Tuesday, 23 June 2015
Dark Side of the Spoon: The Moods and Recipes of Nigel Slater
I had been flailing in the kitchen for a few years, guided by hastily Googled recipes, when I fell for Nigel Slater, the James Beard Award-winning home cook and author of thirteen books. I had not grown up in a home where the afternoons were filled by the smells of a roast, and I had spent my early adult life fed by the taquerias of San Francisco and the kebab trucks of New York; I needed a culinary guru. Here was a careful teacher with a voice that I could hear, someone who wrote syntactically complex sentences about the pork chop and the Brussels sprout and, in so doing, tacitly urged the reader to honor these foods with equally thorough and sustained attention. In his introduction to “Kitchen Diaries” (2006) he writes: “A crab sandwich by the sea on a June afternoon; … hot sausages and a chunk of roast pumpkin on a frost-sparkling night in November. These are meals whose success relies not on the expertise of the cook but on the more basic premise that this is food of the moment—something eaten at a time when it is most appropriate.”
While it was Slater’s style that first drew me to him, it was the melancholic and fallible element in his writing that made me a loyalist. “Kitchen Diaries” (2006) and “Notes from the Larder” (2012)—which were originally published in Slater’s native U.K.—are both arranged in the manner of a journal, and are both marked by the capricious turns and mordant quips of a private, personal account. “Today I descend further than usual … a day of dark spirits it is,” Slater announces on January 5th in “Notes.” He provides no recipe that day. “Auld Lang Syne,” he admits on a winter day in “Kitchen Diaries,” “always makes me want to burst into tears.” In the coda of a reverie about the perfect kitchen knife, he concedes, “I do, though, find it mildly disturbing to find comfort in something with which you could so easily kill someone.”
The recipes themselves are dictated as much by his mood as by what is in season. I find it easy to choose the Slater dish that is right for the occasion, because the textures and colors and tastes are inextricably linked to his emotional experience, and what he craves, given a certain disposition, tends to mirror what I crave in the same state of mind. For a shy friend I see rarely, whose laughter and surprise I am always courting, I made Slater’s cracked wheat with mint, mango, and chili. The shock of the lush mango against the hot chili—a high Scoville rating was called for—paired with the psychedelic greens and pinks of mint and radishes, made for a punch line of sorts. It became a bridge to conversation that something richer would not have afforded. When I hosted a brunch for ten adults and six children, I baked two dozen of Slater’s cheese, ham, and apple muffins, which call for a delicate proportion of savory to sweet and which were designed to use up the last bits of a few exceptional ingredients in Slater’s refrigerator. “The ham,” Slater writes, “some fine and dark slices from an English animal, is from the sort of well cared-for pig that probably had a Christian name.” They were perfect for the gathering, their sweetness tricking the deranged toddlers into the protein and its soporific effects, their heartiness settling the grownups into a state where they could speak at length. For my partner’s mother’s seventy-second birthday, an occasion about which she was feeling down, I made a roast lamb that required extended time and concentration, as any birthday meal should. The idea of it appealed to the generational traditionalist in her, but the execution—with apricots, lemon zest, cinnamon, ginger—was a shock and an adventure, a sign that the world remained a place of curiosities. I imagined Slater narrating her reactions, the advancement from hesitant to delighted.
For a brief period I looked elsewhere, believing that my enthusiasm for cooking under Slater’s direction would transfer easily. I was hosting dinners more and more, and increasingly dealing with diets that were gluten-free or dairy-free or meat-free or otherwise limited on account of breast-feeding. It might make sense, I thought, to try a cookbook written by someone who did not favor so very much cream, bacon, and butter.
First, I brought home “Very Fond of Food” (2011)—another seasonal diary—by Sophie Dahl, who is famous in Britain for reasons other than her abilities in the kitchen. The granddaughter of Roald Dahl, she turns out charming, compact anecdotes about road-trip mishaps and eccentric matrilineal wisdom. She is also a former fashion model, and this explains the photos of her deriving elegant satisfaction from organic fruits and vegetables. In the frontispiece, she wears worn ballet slippers and transfers strawberries from one bowl, up high, to another, down low, for reasons unclear; in the section about winter, she rests her elbow upon a stove and her chin upon her hand, looking deep in thought, perhaps about when exactly she will burn. The recipes seemed like healthy alternatives to many of Slater’s, and so I tried several. But, at an otherwise lively dinner to welcome a travelling friend, I was disappointed when none of my eight guests demanded to know what was in the “lemony” lentil soup. The pumpkin curry with the cinnamon rice tasted of friendly nothing, like something one might be served at one of the more progressive European penitentiaries. I stopped leafing through her book like one might stop seeing some perfectly charming suitor, a person who was pleasant and kind and who did not, in his or her absence, inspire any yearning. The meal was forgotten when the last of its bits were rinsed from the plates.
