On the boundary of factual and figurative, on the border of narrative fiction and reference work, lies the cookbook, and the menu.
They’re weirdly similar, actually – you might even say one is a type of the other. In both, something straightforward and quotidian – a list of stuff to be cooked – finds itself, however fleetingly, in the domain of the imagination. Funny things can happen here, at this moment; a skilful writer of either elevates ingredients on a page into a story, a vision, an imagined experience.
Menus are everywhere in Diana Henry’s new book, How To Eat A Peach. This is not surprising: per the subtitle, along with Stories and Places, they’re its organising principle, the central logic structuring the whole work. Whilst there are clear antecedents to this – think of Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook, or Richard Olney’s French Menu Cookbook – How To Eat A Peach shares with these classics the same sense of, and joy in, judiciousness. It is deeply invested in the rightness of combinations, the sense – to reappropriate a term from the world of video games – of flow. How To Eat A Peach might just as well have been called How To Write A Menu, such is its author’s preoccupation with this art: Henry writes of the pure “pleasure” of putting menus together, an act of careful, mindful composition that she admits is her “favourite bit of cooking”.
Here is one to stir up longing for California (‘If You’re Going to San Francisco’); here is one to transport you to the Bosphorus (‘Take Me Back to Istanbul’)
The book, unsurprisingly, is chock-full of object lessons in how to do the thing right. It contains 25 separate menus, split loosely into Spring-Summer and Autumn-Winter and given evocative, occasionally ever-so-slightly Mills & Boon-y titles (“Cider and Gitanes”; “Midnight at the Oasis”) that emphasise the narrative element that is so important to each of them. When she writes about writing menus, Henry uses words like “composing” and “rhythm”; menus, like cookbooks, are not often thought of as creative writing but the specific kind of poeisis that takes place here is unmistakable. Favourites will vary according to personal taste (my two nominations: a celebration of Piedmont called ‘The Moon and the Bonfire (and the Hazelnuts)’ and a simple ‘Lunch to Soothe’) but there’s no denying the essential harmony that runs through all of them; the internal echoes and modulations in intensity that make any work of art feel aesthetically just so. Which is probably just another way of saying that everything sounds f**king delicious.
As well being an effective celebration of menus well-written, though, How To Eat A Peach makes you realise there is a menu for practically every occasion. The book, in fact, is an a la carte menu of menus: here is one for a hot day (‘Too Hot To Cook’), here is one for Autumn at its mistiest and most mellowly fruitful (‘October is the Best Month’). Here is one to stir up longing for California (‘If You’re Going to San Francisco’); here is one to transport you to the Bosphorus (‘Take Me Back to Istanbul’). A menu, you realise, can be anything; it mean anything, too, if you let it. As Henry writes: “there is poetry in menus. They can transport you to the Breton coast, or to a Saturday night in Manhattan: they are short stories”.
There have always been writers telling short stories with food. But the narrative cookbook has grown ever more prominent in recent years: menus, stories and places have grown ever-more tightly interwound. The cynic would say it’s the industry reacting to the rise of the internet, the sudden ubiquity of recipes that render “normal” cookbooks redundant; the optimist would point to the flourishing of books like Olia Hercules’ Kaukasis and see evidence that there is no end to the stories that we can tell, or the ways that we can read them (even if some of us are not quite ready to judge cookbooks purely on the strength of them). How To Eat A Peach’s photography – glossy but not artificially so – makes its stories even more evocative, fleshing things out further; the book even boasts a cutely mimetic (and ever so slightly kinky) fuzzy cover. The whole work is ripe with signification.
It is a striking irony that this celebration of the meaningful stories that menus can tell is reaching the market at the very same time as the art of menu-writing in restaurants seems to be in a pronounced decline. In her introduction, Henry nods (only semi-archly) to “the modern desire for small plates”; the sheer variety of dishes on offer in places today can create dissonance in place of harmony on menus – a problem exacerbated by our mania for novelty, our celebration of the weird and exotic over the familiar. More damagingly, we’re adopting linguistic conventions – blood, mushroom, curd, 7; protein, vegetable, fat, price; noun, noun, noun, price – that strip all suggestion and whimsy away from the page. Menus today showcase a relentless drive towards efficiency, towards economy of language and parataxis, and that this drive doesn’t stop at the written word: the entire paratextual apparatus (sans serif font, single pieces of A5, the elimination of currency symbols and decimal places) is pared down, like a chef-bro severing connective tissue.
James Hansen has already explored the complex dynamics at play here, the humblebrag-false modesty of putting your exactingly selected produce front and centre with no qualification or further description. With typical acuity, though, Henry herself also saw this “pretentious” form of expression coming a mile off. Originally published in At The Table, her article ‘The Joy of Menus’ is a celebration of everything we lose out on when we reduce menus to a list of words on a piece of paper: design and font, she argues, “can convey an era, a country, a particular place, even a feeling”; she notes, approvingly, how Patricia Curtan’s linocut and letterpress prints for Chez Panisse’s menus “codmmunicate the spirit of the place”. Menus can communicate more than this, too: the act of writing one imbues it with a trace of the “chef’s very being”; menus, then, are “the portal through which [we] can reach the soul of the chef”.
A menu is not a blunt, objective fact
A menu is not a blunt, objective fact. If it is a “mission statement” (ugh), it is one that can do more than simply shout about your provenance and the dope gurnard you’re getting in from Cornwall. Henry herself has described the act of menu writing as private, personal, a sort of conversation; giving a guest a menu in a restaurant therefore is about making introductions, clueing a diner in to the sort of experience they are going to have, the sort of rapport you’re looking to build. Fundamentally, it should promise pleasure, and offer some up in being read; few elements of the restaurant-going experience offer the same enjoyment – you might even call it jouissance – of charting a path from starter through to dessert. There’s a satisfaction to getting it right, a neatness: in a very real sense, it is an order that you are creating.
A perfect menu is a little Imagist poem: it gives the reader what they need to work with, no more, no less. It is, of course, welcome that we have moved past the foppish lyricism of nouvelle cuisine – no one, surely, will be sad never to see the word “medallions” on a menu again. But we’re in danger of overcorrecting, of unthinkingly adopting so many of the same conventions across so many of the same sort of restaurant that the parodies essentially write themselves. We need to return to composing menus thoughtfully, artfully, personally; to recognise there is a balance between familiarity and novelty where excitement and anticipation reaches its peak. How To Eat A Peach is a reminder of the potential of menus, and a celebration of exactly this sweet spot. In the right hands, there is poetry in menus; they can be, in fact, poems in their own right, a way of elevating a dining experience and making it transcendent.
The actual cooking of London’s menus has never been better. Isn’t it time we started presenting them in a way that did that justice?