Kitchen confidential: my 54 closed cook books and six-dish repertoire
‘ALL I have to do now is consider my meatzza,” Nigella Lawson said in last week’s episode of her new cookery series, Nigellissima. “My meatzza is a wondrous thing.”
I don’t want to be rude about Nigella’s meatzza. I’m sure it is wondrous – even if it sounded as if it had been conceived in a cloud of marijuana smoke by a 16-year-old Masterchef fan; and even if the finished product resembled a small animal that had met its demise on a busy stretch of motorway.
The point of the meatzza – which is a pizza “but instead of having a bread base it’s got like a meatball mixture that was squished flat into a disc” – isn’t whether it tastes good. Because, as Nigella knows, we don’t actually watch cookery programmes to find out what, or even how, to cook.
By the time we reach adulthood, our repertoire of dishes is as impressive as it’s going to get, give or take the occasional post-holiday experiment with a saffron orzotto or a seafood paella. According to Bord Bia’s Last Night’s Dinner survey, published earlier this year, on any given night, six in 10 Irish people will dine on meat and two veg. Spaghetti bolognese and roast chicken are perennial favourites. In other words, we’re hardly a nation of Heston Blumenthals.
But that doesn’t stop us fantasising. Rachel Allen’s Cake was at number three in the Irish hardback non-fiction charts last week, while the Hairy Bikers’ Hairy Dieters was at four in paperback non-fiction. Over on Amazon.co.uk, four of the top 10 best-selling books are about food: the Hairy Bikers were nudged down the list by JK Rowling; then there’s Gordon Ramsay’s Ultimate Cookery Course, Jamie’s 15-Minute Meals and, of course, Nigella at the top spot.
Everywhere you look, someone is drooling over food. Last month, the cover of Newsweek featured a photo of a woman on the cusp of fellating an asparagus. On the photo-sharing social media site Instagram, you’re never too far from a photo of the blueberry and walnut-marinated venison someone whipped up for lunch.
If this obsession with food is a bit of a postmodern wheeze, Swedish chef Magnus Nilsson is certainly in on the joke.
In his new cookbook, Fäviken, he proffers recipes involving “retired dairy cows which have been aged for nine months”, turnips “which have never seen the light of day”, and “one very fresh cow’s femur”.
He might as well suggest that we rustle up a salad using shredded bits of Lord Lucan’s toenails, as expect any of his readers to be able to identify – let alone source – a crispy reindeer lichen or know how to saw apart a burning marrow bone. But that’s not the point.
As Nilsson and Nigella are aware, our fetishisation of food – eating it, photographing it, watching it on TV, blogging about it, discussing it – stops dead, for most of us, the minute we find ourselves confronted with an open fridge.
I should know. At the last count, there were 54 cookbooks artfully arranged on a shelf in my kitchen.
And yet, on the nights it is my turn to cook, my family are reliably catered for from a total menu of six dishes – that’s if you count spaghetti bolognese and shepherd’s pie as distinct offerings. (Which I most certainly do.) Yes, I am the culinary equivalent of those people who spend their Saturday afternoons trudging around viewings of houses they will never actually buy. And I’m not alone.
This mass fetishisation of food recently led forme New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni to declare that our “food madness” is tipping into “food psychosis . . . We have tumbled far, far down the organic rabbit hole and . . . we may have finally hit bottom”.
And he presumably hadn’t even seen Nigella swanning around her kitchen with a burger made of coffee ice cream.
It’s all the pretension surrounding food that I find wearying. As a result, there are two cookbooks on my shelf that I recently keep coming back to. One is my maternal grandmother’s copy of Maura Laverty’s Full and Plenty. And the second belonged to my other grandmother – it was her Every Day Cook Book by Marguerite Patten.
Unlike my sprawling library of pastel-spined titles, these books bear the scars of daily usage – pages stuck together with flour; notes in the margin; recipes inserted between the pages – and they hark back to a time when a good stew was the food of gods, and mutton was simply mutton, rather than dry-aged noisettes d’agneau.
Now, of course, food is no longer just fuel. It’s a lifestyle choice; it’s an expression of your personality, your worldliness, your sense of humour, your sex appeal, your political beliefs and your amazing collection of antique crockery.
The odd thing is that, in all the cultures we’re so busily trying to emulate – France, Spain, Italy, India, China – the food really is just about the food. One of the best cooks I know is a seventysomething Italian who eats meat only a couple of times a year, doesn’t own a cookery book and thinks it’s bonkers to buy vegetables when you can just grow your own.
I imagine she’d keel over laughing if she heard Nigella describe Italian food as being about “family, tradition, passion, rapture, style and confidence”.
I can’t wait to ask her round for a slice of meatzza.