Rachel Roddy’s second book is full of anecdotes and recollections, little narrative vignettes about her immediate household, the extended Sicilian family she’s married into, her English parents, the people from whom she buys food in Rome and Sicily, people she cooks with, and so on. I don’t go a bundle on memoir or ‘life writing’—I’m interested in other lives, but usually the lives you can read about in biography or memoir are supposed to be ‘special’ in some way, and are therefore uninteresting to me. I usually find social history a better source of such stories. I’m resistant to the idea that it helps to understand the work of a public figure (be they writer, musician, politician, sportsperson or whatever) if you know the minutiae of their background, and although there is much memoir in print which is not predicated on the exceptionalism of its subject, it is vanishingly rare that it doesn’t conform to the conventions of a prose narrative. Lives and experiences are compressed into self-sufficient characters and coherent sequences of events, which necessarily falsify their sources. This is not what lives are like—these are the forms we turn to when we need to interpret life, when we need to experience it as meaningful. They are the forms, in short, of fiction—and ‘life writing’s’ claims not to be fiction leave me entirely unconvinced. I prefer a story that is honest about its own status.
Roddy’s anecdotes make no claims either way, and nor should they—by which I don’t intend to suggest that she is writing memoir with a clever post-modern detachment from veracity, but that she isn’t writing memoir at all. She’s writing about food, and food is not a heap of materials or a catalogue of techniques. Food is a social practice, a cultural heritage, a set of experiences, a group of emergent phenomena at the intersection of survival and community. Food is something which appears when a parent feeds a child, when companionship (whose etymology is ‘with-bread’, as Roddy points out) moves into the kitchen, or when a village brings in the harvest. It is not a solitary pursuit, and Roddy’s anecdotes don’t represent an attempt to jazz up a book of recipes—they are the meal itself. They tell us what the food is and what it means.
Some of the recipes in this book are barely recipes at all—‘cook some lentils with garlic and bay’, or ‘put some quartered peaches on a plate with a burrata or some prosciutto’. Of course there are other, more elaborate instructions, some of them involving multiple processes and challenging techniques, but their importance to the book and to the reader is independent of their complexity. What justifies their place in Two Kitchens is not that they’re too difficult to make without expert direction, or that you couldn’t think of them for yourself, but that they have emerged from a particular history, through a particular culture, via particular familial relationships, in a particular kitchen. What’s important is that people in Roddy’s experience put quartered peaches on a plate with burrata, and that this is delicious—not that it’s ‘traditional’ or ‘authentic’, but that people do it, with each other, with Rachel Roddy.
Two Kitchens then is not a book about food in the abstract, shorn of its context, reduced to mechanistic recipes to be reproduced ahistorically in isolated kitchens. It’s a book about the actual concrete food that Roddy lives, and as such it is a book about the people she eats with, cooks with, and learns from. The book is organised by ingredients, and each section opens with a discussion of the eaten experience—and also of the social and individual importance—of each foodstuff. It’s a book of lore, if you like, a tome of wisdom that tells its readers much more about eating and cooking than any volume of information or instructions could hope to. This is the orally and haptically transmitted knowledge that adds up to a set of family traditions, to a set of community practices, to a culture. Ancestors who grew these foodstuffs, still-living relatives who made them for sale, neighbours who recall the days when food production dominated their small town, the downstairs grain-store that preserves a house’s memory of farming, the plough and threshing sieves set aside in a garage in case the modern machinery hadn’t worked out.
Each recipe also begins with a similar discursive passage, separated from the instructions themselves by a horizontal line. While it would be possible to simply follow the instructions below the line, you won’t know what you’re making or why you’d want to unless you read the text above it. Food does have integral qualities, which by-and-large survive translation from place to place: focaccia will taste good whether you learned about it by reading a book or by experiencing it in the wild. But the experience of eating it owes a lot to the less tangible factors that make the food what it is, and Roddy makes a great effort to communicate them.
Of course you can’t put the smell of rising dough into a book, or the sting of lemon juice on a cut finger, but this is why it takes a writer rather than a chef to make a good food book. What Roddy puts into Two Kitchens is the understanding that this is a system of food, an ecology, a community of cooking and eating, and that it is all of this extraneous malarkey that makes the meals so good. As has already happened with Five Quarters, parts of this book will stick to me, and meals that it describes will become part of my daily life, modified and adapted to suit my own kitchen’s physical and social shape. This would rarely happen with a book of recipes: it’s the stories that matter, the chains of transmission which I can take up and pass on with anecdotes of my own. Her simple and unaffected prose conveys a life fundamentally centred on the sharing of food, and her book is of a piece with the family meals she recalls between its covers.