from Punch 14 November, 1951
Last week I discovered the Gastronomers Bookshelf a site dedicated to reviews of books about food. Given my on-going gripe about recipe books not getting the attention they deserve in the main stream media I was thrilled to discover that someone takes these books seriously enough to put the time and effort into maintaining this website.
I immediately decided that my mission in life was to help Duncan and Mark and make my own contribution to their efforts. So I launched myself into a review of Stephanie Alexander's Kitchen Garden Companion. A week later I am still writing.
Initially I was wildly positive about this book, carried away in part by my own enthusiasm for starting a vegetable garden and in part because I had been very impressed when I heard Ms. Alexander talk about her Kitchen Garden Foundation . It is hard not to admire her determination and dedication. I even went as far as to describe her book as 'inspirational, indispensable and irresistible'! (I've always been a fan of alliteration.)
A good review however needs to be at least somewhat objective even allowing for the reviewer's admission of their own bias. It wasn't until I really tried to see this book through someone else's eyes and tried to summarise why I liked it and why I thought others should buy it that I realised there were flaws and omissions. In fact in the end I found it hard to know who I would recommend it to, especially given the price tag (in excess of $A100) and seriously began to question why I had bought it myself!
Part of the problem of reviewing the Kitchen Garden Companion lies in
1.clearly defining what the book is about - Is it a gardening guide? Is it a recipe book?
2.defining the intended audience - adults? Children? Families? Gardeners? Inexperienced cooks? All of the above?
The book has grown out of the author's experience of establishing her own vegetable garden and her work with school children and combines gardening information with recipes and instruction on how to involve children both in cooking and gardening. Much as I admire Ms. Alexander I suspect that she tends to have a bit of an authoritarian, take no prisoners approach which manifests itself here in an uncompromising confidence in children's latent enthusiasm for gardening and cooking, their abilities with kitchen equipment and their predisposition to appreciate sophisticated flavours.
In the end I think I have decided that anyone wanting to start a kitchen garden, whether planning to involve children in the process or not, would probably be better off buying a more comprehensive gardening guide. For example, Lolo Houbein's One Magic Square covers most of what you would ever need to know and offers all sorts of sensible, practical advice – like raising seedlings in the cardboard cylinders from toilet rolls. Anyone interested enough to start growing their own food probably already has a reasonable selection of recipe books and anyone wanting to teach children the basics of how to cook would want recipes less complex than those in the Kitchen Garden Companion. Stephanie's book makes a worthy attempt to be two (perhaps even three) books in one volume but for less than the cost of the Kitchen Garden Companion, you could actually have two books.
Along the way I also compared the Kitchen Garden Companion with another book in my collection, Nigel Slater's Tender. Although we have long been advised not to judge a book by its cover, book designers are there to try to persuade us to do just that. What struck me when I looked at these two books side by side was how each reflects its author, not just in the writing and the recipes but also in its physical look and feel.
Stephanie Alexander's book is big and weighty (running to 771 pages and weighing in at 3 kilos)– it looks authoritative. The photographs are bright and clear and the layout is neat and regular so that flipping through the appearance is very sunny, very primary colours, very clean and precise, very no-nonsense. There's almost a feeling that this is educational and good for you even before you start reading.
Tender – the very title suggests something fragile and delicate – is almost the antithesis of authoritarian despite also being a hefty tome. There's a fuzziness and an unpretentiousness to the photographs here and the whole book has a sort of greyness and softness to it– the recipes are in fact printed on grey paper and there are one or two shots of snow – which has the effect of somehow making it seem very English in contrast to Alexander's book which seems very Australian. Even the titles of the recipes 'A tomato salad …', 'A mildly spiced supper …', A stir-fry of broccoli …' suggest a certain hesitancy, a desire to share ideas rather than instruct. I've only ever seen photographs of Nigel Slater but he always looks a bit dishevelled and unkempt (as though he hasn't combed his hair) and slightly whimsical which is, to me at least, exactly how this book presents itself. He calls himself a cook who writes and here even his words are tender - romantic and seductive. (Some might even say that some of his writing verges on the erotic!) There are a lot of words here so there is a sense that you need to spend time reading this book to really understand what it is about – time that is well rewarded. Just to tempt you, how about this:
'I regard a baked onion as a fine but humble supper. It will probably have been steamed first to keep its flesh juicy, then left in a low oven to bake with a little butter and salt until its translucent, golden layers are at the point of collapse. Its edges may have caught and even blackened here and there, and the juices may come embellished with a little cream and grated pecorino ...There will be hand-torn bread, and maybe some lightly cooked spinach at its side. Oh and a glass or two of wine, something velvety, would do nicely.'
I'll have what he's having thanks.
See here for a very interesting piece on what's involved with establishing a school kitchen garden under the auspices of the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Foundation and here for my final review.