Gastronomic rather than lecherous


Gastronomic rather than lecherous

KERNEELS BREYTENBACH likes to eat with his eyes. And he admires Salman Rushdie and listens to whales.


MOST good gluttons eat with their eyes. My biggest culinary dreams began in books — Elizabeth David's French Country Cooking, a present as a student, the butter-bombs that Robert Carrier detonated in the pages of his cookbooks. Like many other gluttons, those books made me dream of a first visit to Paris, the paradise of taste.

We were the little group of people who watched the movie Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe? (1978) for the food Robert Morley eats, not for the curves or angelic face of Jacqueline Bisset. Our priorities are gastronomical, not lecherous.

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Culinary orgy

Ruth Reichl has a spotless pedigree. She was the restaurant critic for the New York Times and edited the leading food magazine Gourmet in the years before the scabies that the digital age brought wreaked havoc among magazines that defined style from the Seventies to mid-Nineties. Reichl's books have made her iconic (and I use the word with its full load of meaning). Just look for My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life of 2015 — it's still in print. Or Save Me the Plums, her 2019 memoir about her years at Gourmet.

She is, you soon learn, someone whose sharp tongue and rapier pen were the best weapons of a journalist who could gossip about food as well as humans. She wrote five memoirs that were all top sellers among the food cognoscenti and starred in the TV shows Gourmet’s Adventures with Ruth and Gourmet’s Diary of a Foodie.

She knows how food tastes and smells. How to make it or how it is made — these are the little things one remembers about her novel, The Paris Novel. What you soon forget is what a paint-by-numbers book it is. This is truly not a novel one would remember for anything other than the description of what it feels like to get to know Paris and eat the way you can't eat anywhere else in the world. Reichl crammed her story with all sorts of fairly current affairs (child molestation, among other things) but the characters are cardboard thin. Familiar names show their faces and Reichl's mommy issues spill over into the story, thinly veiled.

But it's the food prepared by the friends of Stella (the main character) or that she (sometimes) brings to her lips that makes one flip pages impatiently. Chicken stock bubbling, chocolate melting and oranges transforming; how butter is massaged into chicken and fish as Stella finally finds her father behind the pots. They start a restaurant together, which is fine because it gives Reichl the opportunity to refer in passing to foods with which one's imagination can prepare a culinary orgy. There are no recipes here but a huge feast unfolds in your imagination. Frustratingly, the story ends just before the restaurant opens and we can read what the public think of Stella and her father's food.

Stella's French father tells her she needs to learn how to look at a mess and see possibilities amid the chaos. That's more or less how one feels about The Paris Novel.

How brilliantly Reichl writes! This book is for those who know there is a difference between a glutton and someone who likes to eat well. They are the target audience. You can open this book at any given page and start making your shopping list. Mine right now is for chicken liver pâté, apple crisp, squash fritters and curry chicken. Or her hamburger? Maybe a good idea, because then we can make the pig-feed salad with it. If the Hindus are right about the afterlife, I want to come back as Ruth Reichl.

My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life by Ruth Reichl was published by Random House USA and costs R870 at Loot.

Happiness recreated

There are so many ways I admire Salman Rushdie. But like so many of his readers, I'd rather not elaborate on them in public. We live in a time when faith absolves no one from snipers and frenzied hotheads. I just know that I think more of him after reading Knife.

This is a book about someone who mourns the loss of his early self in the lucid language and with the keen insight of someone who has a superhuman vision of life. For those who know cricket history, a grand revelation will come towards the end. Rushdie tells how it came about that he decided to choose the Nawab of Patuadi (former Indian cricket captain Mansur Ali Khan) as a role model to make his way forward easier. This is how he writes:

I decided that the Tiger would be my role model. If he could face up to the ferocious speed of Hall and Griffith, I should be able to manage to pour water into a glass without spilling it, cross sidewalks without colliding with other pedestrians, and in general succeed at being functional as a one-eyed man in a two-eyed world.

Final thought: one can recreate true happiness. I believe him.

Knife by Salman Rushdie was published by Diversified Publishing and costs R633 at Exclusive Books.

Wales and whales

People on the mainland yearn for an island where they can get away from it all. You know that feeling, huh? People on islands, like young Manod on an island near Wales, want to go to the mainland. In 1938, when Whale Fall is set, the desire is as strong as it is now. Especially when mainlanders come to spend time on the island. Years before the sexual revolution of the Sixties, light years before the information revolution.

I suspect Elizabeth O'Connor chose this time and place for her novel debut because they were safe and innocent — but also because against such a backdrop it's easier for a writer to shake the story loose from stereotypes and the expectations that modern novelisation creates. Manod's interaction with a visiting couple anticipates the sexual revolution, the emancipation of women and the boundaries within which modern man moves and gets to know his place. At the heart of the story is the corpse of a whale that washes up on the island, drifts back into the sea and washes up again on the other side of the island.

Whale Fall is an exceptional debut. O'Connor doesn't showcase all her art like debutantes. She writes like someone who knows that her restraint as a writer makes the strongest impression, preparing us for the great works yet to come. She's definitely destined for bigger things but her first steps are grandiose.

Whale Fall by Elizabeth O'Connor was published by Pan MacMillan and costs R402 at Exclusive Books.

♦ VWB ♦

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