Next was “The Family Meal,” a collection of the recipes that Ferran Adrià served to the staff of El Bulli before the dinner shift began. My partner brought it home, beguiled by the surfeit of photographs: of each step in each recipe; of the ingredients one should keep on hand; of the thirty-six expensive kitchen appliances and accessories that Adrià recommends the home cook purchase in order to prepare the “ordinary food” therein. (These include an electric citrus juicer, an electric fruit and vegetable juicer, a Microplane grater, a “kitchen blowtorch,” and a whipped-cream siphon and cartridges.) I longed for Slater, who declares cheerfully in “Eat” that “Not all my pans have a lid. I have to use a plate sometimes,” and in “Kitchen Diaries” that “A more organized cook would freeze [their Parmesan rinds]; mine tend to collect in one of the little plastic drawers in the fridge door, the one you are supposed to keep eggs in.” Worse than the hundreds of dollars I was meant to invest in blowtorches was Adrià’s emphatic principle that eight “base preparations,” or sauces, be made in advance and frozen, then added to the recipes that call for them. The sauces take hours to complete, as do the complementary entrees; cooking everything in one evening, which we tried once, resulted in the kind of panic and consequent shock one ascribes to victims of minor natural disasters. “I can’t believe we’re actually eating,” we said, wiping chilled sweat from our foreheads, both suffering from hypoglycemic tremors. The black rice with squid was divine, but I would have kissed anyone who brought me a cheeseburger and an electric blanket.
I was the kind of cook, I was realizing, who felt sanguine and accomplished if she could buy some rainbow carrots at the farmers’ market and prepare them that evening. So was Nigel Slater, and so, it seemed, was Nina Planck, whose “The Real Food Cookbook” (2014) I purchased next. The self-described “farmers’ market entrepreneur” and the daughter of a farmer, Planck offers instruction on everything from “Ginger Bubbles Kombucha” to rosemary shortbread and beef tacos. I was happy with Planck, briefly; her food was both delicious and diverse, and I made her sweet-corn-and-red-pepper soup, her jalapeño cornbread, and her flourless chocolate cake. Between the recipes were photos of her solemn children, dressed in expensive velvet overalls, which I guiltily enjoyed; I even felt vicarious fulfillment at the images of outdoor dinners on her farm. The honeymoon fell apart when I stumbled across page ninety-four, where the author pays what she calls homage to a certain canonical poem. “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Chicken” was, apparently, written with a total lack of irony. It includes a stanza full of apostrophic plea to meat substitutes: “Oh soy ‘chicken,’ where are your bones? / Where shall I get broth, rich in minerals? / Oh soy ‘chicken,’ where is your fat? / Without Jewish penicillin, how to cure my husband’s cold?” The mere desecration of Wallace Stevens, which discomfited me sufficiently, was not enough for Planck. She also includes the lines: “They conjured fake breast milk from flour and water; / babies died.” Babies DIED?! I bellowed, alone in my kitchen. I just came for the zucchini carpaccio with pine nuts. I closed that book.
Coming back to Slater clarified the attraction for me and helped me to understand what it is that makes his books singular. Yes, there’s his flawless risotto (with parmesan, mint, and zucchini flowers) and the careful juxtaposition of flavors in his almond cake (with lemon and thyme). There’s his masterful, stylistically complex writing: he can wield the second person as an effective narrative tool, then engage the royal “we” as a gentle didactic, all in the space of a page. (From “Eat”: “You watch the flesh change from pearl white to snow white and see the edges turn pale gold.… We need to learn to control the heat. But first we must know our pan.”) But the fundamental appeal of his books is, for me, reducible to the reason he began to cook at all.
Behind Slater’s carefully considered instructions are references to a very real life, one that is shaped by struggle and adjustment and that requires self-maintenance, the kind that meditative hours in the kitchen can provide. His cookbooks make subtle reference to the canned foods and unhappy aunts and grief of his childhood. His memoir “Toast,” from 2003, offers these stories in detail: the sexual abuse by an uncle, the sudden death of his mother, his father’s addiction to morphine, the persistent flatulence of an elderly relative and how it fouled up many a dinner. His cookbooks subvert a dominant cultural myth, namely that food and lifestyle writers must come to us beaming and fulfilled, having strolled out of the womb with a zester and a few time-saving tips. Slater is the writer for those of us who have ended up in the kitchen because transforming chopped vegetables and seasoned meats into complex dishes makes us feel that we have acted capably for the sake of our own well-being, and for the well-being of those we love. The hours I spend bent over an evolving meal are, as I believe they are for Slater, a step in the direction of the person I want to be and the home I’d like to have, even if I am frequently not that person, even if I do not come from that type of home. We conceive who we are as we conceive the meal in front of us.
On a recent visit to Bonnie Slotnick’s famed used-and-rare-cookbook shop, in lower Manhattan, I leaned on the glass counter and spoke to Slotnick and her friend Don Lindgren, who owns a cookbook store in Maine, about the distinctiveness of Slater. The string of bells on the door went off almost constantly. “His relationship with food isn’t based entirely on marvelous meals. It’s as much about the failures as it is about the successes,” Lindgren said, fidgeting a little with the excitement of a specialist. Slotnick spread her hands before her. “He’s telling us who he is, and for that I’m very grateful,” she said. “He doesn’t need to be the world’s expert on anything but himself.”