Britain’, and ‘The Sporting Spirit’. As ever with Orwell’s work, his essays feel so relevant to twenty-first century Britain – and, indeed, to many other countries. Orwell writes with such wonderful turns of phrase, and his arguments are set out logically and intelligently. Of course, it must be noted that given the year in which these essays were written, some parts of Orwell’s narrative feel very of their time, particularly with regard to some of the vocabulary which he uses to describe groups of people. Regardless, Notes on Nationalism is a thoughtful and thought-provoking collection.
9780241339688Food by Gertrude Stein * (#8)
‘From apples to artichokes, these glittering, fragmented, painterly portraits of food by the avant-garde pioneer Gertrude Stein are redolent of sex, laughter and the joy of everyday life’, proclaims the book’s blurb.

I shall begin this rather negative review by pointing out that I have not read much Stein before, save for a few fragmented pieces. Despite loving modernism as a genre, I have found those extracts of Stein’s which I have come across quite hard work to read, and a couple of them have been almost impenetrable. Food was therefore one of the books which I was looking forward to least in the Penguin Moderns collection, despite loving food and food writing.

Food was first published in Tender Buttons in 1914 and, I imagine, was just as unintelligible then as it proves to be now. Clearly Stein was pioneering in her use of language, but I do not enjoy repetitive sentences like those which fill this book, some of which appear say nothing whatsoever, and others which go on and on far longer than is necessary. From the essay on ‘Roast Beef’, for instance, Stein writes: ‘There is no use there is no use at all in smell, in taste, in teeth, in toast, in anything, there is no use at all and the respect is mutual’.

Collected here are a series of highly meandering essays, some of which are more like lists, and others which seem to evade their titular subject entirely. If this book had not been so short, I definitely would have stopped reading it quite early on, and it was definitely a source of irritation to me as it reached its end; it has been the first Penguin Modern which I have not enjoyed in the slightest. Food has, however, done one very positive thing; it has confirmed entirely that Stein is not for me.

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The Book Trail: From Breathing to Tea

We begin with a relatively recent favourite of mine for this edition of the Book Trail, and consequently come across some fantastic looking tomes related to it on Goodreads.

1. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi 9781847923677
What makes a virtuous and meaningful life? Paul Kalanithi believed that the answer lay in medicine’s most demanding specialization, neurosurgery. Here are patients at their life’s most critical moment. Here he worked in the most critical place for human identity, the brain. What is it like to do that every day; and what happens when life is catastrophically interrupted?  When Breath Becomes Air is an unforgettable reflection on the practice of medicine and the relationship between doctor and patient, from a gifted writer who became both.

 

2. Wondering Who You Are: A Memoir by Sonya Lea
In the twenty-third year of their marriage, Sonya Lea’s husband, Richard, went in for surgery to treat a rare appendix cancer. When he came out, he had no recollection of their life together: how they met, their wedding day, the births of their two children. All of it was gone, along with the rockier parts of their past—her drinking, his anger. Richard could now hardly speak, emote, or create memories from moment to moment. Who he’d been no longer was.  Wondering Who You Are braids the story of Sonya and Richard’s relationship, those memories that he could no longer conjure, with an account of his fateful days in the hospital—the internal bleeding, the near-death experience, and the eventual traumatic brain injury. It follows the couple through his recovery as they struggle with his treatment, and through a marriage no longer grounded on decades of shared experience. As they build a fresh life together, as Richard develops a new personality, Sonya is forced to question her own assumptions, beliefs, and desires, her place in the marriage and her way of being in the world. With radical candor, Sonya Lea has written a memoir that is both a powerful look at perseverance in the face of trauma and a surprising exploration into what lies beyond our fragile identities.’

 

97811018733593. Lord Fear: A Memoir by Lucas Mann
Lucas Mann was only thirteen years old when his brother Josh—charismatic and ambitious, funny and sadistic, violent and vulnerable—died of a heroin overdose. Although his brief life is ultimately unknowable, Josh is both a presence and an absence in the author’s life that will not remain unclaimed. As Josh’s story is told in kaleidoscopic shards of memories assembled from interviews with his friends and family, as well as from the raw material of his journals, a revealing, startling portrait unfolds. At the same time, Mann pulls back to examine his own complicated feelings and motives for recovering memories of his brother’s life, searching for a balance between the tension of inevitability and the what ifs that beg to be asked. Through his investigation, Mann also comes to redefine his own place in a family whose narrative is bisected by the tragic loss.  Unstinting in its honesty, captivating in its form, and profound in its conclusions, Lord Fear more than confirms the promise of Mann’s earlier book, Class A; with it, he is poised to enter the ranks of the best young writers of his generation.

