The Pedant in the Kitchen, By Julian Barnes

The recipe for clarified meaning
  • @lisamarkwell

There's something curious about people who say they read cookbooks like novels; that they love to have one on the bedside table, ready to "dip into". Doesn't that just make them want a midnight snack? A cookbook by a novelist, however, is quite a different prospect.

Julian Barnes's musings on cookery form the perfect bite-sized anthology for literary/foodie folk. First published in 2003, and now reprinted (perhaps to capitalise on Barnes's Booker Prize triumph) with an introduction from The Independent's Mark Hix, The Pedant in the Kitchen is as crisp and tart (yes, yes, puns intended) a piece of writing about food as one will find anywhere.

Barnes nurtures an obsession with food, particularly the preparation of it, and when he turns his attention to recipes, whether praising the good ones or criticising the lazy and bad ones, it makes for compelling reading. Too many modern recipes are slapdash, he says, with their "glugs" and "drizzles". "Why should a cookbook be less precise than a manual of surgery?" he challenges; and "Why should a word in a recipe be less important than a word in a novel? One can lead to physical indigestion, the other to mental." Well quite, although one suspects that most of us are more forgiving of a clanging adjective than Barnes.

He refers often to "The Pedant", a character who rages against recipes that call for "a wineglass of …" or to "Instruct your butcher …", perhaps because he knows that some of his vitriol is, well, overcooked. Sometimes it is Barnes as himself who recounts culinary difficulties, such as his father's well-intentioned beetroot sandwiches, or his own struggle with a Nigel Slater recipe for pork chops.

Did I mention that it's funny? Barnes hams up his own cack-handedness in the kitchen delightfully, and there are some pretty decent tips for the amateur cook who likes to entertain (although the term "dinner party" is banned in the Barnes household) and who doesn't like cumbersome gadgets and arduous prep.

There is, too, a poignancy. The book was, and is again, dedicated to She For Whom The Pedant Cooks. Fans will know that Julian Barnes's wife, Pat Kavanagh, died in 2008. I hope The Pedant continues to cook; a sequel would be most delicious.