I’ve been dipping into Kitchenella by Rose Prince on and off since I got it last week… I still can’t make my mind up about it. The recipes look fantastic, which is not that surprising, as she is influenced, it seems to me, by food heroes of mine like Jane Grigson, Elizabeth David and Nigel Slater. Prince’s principal aim is to give a helping hand to harassed working mothers who are short on time, inspiration, enthusiasm and, sometimes, the cooking skills themselves. The section titles – “Quick, Cheap & Filling”, “Things That Please Children”, “Fast, Good-For-You Lunches and Suppers”, etc… demonstrate her intentions pretty well. And speaking as a fairly harassed working mother, I very much appreciate the intention.
At first glance I am tempted by many of the recipes (always a good sign), and I like the fact that she often has a basic recipe and then adds several variations – for example she has a ‘blueprint for beef stew’ which she follows up with alternatives including with orange, garlic and thyme, and with smoked lardons and garlic. There are at least four recipes for braised beans, lots of soup recipes, delicious sounding root gratins and much much more. This is good educational stuff – demonstrating how recipes can be tweaked and fiddled with to create different dishes to add variety to weekly menus.
I have sympathy with some of Prince’s views on current trends in cooking & eating in this country – it really IS bizarre that people sit at home watching macho TV chefs pratting around on TV with with ludicrous dishes and ingredients whilst munching on a takeaway pizza or a M&S ready meal, and perfectly edible food goes mouldy in the fridge.. And I love her commitment to celebrating the nurturing wisdom of female cooks of previous generations whose skills are being, or have been lost. These lessons are, of course, so important today because they come from women who had learnt from their own mothers how to manage to create tempting & wholesome food with a limited budget, with limited time and limited ingredients.
It’s all good stuff, but to be honest, there are plenty of books around just now that celebrate the art of simple cooking, traditional skills & thriftiness. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage Every Day, Darina Allen’s The Forgotten Skills of Cooking and Nigel Slater’s Appetite all have a similar aim, have brilliant recipes and have excellent word-of-mouth reputations. Speaking for myself, I have learnt more from The Forgotten Skills of Cooking in the last 6 months or so than I ever learnt in school cookery lessons.
And there are a few other things that make me hesitate to recommend this book. To be honest I don’t much like Rose Prince’s style – sometimes it comes across as a series of notes that could have done with a little more editing. There’s also quite a lot of biographical information that I find more boring than heart-warming, and I don’t really enjoy her rather catty asides about other cookery writers. And I laugh hysterically whenever she writes that a particular ingredient is easily obtainable – even at local ‘across the road’ food stores… she’s clearly never been to Stoke-on-Trent.
There’s lots of talk about ‘feminism’ and nurturing feminine skills (she makes Nigel Slater and, bizarrely, Michael Caine into honorary women to fit into her arguments) but Prince doesn’t address coherently the significant issue of why the majority of women are still very much stuck with all the kitchen duties. My own view is that these domestic skills are only regarded as ‘feminine’ because women have always done them. The real celebration of the traditional skills and secrets of women home cooks will start when our husbands, partners and sons no longer see them as just women’s work. In this context, Prince’s opinions may well reinforce unhelpfully static gender roles.
Having said all that, if the recipes turn out to work well, and the book becomes one of those that I reach for often, then I will no doubt forget about all the excessive theorising, and just enjoy the cooking.