Food & Drink: And once more with Freeling
Saturday 01 January 1994
Freeling, like the characters in his admirable crime novels, is a tough man, a trained cook who worked his way up from the bottom, and he is not sparing in his opinions. He is particularly deadly about food writers, genteel cooking 'schools', kitchen gadgets, 'experts' and snobs. 'You cannot teach cooking out of a book any more than you can carpentry . . . No good writer on food gives formal recipes,' he states, quoting Le Figaro's James le Coquet to the effect that 'a recipe has a hidden side, like the moon'.
Hence my crisis. Would I fall under one of his many interdicts? On the basics, Freeling is indubitably right: practice is what makes the good cook - practice, knowledge and the ability to improvise. The aspirant cook, he says, should be left in a kitchen with a cooker which does not work very well, a few beaten-up pots and some leftovers: 'In the fridge, two grilled pork chops, three eggs, some cold boiled potatoes, a dried-out piece of cheese and half a packet of butter. In the rack, half a cabbage, two wilted carrots and an apple. In the cupboard, a tin of sardines, a packet of spaghetti and a few tins of herbs that have lost their labels . . .'
I am a latitudinarian in such matters. I think there are many paths to salvation, and many useful ways (keeping in mind Freeling's dictum that 'a kitchen book should create an appetite') to write about food.
But all truly good food writers are people of long experience. The best books about food are retrospective, and to some degree nostalgic. They often describe meals long ago eaten and unlikely to be replicated.
One may come to writing about food from the direction of the professional cook or that of the informed eater. The professional cook is not always an eater, the eater is not always a cook, but each must have a love of the anecdotage of the kitchen and the dinner table. They must be sharp observers of human nature and of appetites of all kinds.
To be a chef requires a knowledge of human nature; it also, as Freeling eloquently points out, demands hierarchy. There has to be someone 'in charge'. The saucier may be brilliant but profligate; the vegetable man may drink; the tournants, in charge of roasts and grills, may be prodigiously lazy; each may loathe the others as much as they do the customers.
Even for the solo cook, method has much to do with human economy: you are now creative genius, now desperately bored, and your task is to subordinate the different parts of your character to efficient food preparation.
The same is true of the eater, who has to deal with appetite, anticipation, choice, time, appreciation, distraction and conversation. The professional cook has the advantage in technique, consistency; the amateur eater comes at the same craft from the opposite end and his experience of eating is likely to be greater. But, specialist or generalist, the object is communication; the subject, the pleasure and pain of cooking.
And we all have our surly side. Unlike the wonderfully funny Ludwig Bemelmans, Freeling does not so much celebrate the past as distrust the present he grew into. He was brought up as a cook under 'the system', which was the epitome of French cuisine. The system had to do with the management of the preparation of food, and all those who worked within it considered, equally: efficiency, economy, cleanliness and, if possible, profit.
This could not last in the post-war period, with its new, less knowledgeable customers, its corner-cutting chefs, and its accountants. Kitchens lost their eccentricity; we all lived amid motorway gastronomy, homogenised food, homogenised manners. Cuisine bourgeoise died, and Freeling memorably marks its passing, quoting a marvellous line of Bemelmans about the new kind of restaurant manager, whose face was 'like a towel on which everyone has wiped his hands'.
Freeling chastises food writers who claim authority and who seem all- knowing. But those who begin writing about food as eaters do know: they know what they have eaten and what they feel about it. And recipes are not wrong per se; it is just that too many cookery-book writers do not take into account the variability of ingredients, pots, and cookers.
That is why the best writing about food - and Freeling is one of the very best - is no more than suggestive, and always humble.
The Kitchen Book is available in paperback (Andre Deutsch) at pounds 7.99.
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