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Book review: Notes From a Small Kitchen Island
Someone is bound to tell me that it’s a psychological flaw on my part, but I need to believe that the author of a cookbook likes me by dint of the fact that they make it obvious that, in general, they possess good feelings about all their readers. Conveying this is harder than you think, especially in these polarised times.
Debora Robertson is a smart and witty writer whose words exude warmth. This doesn’t mean she’s a declawed kitten- far from it. (God help you if you are a twat to her on socials because she’ll demolish you in one sharply funny sentence that’ll have you comfort-licking your own fur until you are as bald as Telly Savalas.) But it has equipped her with an ability to acknowledge and embrace human foibles; she can laugh at herself and look back with fondness at the things she got up to as a young woman. She reminds me of Laurie Colwin in this respect. It’s a really good way of living. Freud did say humour is a mature coping mechanism after all.
My copy of ‘Notes From a Small Kitchen Island’ arrived this morning as I was pratting about on Twitter to cope with the chaos of the prime minister’s impending resignation- or not (who knows?!) Since the wave of resignations began, I have existed in a space bordering on hypomania alongside a goodly proportion of Twitter. Funny and brilliant tweets float into the ether on a wave of hilarity and despair until it feels like we are collectively being driven mad not only by our overlords and ladies but by our reactions too. But humour is so important, helping to decrease anxiety and feelings of threat. Its deployment helps us cope in a given situation. I needed this book.
There’s nothing insouciant about Debora’s writing, though. There are sentences in this book which stopped me short because deeply private sadnesses hover in the space around them. (Deb is a very spacious writer. She leaves room for you. She doesn’t labour the point.) As befits someone who moved to France with her husband and pets during a brief lull in the pandemic, there’s an awareness of time passing, of relationships that have been and gone leaving only memories. There’s also a wonderful appreciation of the here and now, friends, pets, family, gatherings, and quiet time. This book is about the joy of presencing- the act of bringing yourself into the present moment. Too often, food memoirs sit too comfortably in the past because nostalgia is one hell of a drug. This doesn’t.
Years ago, I remember telling Debora that she’d have been great working in mental health, where it is vital to have a light touch. You won’t last if you don’t possess a sense of humour because your clients sure will- even in the face of awful trauma and crisis. Her grandmother became a nurse in a psychiatric hospital, and Deb grew up around the patients, being taken to visit them. She writes about doughty female relatives: Aunt Louie, whose Welsh chapel beliefs expressed themselves through being busy and productive and a fine recipe for a corned beef and potato pie with a crust made from butter and lard (proper!); a borrowed Texan Meemaw who left slices of Margarita Pie in the cooler for a teenage Debora and her Texan boyfriend; and her logical family- the friends and colleagues she has brought into her fold over the decades. The book is also a tribute to enduring female friendships because millennials did not invent this concept.
Of course, the food is beautiful, and the recipes are correctly written as befits the author’s decades of experience in the food world. Others have said they can’t believe it is her first human cookbook. Previously, Debora has written cookbooks for dogs and cats, and a couple of recipes are dedicated to her beloved Barney, Gracie and Dixie. The cover blurb made me laugh: “I want to eat every single recipe in this book- even the two for dogs!” writes Nigella. I’m particularly fond of the Roast Lamb with Durham Salad (butter lettuce, mint and spring onion chopped then macerated in white wine vinegar and sugar) because my grandparents made a Midlands version of this. There’s a delectable Burnt Honey and Walnut Cake which feels like it could easily have been included in the section of the book about her time living in Moscow at the turn of the nineties; a clever Eggs Benedict Strata from an essay about brunch and how Debora slowly came round the idea of it after a less than enjoyable inaugural brunch in New York; and a recipe for Macaronade Sétoise that honours the Italian community in her new French hometown of Séte. It also hints at what might come in her next book which (I hope) will be about her life in the south of France.
Buy Notes From a Small Kitchen Island here.
Debora’s Substack newsletter about her life in France is wonderful. I find myself breathing out as I read it.
Debora on Twitter
In the interests of full disclosure, Debora is a friend, but I don’t recommend books by friends unless they are excellent. It makes life difficult sometimes!
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