Stand aside, Nigel Slater. Move along there, Jamie and Nigella. Hit the road, Yotam Ottolenghi and Bill Granger. There’s a dazzling new cookery writer in town, who knows more about the chemical structure of food than Heston Blumenthal and more about complementary flavours than Elizabeth David. He is omniscient about grub of all kinds, and you must take his recipe suggestions very seriously. The only thing this fabulous new cookery writer cannot do is appear in public with an apron around his middle. Because it’s an IBM super-computer.
Those who have seen Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey will remember the malevolent robot on board the mission to Saturn. It was called HAL 9000, a clever backward-shift of the letters IBM, and it went bonkers. After discovering that the astronauts were about to shut it down for malfunctioning, it sent one of them spinning off into deep space, never to return. So one approaches the IBM dining experience with caution.
Possibly anticipating consumer suspicion that a robot-driven supper might be a little – mechanical? – the company has given it a name: Watson. Clever, huh? It’s only two letters away from Wilson, the volleyball that Tom Hanks humanises and treats as a companion in Cast Away. And it alludes to Sherlock Holmes’s trusty, reassuring doctor sidekick. So when IBM’s book, Cognitive Cooking with Chef Watson appears in April, you shouldn’t feel alarmed. It may just be a sign that the computer company, currently shedding staff and floundering against the all-conquering Apple corporation, hopes to take the culinary world by storm.
The publisher, Sourcebooks, says Watson will “introduce home cooks and professional chefs to a new world of culinary possibilities” by bringing together “unusual ingredient combinations that man alone might never imagine”.
Aaaarrrgghh! If ever alarm bells went off in my tasting and olfactory regions, it was on seeing that sentence. “Man alone” eh? You mean that pathetic, worthless species homo sapiens, that knows bugger-all about what tastes good, and needs to be put straight by Watson, a shiny, glorified circuit diagram with trillions of tiny fibres but no actual, you know, taste buds?
The makers proudly explain how cleverly Watson suggests combinations of ingredients that no one in their right mind would put together. For one recipe, he comes up with “mushroom, strawberry, chicken and pineapple.” Why? Because, says the bloke from IBM, they all “share significant levels of the flavour compound g-dodecalactone”. Oh they do? Well I’ve cooked chicken and mushroom many times, and locals in the Yucatan region often cook chicken with lime or lemon, but chicken with strawberry or pineapple? Leave it, as they say, out.
Of course one mustn’t be excessively purist about these things, but remember what the great Miles Kington said about the difference between knowledge and wisdom: “Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is having the sense not to put one in a fruit salad.”
I love experimenting with flavours. Last Sunday, we had chicken for lunch and, because it was a few hours before Burns Night, our hostess added a haggis to the dish. It went brilliantly well, like heftily-spiced stuffing. On the other hand, I was in a country restaurant last week where they threw nine ingredients in with the cod fillet – including burnt apple puree and pork cheek. Mmm, chicken and apple, how delicious, not. But I expect Watson would tell us that’s just fine. After all, one of his recipes in the book is for Creole shrimp-lamb dumpling – a car-crash of flavours and textures that’s an abomination to the spirit.
A mistake that food theorists make is to believe that foods which share common chemical elements will entwine like Fonteyn and Nureyev in the oven or on the plate. “Take a craft – an artform, really – like cooking and apply hardcore science,” writes one of the book’s publishers, perhaps ignorant of the word “artform”, and “it makes for genuinely unique results with surprising and smart reasons (science!) behind them”. Well yeah, I’m sure they’ll be unique, as a birthday cake with cottage cheese filling and anchovy icing would be unique, but they won’t give the taste buds the kind of transcendental good time that is the point of eating thoughtfully harmonised dishes.
It isn’t, in the end, about “science!” at all. It’s alimentary, my dear Watson.
Books programmes on the BBC: who remembers them?
At Tuesday’s award ceremony for the Costa Book of the Year, deservedly won by Helen Macdonald’s moving H is for Hawk, the novelist Robert Harris sounded off at the BBC for its failure to broadcast a single television programme devoted to books and reading.
It is, he said, an “absolute disgrace… The BBC owes it to books to put something back. They are the basis for so many of our movies and documentaries.” Radio 4, he might have added, is happy to fillet new publications for extracts on Book of the Week and A Book at Bedtime but, apart from Mariella Frostrup’s Open Book chatshow, offers no dedicated programme to readers who’d like some discussion of what’s been recently published and what’s worth buying.
Harris brought up the two TV books shows that those of us who are old enough remember: The Book Programme on BBC2 (1973-80) in which you could find Robert Robinson interview both highbrows (like Vladimir Nabokov) and lower ones (Barbara Cartland); and Read All About It (BBC2 1976-77) in which Melvyn Bragg, and later Ronald Harwood, extracted from four not-terribly-highbrow guests their views on new books.
It seems a long time ago. But then so do the days when the Sunday papers carried 24-page Books supplements and paid thousands of pounds to serialise the memoirs of retired politicians, and the Booker Prize was broadcast on telly. Now book review pages come in single figures, sometimes a single page. Three Scottish newspapers The Herald, the Sunday Herald and The National all share the same literary editor, Rosemary Goring. And cameras no longer interrupt dinner at the Guildhall.
Why the lack of interest? Is it that book-lovers read so many reviews online, on Amazon or in special blogs, that they don’t need the Corporation to offer any more? Or that nobody in the 21st century cares about classic writers or about being well-read (which may be why Radio 4’s The Write Stuff quiz show, in which I’ve been involved for 17 years, has been shelved for 2015)?
I don’t buy it. More people in the UK are reading books than ever before. It’s just there’s too wide a spread, and too prodigious a variety, of titles for one programme. And too few arts celebrities prepared to devote several days to a book before coming to discuss it. We need a seasoned bookman to take a lead. Come on Melvyn – stop rabbitting on about Neutrinos and Hermes Trismegistus on Radio 4, come back to TV and create us a new books programme. Your country needs you.