The Kitchen Magpie: A Quirky Mix of OOH SHINY!

As you would guess from the title, this isn't a comprehensive textbook about food and cooking, but it's a mishmash of this and that.  The approach makes this book extremely readable, but it also weakens it a bit.  I would have liked to know more about some of the more esoteric tidbits here, while other bites of information were extremely basic.  I suppose if you've never cooked before in your life, they might be ... helpful, but the book itself claims to be targeted at kitchen enthusiasts.  There's a bit of a disconnect here.

If I could do anything in editing this book, I'd take out the recipes.  Most of them are very basic and they act as filler.  This might be read as food snobbery, but I see it as "my mom taught me how to cook, thank you very much."  I mean, one of the recipes is for banana bread (which is pretty darn hard to mess up.  I actually just made a loaf--it's cooling on my counter top), and the Huge Foodie Revelation is to use ripe bananas.


I mean, what kind of person makes banana bread with unripe bananas?  Sometimes I buy bananas that are already ripening into blackness just so that I can make banana baked goods.  I suppose if the banana and its baked babies are completely foreign to you, this might be a useful tidbit, but for most people I would think it's a no-brainer.

Some other issues that I can see affecting its popularity here in the States is the very UK-centric focus.  Mind, that's not a bad thing at all--I love Britain!  Ireland!  Wales!  They have excellent television and even better malted beverages!  They have Stephen Fry and Benedict Cumberbatch and Helen Mirren.  It's rockin' over there in the UK.  However, some of the factoids about food or "food dilemmas" lose their punch when it's an American reader.

For example, when speaking about fruits, Steen recommends making a "trivet" out of apples and plopping the roast on top, thus infusing the dish with tasty deliciousness.  He then proceeds to break down the etymology of the word "trivet," but concludes by saying that it is "the 'bits' that are placed under a joint of meat before it is roasted."  I use "trivet" to mean a heat-resistant pad or tile on which I place hot dishes so they don't melt to table.  I've never used "trivet" in the sense he suggests.  Is that a chef's-only sort of thing?

Okay, more on meat.  The turkey.  For most Americans, even if you don't do a traditional Thanksgiving turkey dinner, turkey=Thanksgiving.  People get so stressed out about cooking a turkey that the cooking overlords created the Butterball Turkey Hotline so people could call and ask how to cook a frozen, twenty pound turkey in under three hours (answer: throw it into something very hot, like the sun).  Yet Steen is approaching this Britishly (new word.  You're welcome): "Then there is the issue of cooking turkey.  For one month of every year - December - there are intense debates and deep worries over the cooking of this bird.  Most of us do eat it at Christmas."  I don't know how many people can relate to this.  Usually in the US, people eat ham at Christmas and turkey for Thanksgiving.  Plus, Steen's recipe for "perfect turkey" does not involve brining it at all, which is my favorite way to eat that gobbly-delicious bird.

On abstinence from food during Lent: "In Britain there was a curious custom.  A figure made up of straw and cast-off clothes was drawn or carried through the streets amid much noise and merriment, after which it was either burnt, shot at, or thrown down a chimney.  This image was called a 'Jack-a-Lent,' and apparently resembled Judas Iscariot ... Jack wore a headpiece made of a herring and Brussels' sprouts beside him."  Look, there are some weird American customs ... but that's really weird.

Evidently Steen is not a big Abbot and Costello fan: when discussing Costello's penchant for milkshakes, he calls him the "funny, chubby half" of the duo.  Because, you know, Bud Abbott had nothing to do with any of it.

The pinnacle of odd came, for me, with his discussion of the Chicago dog.  This is Important Stuff.  I live just north of Chicago, but I know The Rules.  Youse don't mess wit da rules.  Steen interviews a hot dog Hot Dog who says that the Chicago dog is great because "there are enough condiments that you can truly customise it to your liking."  Um.  You.  Do.  Not.  Put.  Ketchup. On.  A Chicago dog.  Ever.  There are RULES about this sort of thing.  Sure, go down to Chi-town and ask a dog-slinger to give you a Chicago dawg with no atomic relish and with lots of ketchup and just watch what happens.  Don't say I didn't warn you.

Evidently, American astronauts must take the "American's much-loved taco sauce" into space.  I ... had no idea that the nation of America was globally known as having a penchant for taco sauce.  Does this guy think we all run around gleefully sucking down packets of Taco Bell hot sauce?

His discussion of Champagne never mentions the very important point that a true Champagne is grown in Champagne.  The French take their AOC seriously.  If it's fizzy white wine and not made in Champagne, it is fizzy white wine.

Now, this isn't to say I have only criticism for this book.  It contains genuinely interesting facts and keeps on a running commentary in a breezy British sort of way.  However, I wouldn't recommend it with gusto.  For really interesting food stories, check out Amanda Hesser's pre-notes to her recipes in The New York Times Cookbook.

I received a digital ARC of this title from Netgalley and the publisher in exchange for my honest review.


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