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February 28, 2018

Life essentials

The essentials of life - love and food - are at the centre of works by two international authors who will be in Adelaide this March for Writers’ Week.

  • Words: Connor Tomas O’Brien

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat

There’s a good story – that may or may not be true – about the production of Magnus Nilsson’s The Nordic Cookbook.

In the process of research, Nilsson apparently met hundreds of Swedes who let him in on their own unique, top-secret family recipe for pickled herring, passed down through the generations. Apparently, every recipe was exactly the same – all of them taken, word-for-word, from a bestselling ’60s cookbook.

The obvious moral is that authenticity is a flawed concept. Another way to look at it, though, is to consider the gap between the meals we love and the recipes we use to describe them. Perhaps every family’s pickled herring is slightly different, in ways too subtle to warrant putting down on paper. After all, a perfect dish often feels like much more than a set of instructions properly followed. Recipes are passed down, but so too are techniques and ways of thinking about cooking. 

The issue, of course, is that most of us aren’t incredible cooks with finely honed intuitions. We may pick up a few haphazard tips from friends and family, but mostly cling tightly to a hazy understanding of cooking method developed by trial and a good deal of error.

A handful of recent cookbooks, from Tim Hayward’s The DIY Cook to J. Kenji López-Alt’s The Food Lab, have been designed to rip off the training wheels and encourage readers to experiment more confidently with food. Samin Nosrat – food columnist for the New York Times and former chef at Berkeley’s Chez Panisse – has written one of the best. Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, as the title suggests, encourages readers to simplify the cooking process by thinking of every meal as a perfect combination of four key elements. This is easier said than done, but the learning process is presented as at least as enjoyable as the finished, plated product.

Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is at times dense and difficult reading. It’s a cookbook designed to be read in full, in order, but Nosrat is also aware that mastery of technique is a gradual process, the process of conscious refinement over the span of hundreds or thousands of dishes. When the going gets especially tough, Wendy MacNaughton’s hand-drawn illustrations act as a delightful counterbalance. Colour-coded, fold-out charts map acids and fats to their regions of origin, and Venn diagrams break down the difference between doughnuts, bagels and shortbreads. The wobbliness of MacNaughton’s art suits the tone of Nosrat’s book – in cooking, as in art, there is space for well-considered imprecision, as long as you understand why you’re colouring outside the lines.

How To Fall In Love

In 2015, the New York Times published a Modern Love essay that went rapidly viral. The title may have had something to do with it: To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This. In the piece, Mandy Len Catron follows a recipe for the quick development of intimacy, concocted by husband-and-wife psychologists Arthur and Elaine Aron and incorporating 36 increasingly personal questions, posed to a relative stranger, followed by four minutes of sustained eye contact.

It worked, and several years later, Catron is still with the man she experimented on. From the column, too, came a book deal. How to Fall in Love With Anyone, the resulting memoir, is structured as a series of personal essays on the slippery concept of love. There’s a lot to enjoy, especially Catron’s deep dive three generations backward as she explores the different roles romantic relationships played for her grandmother and parents, beginning in Appalachian Virginia at the end of the coal mining boom. Other chapters deconstruct the outsized role of the ‘meet cute’, and the inherent paradox of the ‘Cinderella story’, which presents love as a prize for ‘virtuous women’ but restricts them from pursuing love directly.

The book bears the weight of expectations, and it sometimes falls short. For example, despite the work of Elaine and Arthur Aron serving as a focal point of Catron’s Times essay, Catron doesn’t explore the pair in the book – an odd omission considering the fantastic story of their professional relationship, in which their love for one another compelled them to research the psychology of romantic affection.

Even so, How to Fall in Love With Anyone is a remarkable work of memoir – a readable, literary examination of what binds us together and tears us apart.

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