Chomu Press, p/b, Â£10, www.chomupress.com
Reviewed by Katy Oâ€™Dowd
â€˜When he reached the age of 767, Peng Zu was sought after by the benevolent Emperor Yao, who wished to receive advice on ruling the nation. Peng Zu made a thick soup for the emperor out of pheasant, Jobâ€™s tear seeds and plums, well salted. Eating the dish, the emperor felt as if he were sitting on air. He was filled with a deep cosmic joy in which he saw everything clearly.â€™
And thatâ€™s the chapter the publisher has picked out to showcase this really rather marvellous book, a set of 51 fictional biographies of great chefs.
Set out much like encyclopedia entries, Lives of Notorious Cooks also travels through the ages and across the world to bring us these great cooks, whose dishes taste like rainbows and swaying trees. But donâ€™t be fooled, just because some of the biographies are short, not a clove of garlic has been left unturned in the lavish description of the various lives therein or the dishes cooked, or even in some cases the death of the chef. These are absolutely hilarious â€“ for example, the fate of one Aphtonite, who â€˜died at the age of 38, stabbed in the side while walking in the Diomea, by one Pyrgoteles, a seller of boiled eggs and asafoetidaâ€™. Quite.
This is a funny, playful book, sometimes verging on the gross, and I really wish that some of the entries had been a bit longer so vivid are the characterisations and their lives.
Recipes follow some of the entries, and it kind of entices the reader to try them out â€“ though Iâ€™m not entirely sure where youâ€™d get some of the antiquated ingredients. Not quite eye of newt, but Tesco doesnâ€™t stock beavers or geese. As far as Iâ€™m aware.
The absolute stand-out for me was the entry on Lady Joshi, and I think her story is a good example of the tone of the book. She herself is said to have penned â€˜Needless Gleanings from the Kitchenâ€™ with such observations as:
â€˜Complex names for simple things. Dharumaâ€™s eyelashes â€“ tea. And Make-up for the Red Queenâ€™s Eyebrowâ€™s â€“ Thistle.â€™
Or how about this:
â€˜Watching women eat is very pleasant, but it is rarely nice to see men eat. To see a man pushing his chopsticks against a piece of fish is a very unhappy sight. But if I am to see a man eat, I would much rather see a rich man do so than a poor one. To see a poor man eat is most perturbing and makes me feel as if my life has been wasted. Imagine feeding a wolf peonies.â€™
This is the type of book to leave on the bedside table of a guest bedroom. Just be sure to check said guestâ€™s bag as they depart to make sure your copy isnâ€™t being spirited away.