London-based chef Eagle, a contributor to various culinary journals, makes his book debut with a thoughtful meditation on the craft, chemistry, and cultural history of cooking and the “inexorable currents of history and economics” that influence taste.
Winner of the Debut Food Book at the Fortnum & Mason’s Awards, the author’s unusual cooking manual lacks specific recipes, although he does devote several chapters to the process of making a rabbit stew. He dismisses the idea that recipes are “more-or-less scientific sets of instructions,” seeing them “more like short stories—about history, about politics, and about love.” Instead of emulating other cookbooks by presenting an “inaccurate account of the various things that have been done before,” Eagle offers reflections on techniques—such as curing, boiling, pickling, slicing and dicing (including specific directions for onions)—that can be applied to a variety of cooking situations. “A recipe,” he maintains, “is a work in progress, one outcome of a long, silent conversation between cook and cooked, which started before anyone alive today thought to pick up a knife.” Once a cook knows how to make a stew, for example, complex recipes “from across the globe and the ages” are not necessary; instead, the cook would benefit more from “terse suggestions” that can be adapted to ingredients at hand. Eagle emphasizes the importance of salt, which should be added “sometimes with abandon, sometimes judiciously” at the beginning, middle, and end of cooking. Besides bringing out flavors, salt is integral to the movement of water. “The elemental act of cooking,” he writes, “is chiefly the act of moving water from one place to another.” In curing meat or fish, we draw water out; in boiling pasta, rice, polenta, gruel, or grain, we rehydrate. Although Eagle does not extol cooking as an art but rather a craft, he celebrates the ephemeral pleasure of eating, “where a forkful comes together with a sip and a word to produce something beautiful.”
A graceful, enlightening contribution to food writing.