16 April 2017

The magnificent elitism of Jonathan Meades


Jonathan Meades has written a cookbook and it is, as the bright young things may still sometimes say, the most Jonathan Meades thing ever.

“The Plagiarist in the Kitchen” is, the former restaurant critic boasts, “all theft” – an “anti-cookbook” and a “recipe book that is also an explicit paean to the avoidance of culinary originality”.

As such it is more than just a cookbook; it is a manifesto. And it has something to say to us about the times – and the places – we live. As countless households prepare for lunch on Easter Sunday, it’s hard to think of any that would not benefit from possessing a copy of this book.

Authenticity, we are told, is the currency of the age. Theresa May’s dullness reassures because it could not possibly be contrived; Donald Trump’s election was predicated on the proposition that, whatever else might be said about him, he wasn’t a carefully constructed, safety-first, focus-group-and-poll-parsing, run-of-the-mill politician. What you saw was what you got, and that was something new enough to be worth taking a gamble on.

To be authentic, then, excuses other sins. Meades, marvellously, will have none of this.

As he argues, “Species snobbism is tiresome. The gastronomic approbation of the arcane, the artisanal, the local, the AOC, the sustainable, the scarce and the contempt for ‘wasteful’ air miles is frivolous: it’s conventionalised fashion posing as ethical concern. Lives depend on the export of beans from Africa to a continent whose eaters preach seasonality but can’t bear midwinter without strawberries and peaches.”

Hypocrisy might be fine, in other words, but only if you’re honest about it. This is not a cookbook for people worried it might be unethical to eat too much quinoa. (Actually, it’s not a book for people who eat quinoa at all: “vegetarianism is curable”, says Meades.)

His argument is that “better always trumps real”. That’s why pizza is better in Marseilles than Naples and why bouillabaisse in Marseilles is a mug’s game in which you, the poor customer, are the mug.

Authenticity comes at a premium – for which you pay. It is a form, though he does not put it like this, of producer-capture; a conspiracy against the public. A parma ham that’s not from Parma need not be worse than a ham that is from Parma. Inverting fashion, Meades insists that ends matter more than means.

Experts are not necessarily expert either. Sometimes they are just protecting their own unearned interest. On pot-au-feu, for instance, Meades pronounces that: “A crock of folklore and some very bogus science is attached to this dish. Ignore”. Or on almond soup: “The genuine article bulks out the almonds with almost as much bread. This dilutes the flavour of the almonds. So forget about the genuine article”.

Or on the varieties of rice from which risotto may be made: “Arborio, the most frequently found and the cheapest variety, is apparently scorned by The Rice Community, no doubt because it is the most frequently found and the cheapest”. If your own judgment is soundly rooted, you should have the courage to trust it.

Novelty, as Meades discovers, is a false god. As with a novel, everyone has a new recipe inside them – but that’s where it should stay. A recipe for a tart of warm figs and cooked ham ends thus: “Leave to cool. Taste. Chuck in bin.” There are fewer new things to be discovered than you likely think, and there is a reason why some things have lasted. The canon, then, has some value. Cassoulet, for instance, “should be approached with seriousness. But not with undue reverence. There is no true way.”

No true way, perhaps, but there is an honest way. As Meades allows, “My ideas have changed over the years, largely because indisputably the best cassoulet I have eaten was indisputably incorrect; that is, incorrect according to the prescription I had long then adhered to”. Values and standards matter, but there’s little profit in being a damn fool about these things.

“If there’s a lesson here,” says Meades, “it is that best is not to be found on home territory. And if there’s a second lesson it is that our prejudices are there to be broken down so that we can begin to build a replacement set based in our empirical observations”. The political application of which – on everything from grammar schools to free trade – is so obvious it scarcely needs to be elaborated upon.

A proper kitchen is a modest place, too: “Art may concern itself with expression, a quality that has no role in craft”. This is not a book for people who call themselves “creatives”, far less for people who think cooking as though you were a contestant on MasterChef is the proper way to conduct yourself in the kitchen. (“This is not a book for fine diners – an anagram of tossers.”)

In any case, the preference for “homemade”, he says, begs one question: “Whose home? Have you ever actually seen people’s homes? Why should biscuits made at home be better than those baked in a factory, a factory that specialises in biscuits?” These satanic mills can save us an extraordinary amount of bother. Specialism – which is to say, genuine expertise – matters. Meades believes in the theory of comparative advantage.

Still, Meades is a very English citizen of the world. He notes that the chauvinist French response to the question “What do you call really good German cooking?” is “You call it Alsacien cooking”. French cooking, in other words.

“The more a people is preoccupied with identity the more tenaciously is clings to emblems of permanence, of its chosen past – among them particular dishes,” he says.

This, he notes, is puzzling to the English, whose attitude towards their gastronomic heritage “is one of shrugging indifference, carelessness, negligence”. This may not be wholly admirable, but it is “less toxic, less closed than the boastful specialness that accompanies pride in identity, in race, in endogamy, in a culture whose limits are defined”.

The crux of his argument is that “an English plagiarist, not weighed down by the burden of belonging, can steal from anywhere: his oyster is indeed pan-global. An Alsacien plagiarist must confine himself to thefts from within the tribe, to within the prescribed boundaries, thus to Alsace”.

This may help explain why London is a better place to eat than Paris and why Britain is a surprisingly moveable feast. Magpie Britain really is global Britain, Brexit or no Brexit.

Fake can be real, then, but only if it is done properly, and with conviction. This too seems a lesson for life. What matters is the result and if it’s good it’s good.

Meades is just the right sort of elitist; one who despairs of cant and therefore of fashion, but who is wise enough to leave the door to his mind ajar. “The Plagiarist in the Kitchen” is the anti-cookbook of the year.

And there is much wisdom here: for example, “cook to please yourself as you might write or paint, dance or sing to please yourself”.

The world might also be better arranged if more of our politicians and public figures took their cue from Orson Welles: “Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what’s for lunch.”

Alex Massie is a political commentator