I rather bristle at newspaper column collections. They strike me as a bit lazy, a cheat’s way of getting another book under the belt, often just in time for the gift-giving season. When it comes to Rachel Cooke’s Kitchen Person, however, I have to eat my words. It draws from the 14 years of monthly food columns Cooke wrote for the Observer from 2009. Each comes with a postscript from the author looking back on her thoughts at the time, ensuring that the pieces hold their own as a collection, as something cohesive. You sit down to read one essay, and look up 75 pages later.
The tone, too, is instrumental in achieving this. At once intimate and no-nonsense, Cooke brims with frank opinions, holding no truck with faddy eating and finding supposedly meditative kitchen tasks such as podding peas or making sofrito boring. Proper linen is integral to proper dining; a British egg custard tart is far superior to the Portuguese version.
She is clearly obsessed with food, and reading her is like chatting to your most interesting and forthright friend in their kitchen. She reminds me of Laurie Colwin, the novelist and food essayist. In these essays, Cooke becomes a companion to the reader, advising, celebrating, recommending and occasionally reproving.
Most importantly, she takes food seriously, regarding it as
another aspect of culture: one of its high points, in fact… When people rule out, for no good medical reason, whole food groups or, worse still, entire cuisines, to me it’s the same as if they’d announced that they dislike classical music or abstract art or science fiction. I mean, what? All of it? Really?
Accordingly, her topics span the gamut of human experience – poetry, politics, class, friendship, love – seen through the lens of cooking and eating.