A life lived in the kitchen

I don’t come from anywhere in particular. I’m a Turkish jew with an Italian name on my father’s side, and I’m a characteristically rootless kind of middle-class English on my mother’s, with bits of Norfolk, West-Country, Kent, Wales and whatever-else in the family histories that precede my arrival in a London hospital in nineteen-seventy. But I’ve always wanted to connect to the rhizomic chthonios of a place, to be like one of those stumps that survives in a forest because its neighbours are still feeding it nutrients – to be a part of something that is historical, geographic, inseparable from its context. This is probably why I’ve lived in the same house since my mid-twenties. I can pretend that my particular articulation of all the culinary currents that have intersected at my person is the characteristic native cuisine of that place, if nowhere else.

Rachel Roddy is a wanderer, while I started out looking for somewhere to settle, but her footloose ways come from a similar place, a middle-class, educated background rooted in family memories of ordinary life and kitchens. She came to rest in Rome, and her book Five Quarters presents in part a Roman cuisine, one specific to the unremarkable neighbourhood of Testaccio where she lives, although the kitchen practices it conveys are her own: there are recipes from her English grandmother, and from some of the classic cookbooks that have shaped her, as well as those that she has learned from neighbours and vendors in Italy. It is still about the food of a place however: her own small kitchen, which she describes with affection and clarity, is the context to which all of her cooking is as native as a potato to the mud that clings to it.

Her book is not a catalogue of recipes, but a narrative of culinary discovery, a sequential discussion of various ingredients and experiences, in which particular dishes emerge from the text of their own volition. Her instructions are often quite casual, resorting to the common Italian instruction ‘q.b.’, meaning ‘quanto basta’ or ‘enough’ – the cook is expected to determine what the right quantity of an ingredient is, depending on any of a number of factors, including the palates of the people they are cooking for. This might seem daunting to someone who feels bound to follow recipes to the letter, but few of Roddy’s dishes require precision, or any excessively technical procedures, and with constant tasting they will come out well in the hands of anyone who knows what they like.

Many cookbooks are written by professional chefs after extensive periods of recipe development, and as such they are somewhat removed from the practicalities of domestic food preparation. Few British people inherit a complete culinary tradition from their parents, or even basic cooking skills, and for that deprived population perhaps such precise specifications are a comfortable support, but following procedures is not how cooking is learned, any more than fluency in a language can be achieved by chanting verb conjugations. Roddy is a domestic cook speaking to her peers, telling them about what she likes to cook and eat, and soliciting their engagement by describing the unmistakably recognisable warmth and comfort of a life lived in the kitchen. For her, the recipe development that subtends her instructions is the long process of habituation and refinement that occurs when a dish is made repeatedly for the cook’s family and friends.

Roddy’s writing is simple and informal, but the text is skilfully crafted, an evocation of experience centred around food, and an affective autobiography that emerges alchemically like the combined aroma of ingredients mingling on the heat. Any reader who enjoys the privilege of a similar relationship to food will come to know Roddy far better (or the text’s version of her, at least) than if she had written a memoir. Those who lack that privilege will come to understand what it entails, and hopefully aspire to attain it – she makes a compelling argument for giving food the time it deserves.

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