"I love How To Eat: its prose, its intelligence and, above all, its workable, soul-warming recipes." Nigel Slater
Cooking is not about just joining the dots, following one recipe slavishly and then moving on to the next. It’s about developing an understanding of food, a sense of assurance in the kitchen, about the simple desire to make yourself something to eat. And in cooking, as in writing, you must please yourself to please others.
Strangely it can take enormous confidence to trust your own palate, follow your own instincts. Without habit, which itself is just trial and error, this can be harder than following the most elaborate of recipes. But it’s what works, what’s important.
There is a reason why this book is called How to Eat rather than How to Cook. It’s a simple one: although it’s possible to love eating without being able to cook, I don't believe you can ever really cook unless you love eating. Such love, of course, is not something which can be taught, but it can be conveyed – and maybe that’s the point.
In writing this book, I wanted to make food and my slavering passion for it the starting point; indeed for me it was the starting point. I have nothing to declare but my greed.
The French, who’ve lost something of their culinary confidence in recent years, remain solid on this front. Some years ago in France, in response to the gastronomic apathy and consequent lowering of standards nationally – what is known as 'la crise' – Jack Lang, then Minister of Culture, initiated 'la semaine du gout'. He set up a body expressly to go into schools and other institutions, not to teach anyone how to cook, but how to eat. This group might take with it a perfect baguette, an exquisite cheese, some local speciality cooked 'comme il faut', some fruit and vegetables grown properly and picked when ripe, in the belief that if the pupils, if people generally, tasted what was good, what was right, they would respect these traditions; by eating good food, they would want to cook it. And so the cycle continues.
I suppose you could say that we, over here, have had our own unofficial version of this. Our gastronomic awakening - or however, and with whatever degree of irony, you want to describe it - has been to a huge extent restaurant-led. It is, you might argue, by tasting food that we have become interested in cooking it. I do not necessarily disparage the influence of the restaurant: I spent twelve years as a restaurant critic, after all.
But restaurant food and home food are not the same thing. Or, more accurately, eating in restaurants is not the same thing as eating at home. Which is not to say, of course, that you can’t borrow from restaurant menus and adapt their chefs’ recipes – and I do. This leads me to the other reason this book is called How to Eat.
I am not a chef. I am not even a trained or professional cook. My qualification is as an eater. I cook what I want to eat – within limits. I have a job - another job, that is, as an ordinary working journalist - and two children, one of whom was born during the writing of this book. And during the book’s gestation, I would sometimes plan to cook some wonderful something or other, then work out a recipe, apply myself in anticipatory fantasy to it, write out the shopping list, plan the dinner – and then find that when it came down to it I just didn't have the energy. Anything that was too hard, too fiddly, filled me with dread and panic or, even if attempted, didn't work or was unreasonably demanding, has not found its way in here.
And the recipes I do include have all been cooked in what television people call Real Time: menus have been made with all their component parts, together; that way, I know whether the oven settings correspond, whether you'll have enough hob space, how to make the timings work and how not to have a nervous breakdown about it. I wanted food that can be made and eaten in a real life, not in perfect, isolated laboratory conditions.