Keep Calm and Cook On

"I believe that if ever I had to practice cannibalism, I might manage if there were enough tarragon around." ~ James Beard

Ah, the good old 'Keep Calm and Carry On' poster. So very classic, so much scope for amusing and facetious variations. A friend of mine has a poster in her room instructing her to "Keep Calm and Drink More Tea". My brother has something, I forget what, bearing the slogan "Now Panic and Freak Out". When I was about halfway through revising for my Finals, and every day was a struggle to avoid either throwing myself under a passing vehicle or bursting into tears in front of strangers, I had the bright idea of making the 'Keep Calm and Carry On' poster (the original red one) my iPhone wallpaper. As simple as it sounds, it really did have a positive effect on my morale. Every time I checked my phone - which, as you can imagine, happens fairly often on an average day, particularly if I've forgotten to put on my watch - I saw those bold white letters and that dramatic red background, and I reminded myself that life probably could be much worse. After all, there are worse places to be taking your Finals than Oxford, and there are worse crises in life than "Oh my goodness I might not get a First". Unsurprisingly, no one really wanted to hear about my first world problems, so I took my phone's advice. I kept calm and carried on. With the aid of chocolate, tea, and a religious schedule of post-lunch power naps.

Perhaps it's the fond memories of getting through those testing times that has made me so susceptible to this new offering from Quadrille books. Written by experienced food writer and editor Lewis Esson (whose works include Larousse Pratique and Mouthwatering Mediterranean), it arrived in the post a couple of weeks ago, and I have been completely charmed by it. I reckon that 'Keep Calm and Cook On' would have perhaps been an even better slogan to see me through my Finals, as I tend to find that when I'm stressed I go into manic cooking mode, rustling up two- or three-course dinners for friends most nights without ever stopping to realise my strange compulsion to be constantly in the kitchen whenever things start to look a little bleak. You'd think that cooking is the last thing one should be doing if stressed, but I think I like it because it gives me a sense of pride and achievement when I've successfully and deliciously fed people, and reminds me that I can at least do something, even if my dissertation reading isn't going to plan, or I'm having no luck with job applications, or I'm worrying about money/life. You can always tell when I feel stressed out, because the monthly Archive sidebar on this blog stretches down for two screens.

Anyway. After marvelling at its diminutive size, I sat in bed and read this little book from cover to cover. It was a very happy twenty minutes. The idea is to provide 'good advice for cooks', but this good advice is peppered with amusing quotations from all sorts of venerable figures, from Oscar Wilde to Sophia Loren. One of my favourites is at the top of this post and made me chuckle. I also rather liked the poet Horace's "A hungry stomach seldom scorns plain food", which just makes me think of all the times I've planned exotic and labour-intensive dinners only to find that when I come home starving all I want is a bowl of rice, and it tastes just as good. As Cervantes said, "Hunger is the best sauce in the world." 

Other gems include:
  • "Life is a combination of magic and pasta" - Federico Fellini
  • "Approach love and cooking with reckless abandon" - the 14th Dalai Lama (I like to think I do this quite well...)
  • "Life is too short to stuff a mushroom" - Shirley Conran (I don't agree, as this recipe proves)
  • "He was a very valiant man who first adventured on eating of oysters" - James I (and VI)
  • "My doctor told me to stop having intimate dinners for four. Unless there are three other people" - Orson Welles (which makes me think of all the times I've cooked a recipe that 'serves two' for myself without bothering to scale it down...)
  • "Everything you see I owe to spaghetti" - Sophia Loren (a good advert for a non-carb-free diet)
  • "A cucumber should be well sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out, as good for nothing" - Samuel Johnson
  • "The trouble with eating Italian food is that 5 or 6 days later you're hungry again" - George Miller
  • "The only time to eat diet food is while you are waiting for the steak to cook" - Julia Child

I particularly love the way a lot of the quotations, like Julia Child's, put food into perspective a bit. It's easy - amidst all the warnings these days about too much salt intake and too many carbs being bad for you and why we shouldn't eat so much meat and how sugar is the enemy - to forget that food should primarily be about pleasure. I am the first to admit that I often get a bit silly and paranoid about the way I eat, worrying that I'll put on weight if I have an extra helping of dessert or bake a loaf of bread to go with dinner, worrying that I shouldn't have pasta because carbs are evil and instead should have a bowl of lentils. Then I think of the quotations in this lovely book, and - a bit like during my Finals - tell myself to man up a bit, and just enjoy the damn food, because life's too short. Thank you, Quadrille, for encouraging me to eat more cake.

The handy kitchen tips are both useful and informative. They include: a list of foods to help you sleep better; how to poach eggs properly; how to remove excess salt from a dish; what to look for when buying fish; how to test eggs for freshness; how to lessen the smell of cooking cabbage; how to stop bread going mouldy quickly; how to skin tomatoes. Some of them I knew already, but some surprised me and have already proved useful.

All in all, a lovely little book. No cook should be without this, especially as it only costs £4.99. It would also make a great present for any keen cooks in your life. I think they should produce a matching apron - I for one would definitely buy it.

Finally, a pertinent quotation:

"A man's own dinner is to himself so important that he cannot bring himself to believe that it is a matter utterly indifferent to anyone else", from Anthony Trollope. 

This sounds rather familiar - it's the reason for the existence of food blogs.