REVIEW by Alice Tsay
Love Bites: Marital Skirmishes in the Kitchen
by Christopher Hirst
HarperCollins, March 2010
Between the vampire craze and digital age, the hapless “bite” has been pressed into all kinds of literary labor in recent years. A quick foray on the internet produced Bite Club and Love at First Bite as well as Reality Bytes and The Digital Diet: Today’s Digital Tools in Small Bytes. There are even books riding both waves at once: according to Amazon, Byte Marks tells the story of a modern-day vampire who falls in love with a witch who runs a dating website. In contrast, Christopher Hirst’s Love Bites hearkens back to the golden olden days of double entendre, before bloodsuckers and computing reconstituted the terrine of popular culture.
This aura of datedness is what makes Love Bites both charming in its tone and occasionally hackneyed in its attitudes. Subtitled Marital Skirmishes in the Kitchen, the book presents itself as the scullery edition of the gender wars waged between Christopher Hirst and his wife, referred to throughout as “Mrs H.” A short interlude in the introduction gives them each a chance to float a kitchen-centric take on the opposite sex: “Men disappear if they have to do some work, but they are quite handy for reaching things from high shelves,” says Mrs H. “Women tend to be excessively pedantic about recipes and things,” Hirst retorts.
Fortunately, the book quickly moves beyond these sweeping indictments to explore the frustrations and rewards of learning to merge one’s little rituals with those of another, both in a kitchen and in life. The parallel is particularly close for Hirst, who writes early on, “My passion for food began when I became passionate about Mrs H.” For Hirst, who had little cooking experience before he began dating the woman who became Mrs H, the kitchen becomes both canvas for expressing himself and a staging ground for their relationship.
Thus, while Love Bites contains a collection of recipes, these recipes are cushioned between narratives of experimentation and discovery, some of which made earlier appearances in “The Weasel,” a column Hirst wrote for the London-based Independent for many years. At his best, Hirst manages to combine annotation and anecdote in his prose, as the marmalade-making chapter illustrates:
“You didn’t add [water] when you were making strawberry jam.”
“Well, that’s different. Get on with chopping the peel.”
Ah, yes. I’d forgotten that bit. Unlike normal orange consumption when the peel is chucked away, unless you shove a chunk in each cheek to do a Marlon Brando impression […], marmalade-making is a very satisfactory activity for those who detest waste. To chop the peel, you need a short, sharp knife, a chopping board and Radio 4. Bisect each squeezed hemisphere, so you get the peel of a quarter-orange. You then slice this wedge to create ten stripes of peel. At least that’s how I was directed, but just to show the old anarchic spirit wasn’t entirely dead I sometimes did a random amount with some bigger chunks.
A few pages later, the cooking process is underway:
The rolling boil in a big pan is rather impressive and a bit scary. The golden goo churns and seethes with hundreds of little bubbles. It’s the sort of thing that used to be poured on besieging forces from the top of battlements. Had that thought ever occurred to Mrs H?
A foam forms amid the churning orangey boil. The effect is a bit like a film of the surface of the sun. Had that ever struck Mrs H?
“No. Are you stirring properly? You should be stirring with a figure-of-eight movement.”
While these sections contain lots of useful information for anyone who intends to test the included recipe, they also have many moments of Hirst’s winsome humor. Armchair gastronomers will be grateful for his vivid and good-natured descriptions, whether Hirst happens to be attempting Heston Blumenthal’s modernist take on Black Forest gateau or mired in the great outdoors, trying his hand at foraging. (“Free food is only for the time rich,” he concludes.) Figures such as Blumenthal, Fergus Henderson, and Lady Shaftesbury may be unfamiliar to some U.S. readers, but it doesn’t matter much: Love Bites is about enthusiastic amateurism and its delights, not Britain’s culinary and social upper crust.
It is, in the end, a book that is best when it embraces being uncool:
“Yum,” said Mrs H as she munched the combination of cheesiness and ooziness and crunchiness and almost-burntness. “When you come down to it, there’s nothing better than Welsh rarebit.”
“I’ll do anything for a bit of cheese on toast, as long as it’s not too strenuous.”
Crumbs! No wonder I decided to explore every feasible variation of the dish in order to keep the fire of love burning. Or at least lightly toasted.
Here, trivial domestic quibbling combines with silly wordplay and unsophisticated description, and yet the scene has a satisfying complexity echoing that of the Welsh rarebit’s “cheesiness and ooziness and crunchiness and almost-burntness.” Like comfort food, it’s almost too much, but just right: a bite answering to the appetite for simple things and simpler times.
January 15, 2012