No men allowed in the temple of women and food

<i>The Kitchen Congregation</i> by Nora Seton (Weidenfeld &amp; Nicolson, &pound;12.99)
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The Independent Culture

A deep, atavistic love of kitchens lurks in all of us. Nothing, except perhaps a garden, appeals so much to the physical senses: smell, touch, taste, eye and ear. Kitchens also satisfy less tangible senses: nostalgia for childhood, feeling at ease rather than on parade, contentment at being home. In them we talk side by side as we top and tail gooseberries and roll out pastry for a tart. There is no sense of state in a kitchen, only of comfort and closeness.

A deep, atavistic love of kitchens lurks in all of us. Nothing, except perhaps a garden, appeals so much to the physical senses: smell, touch, taste, eye and ear. Kitchens also satisfy less tangible senses: nostalgia for childhood, feeling at ease rather than on parade, contentment at being home. In them we talk side by side as we top and tail gooseberries and roll out pastry for a tart. There is no sense of state in a kitchen, only of comfort and closeness.

But in the 1960s and 1970s, kitchens went out of fashion. They became lonely, purposeless places, once machines killed domestic skills, husbands stopped coming home for lunch (the habit killed by Second World War canteens), children started education earlier and finished it later, and televisions, rather than tables, became the focus of family meals. Instead of being the revered heart of the house, the kitchen was a place of banishment, from which mum, now the family's Cinderella, peeked through a serving-hatch. Feminists condemned them as prisons rather than paradises.

Now, 30 years on, we're tiring of the sterile wonders of takeaways and ready-cooked meals, and we're trying to regain the delights of the kitchen, the creativity of real cooking. The unholy alliance between the freezer and the microwave has been overtaken by a love affair with fresh food - exotic, scented, colourful ingredients made into dishes undreamt of in our parents' philosophy.

But we're not quite there yet. Kitchens are made by memories, not bought wholesale from Habitat or Ikea. And television cooks are an alien species. Their recipes rarely have personal resonance.

In this context, Nora Seton's The Kitchen Congregation could not be more timely. Written straight from the heart, it's a celebration of the way women have always congregated in kitchens, of the wisdoms learnt there during unhurried, one-to-one conversations, of the kitchen's role as a sheet-anchor linking past to future. For Seton, the kitchen "is about the re-creation of childhood the way you wanted it to be, keeping all that was wonderful in your own early years, while weeding out those things that caused pain". It's important, she says, not to identify kitchens merely with food. "Kitchens are about process, about the making of the meal, those hours, a quiet retreat or a din of beloved voices, the preparation of a favourite or sacred recipe, like the staging of a private play." They are "the laboratory of life".

This is a personal book, not a series of directives, and it is piquant and resolute rather than sentimental. Each chapter is an encounter: with Seton's mother, a kitchen philosopher who died too young of cancer; with the elderly neighbour who helped her to come to terms with that tragedy; with her husband, whose insistence on scientific exactness clashes with her own intuitive approach; with the turmoil of small children; and with the wildly unhappy Laura, who has to reinvent herself by moving out of the house and her servile role and into an adjoining barn. But Laura does not leave her family. This is not a book about self-fulfilment, but about making the best of things.

Recipes memorably illustrate the messages and characters: Ida's chicken soup for the soul, Grandpa's sautéed mushrooms, noodles for quick comfort, the fragrant zest and caramelised gold of lemon chess pie. The book is also refreshingly full of reminders that children bring delights as well as responsibilities.

This is a book to buy in bulk for daughters and women friends. Its only flaw is its rejection of men in the kitchen. To Seton, kitchens are exclusively female places, resonant with the "ancient traditions of daughters and granddaughters and infants at the feet of their elders, the world's waterfall of women, splashing onto the rocks of one generation after the other". But as the huge popularity of The Naked Chef's Jamie Oliver shows, male attitudes to domestic life are changing fast. These days, there need to be men as well as women in the kitchen congregation, cooking not for show, but for relaxation and intimacy.

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