 

4. Stir: My Broken Brain and the Meals That Brought Me Home by Jessica Fechtor
At 28, Jessica Fechtor was happily immersed in graduate school and her young marriage, and thinking about starting a family. Then one day, she went for a run and an aneurysm burst in her brain. She nearly died. She lost her sense of smell, the sight in her left eye, and was forced to the sidelines of the life she loved.  Jessica’s journey to recovery began in the kitchen as soon as she was able to stand at the stovetop and stir. There, she drew strength from the restorative power of cooking and baking. Written with intelligence, humor, and warmth, Stir is a heartfelt examination of what it means to nourish and be nourished.”   Woven throughout the narrative are 27 recipes for dishes that comfort and delight. For readers of M.F.K.Fisher, Molly Wizenberg, and Tamar Adler, as well as Oliver Sacks, Jill Bolte Taylor, and Susannah Cahalan, Stir is sure to inspire, and send you straight to the kitchen.

 

5. A History of Food in 100 Recipes by William Sitwell 9780007412006
In today’s 24-hour consumer society, it is easy to get what we desire to eat. But do we know where these everyday recipes came from, who invented them, and using what techniques? This book provides a colourful and entertaining journey through the history of cuisine, celebrating the world’s greatest dishes.

 

6. The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage: True Tales of Food, Family, and How We Learn to Eat by Caroline Grant
Without mantras or manifestos, 29 writers serve up sharp, sweet, and candid memories; salty irreverence; and delicious original recipes. Food is so much more than what we eat. The Cassoulet Saved Our Marriage is an anthology of original essays about how we learn (and relearn) to eat, and how pivotal food is beyond the table.

 

97802264940747. Fashionable Food: Seven Decades of Food Fads by Sylvia Lovegren
Though the Roaring Twenties call to mind images of flappers dancing the Charleston and gangsters dispensing moonshine in back rooms, Sylvia Lovegren here playfully reminds us what these characters ate for dinner: Banana and Popcorn Salad. Like fashions and fads, food—even bad food—has a history, and Lovegren’s Fashionable Food is quite literally a cookbook of the American past.  Well researched and delightfully illustrated, this collection of faddish recipes from the 1920s to the 1990s is a decade-by-decade tour of a hungry American century. From the Three P’s Salad—that’s peas, pickles, and peanuts—of the post-World War I era to the Fruit Cocktail and Spam Buffet Party loaf—all the rage in the ultra-modern 1950s, when cooking from a can epitomized culinary sophistication—Fashionable Food details the origins of these curious delicacies. In two chapters devoted to “exotic foods of the East,” for example, Lovegren explores the long American love affair with Chinese food and the social status conferred upon anyone chic enough to eat pu-pu platters from Polynesia. Throughout, Lovegren supplements recipes—some mouth-watering, some appalling—from classic cookbooks and family magazines, with humorous anecdotes that chronicle how society and kitchen technology influenced the way we lived and how we ate.  Equal parts American and culinary history, Fashionable Food examines our collective past from the kitchen counter. Even if it’s been a while since you last had Tang Pie and your fondue set is collecting dust in the back of the cupboard, Fashionable Food will inspire, entertain, and inform.

 

8. Tea With Jane Austen by Kim Wilson
Who would not want to sit down with Jane Austen and join her in a cup of tea? This book shares the secrets of one of her favourite rituals. Each chapter includes a description of how tea was taken at a particular place or time of day, along with history, recipes, excerpts from Austen’s novels and letters and illustrations from the time.

 

Have you read any of these?  Which do you think I should attempt to get to first?

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‘My Life in France’ by Julia Child

I go to France often. I love the country, the culture and the cuisine, and I also love to see how those from foreign shores adapt to the French way of life. I will read pretty much any book set in Paris, one of my favourite cities. I am particularly interested in non-fiction accounts of life in France. It comes with no surprise then, that I had been wanting to read My Life in France for quite some time. I was overjoyed when my parents got me the beautiful 100th birthday edition for my own birthday this year.

I hoped I wouldn’t be disappointed with Julia Child’s memoir as I had heard a lot of hype about it, and I am thrilled to say that I absolutely adored it. In it, Child has created the most wonderful recipe, combining a travel book with a culinary memoir, and mixing handfuls of friends and love into its pages for good measure. In consequence, My Life in France is a real treat to read. I loved the informal style which Child adopts, and her descriptions are just beautiful. She describes France with such tenderness, such love.

The photographs scattered throughout, almost all of them taken by her husband Paul, are absolutely glorious, and are such a nice touch. Child’s memoir, with the addition of these pictures, is an incredibly sensory one, and it ranks amongst the best pieces of non-fiction which I have ever read. Julia Child was an absolutely marvellous woman, and I adored sharing her journey into Paris and out again. My Life in France is a book as rich and sumptuous as the dishes it mentions, and all foodies should have a copy on their bookshelves.