Monday, 22 September 2008

"Interesting even if not true"



Once again, a post about my heroes - here are three more. They are Northrop Frye, Luca Turin and Harold McGee. They are united by the fact that they write about things I love (respectively: fiction, perfume and cooking) without themselves being involved in the end product. That is to say, Northrop Frye has written many wonderful and thoroughly accessible books about the structure and theory of literature without actually writing a novel, Luca Turin has done the same for perfume and also engineered several synthetic components for perfume without actually creating a finished product, and Harold McGee was pretty much single-handedly responsible for the phenomenon that is "molecular gastronomy"by writing so clearly and interestingly about the science of cookery that it's only a miracle we're not all whipping up meat mousse and sugar caviar. And all this without ever owning a restaurant. When I first read his seminal (and breeze-block sized) On Food and Cooking I had to be forcibly restrained from discussing with bored strangers the difference between real coffee (a suspension), instant coffee (a solution) and tea (an infusion). It's the sign of a really great theoretician that they can write about something you love in as interesting and inspiring a way as the actual practitioners can (and often more so!). To paraphrase something Luca Turin says in The Secret of Scent, there are three kinds of theoretical writing: that which is boring if true (ie written solely for people doing a PhD in the subject), that which is interesting if true, and that which is interesting even if not true. Which in a nutshell sums up Things I Like Reading. And is another factor that unites them - the ability to find things interesting and fun.

14 comments:

The Poet Laura-eate said...

I see it now... 'Cooking With Perfume'

In the fiction section - obviously!

Lucy Fishwife said...

More like the family in The Fast Show who were always drunk - "MMM that chicken shmells lovely, darling, what'sh in it?" "Eau de cologne... I had a liddle ackshident..."

Brother Tobias said...

A herb garden bridges at least two of these interests. It emerged that the strange fragrance of the SS's early culinary creations was down to her mistaking lavender for rosemary. Half the ones we grow never actually get used for anything (bergamot, rue, wormwood, camphor, tansy), but the pleasure one gets from seeing and smelling them is return enough.

Lucy Fishwife said...

Lucky you to have a garden, let alone a sumptuously fragrant one! I bet Harold McGee would have something to say about the shared camphoraceous properties of lavender and rosemary, and Provencal cuisine uses both. You could always have a huge bunch of the inedible herbs on your kitchen table in a jug - just for smell? Or make absinthe out of the wormwood if you don't mind going mad and blind? I think tansy, bergamot and rue can be used for medical purposes - does the SS fancy a career as local wise woman?

Reluctant Blogger said...

Ah that coffee/tea thing is interesting. Explains why I like real coffee rather than instant or tea - I love suspense, find solutions rather tedious and infusing just sounds like a mispelling of enthusing to me which is something I always struggle to do.

I am not, as you know, into perfume but I do quite often wander around with fingers that stink of garlic.

Lucy Fishwife said...

I have a weird metal "bar of soap" that is supposed to remove all garlic/onion smells from one's hands... since I too love the smell of garlic it doesn't often get used!
Suspense is the best. Solutions suck! Infusing is confusing!

Steve said...

A sign of a good writer is definitely someone who can write engagingly on a subject that normally wouldn't be of interest to the reader.

Lucy Fishwife said...

Well, it says much for Northrop Frye that I found him readable (for enjoyment) even when I was having to read reams of far duller lit crit for my degree. He stood out from the rest with neat little summations like "ALL fiction, without exception, is either about a descent or an ascent" - which, when you think about it, is true. And I love the other two so much I don't even mind diagrams of molecules inserted into every other paragraph... I can even tell the difference between guaiacol and vanillin...

Brother Tobias said...

D'you know, I think the SS would make a good local wise woman. She already uses some strange remedies on the horse - for example spray furniture polish for tangle-free tail grooming, and citrus oil mixed with methylated spirit to keep flies away...not to mention Avon's SSS, which apparently cures almost anything.

Lucy Fishwife said...

I have been told that those fabric conditioner sheets that you use in the tumble dryer are fantastic for getting a lovely sheen on the coats of horses and dogs. Not cats, sadly, as they'll lick it off and promptly throw up on the carpet (not that mine need much persuading. Also, but not very wise-womanly, fresh mint from the garden makes the best mint tea, and you don't even have to dry the leaves first! But you knew that...

mantua maker said...

Just found that our local Tescos in the eastern outer suburbs of a northern industrial city are discontinuing products by The English Provender Co. Natural essence of orange flower water and natural essence of rose water - 150cl bottles at *27 pence each*. So I've bought them but can't think what to do with them. On the rose water label they suggest adding it to chocolate mousse - buuuueeergh!

Lucy Fishwife said...

Use them as cologne! Put in a spray bottle and spray on your ironing. Add to baths, rinse your hair in it. Both are very good as toner if applied on cottonwool. I'd use orange flower water in things like gooseberry fool, etc, but I wouldn't cook with rose water - too Turkish Delighty.

Can Bass 1 said...

Really?

Lucy Fishwife said...

Weeeeelll there's always that rather lovely ?egyptian? pudding made with ground rice and milk and pistachios (mahallabiya?) which has a dash of rosewater in it but I think the exception proves the rule. Spray it on your surplice for an odour of sanctity, which I believe was traditionally roses (although the less symbolically-minded say violets)...