Thursday, December 3, 2015

Cook bookCook book by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"When, after setting out on that solitary swim across the entire ocean which is the first reading of Proust, we reach the first and the most famous seamark, the episode in which he eats the petite madeleine, then we know at once that whatever else Proust may be - at the least he is the most acute and penetrating of prose fiction writers - he is going to tell us more about food than we ever dreamed exists [...]"

Nicolas Freeling's The Cook Book (1972) is a companion to his wonderful The Kitchen: A Delicious Account of the Author's Years as a Grand Hotel Cook , which I reviewed here two years ago. Mr. Freeling, universally acknowledged as one of the very best writers of the crime/mystery genre in the second half of the 20th century (to me, of course, he is the best, by quite some margin), and a great writer in any genre, worked as a cook for the first 15 years of his adult life. Not only does he know what he is writing about but he writes about food so well that his cook book reads better than 99% of current fiction.

The Cook Book is - to borrow an apt phrase from the blurb on the back cover - a "fortuitous blend of the culinary and the literary". Mr. Freeling provides thirty-odd recipes for a wide variety of dishes, such as bouillabaise, beef bourguignon, nassi goreng, lapin à la bière, osso bucco, fricandeau à l'Oseille, Dutch pea soup, cinammon lamb stew, moussaka, etc., with the recipes embedded in fascinating prose - which is Freeling's true specialty - about literature, social mores, European history and culture, culinary fads and the like. One can find many hilarious passages, e.g., "The Germans eat blutwurst off a wooden plate, and the less said about this the better", "Nero [Wolfe], plus a whole gang of gastrologers, is busy tasting a most nauseating concoction of - I quote textually - celery, cayenne, pepper, chervil, tarragon, thyme, parsley, chives and shallots - and the author of this amalgam gets, one is mightily relieved to note, a knife stuck in him."

I applaud Mr. Freeling's fanatical zeal when he ridicules the notion of providing precise amounts of ingredients in recipes and specifying accurate cooking times (I realized long ago that my need to know exactly how long to cook something indicates that I am a very bad cook). I love his heartfelt tirades about the modern trend to suppress "all sense of smell" in supermarkets and against banquets of any kind ("ghastly things", "the most uncivilized ways of eating dinner"). I agree with his praise of choucroute (sauerkraut) and, in general, of pig-and-cabbage combination. Of course, what I love the most is the constant stream of literary references: not only to Proust, but also to Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling, Alexander Dumas, Rex Stout, and others. A very good read!

Three and a half stars.

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