I have been reading Fergus Henderson’s Nose to Tail Eating: A Kind of British Cooking, and I am enjoying it to an uncommon and unforeseen degree. I am not typically a great appreciator of cookbooks, I picked it up because I recognized it as a classic that I have never investigated, and it was well in line with the theme that I have been exploring of late. Indeed, it may be the very wellspring of that line where contemporary culinary culture is concerned, Henderson and his London restaurant St. John being considered by many to have inspired the recent trend in offal appreciation and ‘whole-beast’ cookery.
What is truly impressive about the book – as much as, and perhaps in spite of, its tremendous impact – is the tone and spirit with which the whole thing is imbued by Henderson. Nose to Tail is disarmingly frank and warm, the prose elegant but utterly unpretentious. This is perhaps a too-worn trope in the description of good cookbook authorship, but it does more than anything feel as if one if being addressed by a friendly acquaintance of whom one has asked some simple instructions for the preparation of an unfamiliar cut. The recipes are clear, not too clinical, and have about them a tremendously inviting quality, evincing a respect for both the reader/cook and their ingredients. The Introduction by Anthony Bourdain aside, the book is free of the sort of orgiastic, high-sensualist and all-too-often macho hyperbole that proliferates in much of the discourse on whole beast eating. It is not a gastronomy of unbridled carnivory or an exultation of the excesses of the flesh that is presented – Henderson’s dishes, while certainly meat-centric, are not excessive, but are presented as a part of the everyday, if an everyday that has come to seem sadly distant and inaccessible for many. One wants to try the recipes, not because it they present a challenge to be met and mastered or an ethical promise to be fulfilled (there is none of the pedantic moralising of someone like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, for all that I do believe there is a place for that, beyond an early suggestion that it seems “disingenuous to the animal” not to try to make use of what is to be had), but because one is given to think “Why wouldn’t I?”
Dishes are described as “sustaining”, “steadying”, or “a very good dish if you are feeling a little dented”; in several instances as inspired by previous meals to which the author admits they likely bear no longer any authentic relation (but are delicious nonetheless), and in one case as “based on a very dour recipe” (Pea and Pig’s Ear Soup). Henderson also expresses his admiration for curly parsley, for its strong flavour and structural abilities, which I find particularly gratifying given my own preference for curly over the widely endorsed flat-leaf variety has long made me feel something of a pariah and/or bumpkin. Further points in his favour are awarded for his using of the terms “lights” and “pluck” for the lungs and organs still all attached in an organized fashion, respectively, which I had no idea were still in modern usage; and for his enthusiastic recommendation of Fernet Branca as a cure for any overindulgence (albeit with the caution “Do not let the cure become the cause”).
When years ago, my first time in London, I dined at St. John, I was familiar with none of this, and I don’t think I quite got it. I knew nothing of the restaurant or of Henderson save their importance to the ‘scene’ with which I was by that time semi-acquainted, and I could appreciate that importance, historically, culturally, but on the whole I think I found the meal a little dull in comparison especially to some of my other outings that same trip. I remember we had bone marrow and perhaps a very large whole crab and maybe something involving a lot of braised kid.
And I don’t know if I would come to an altogether different conclusion now. I am certain that it would be a different experience – it could not but be, with my current take on Henderson and his project – but better, or worse, even, I don’t know. But I would like to chance it. To see whether the simplicity and forthrightness of the cooking might have a different effect on me thus prepared for it. It reminds me, in some ways, of re-watching a film that perhaps one knows relatively well but has not seen since one has come to know and care more about formal and contextual matters, or about film qua Film and a given movie’s place therein. Like this week I re-watched Citizen Kane for the first time in probably 10 years and was basically shitting myself from the opening scenes with the camera rolling through a miniature Xanadu, conveying the same subtle horror through meticulous, abandoned opulence as the unchecked natural overgrowth of Manderley in the opening pages of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. Um, point being that having a better sense of the animating philosophy of a thing, its history and the conditions of its production can often lend another quality of enjoyment to one’s experience of the thing (although similarly “unmediated” experience has its merits too, of course, of course).
Least anticipated, and perhaps provocative only because upon encountering it I am so surprised not to have encountered it so-articulated before, is Fergus Henderson’s statement of philosophy of nose-to-tail cooking and the place of vegetables therein. Mindful of the ‘carnivorous overtones’, he takes pains to declare: “There is equal respect for the carrot; once radishes are eaten, their leaves are turned into a peppery salad . . . they all make up the whole beast.” This somewhat counterintuitive assertion that vegetables etc. are part of ‘the whole beast’ is more than just an injunction to Eat Your Vegetables and not throw shit out that could be good for something; it pays quite deft an homage to the very contingency of life. And, if one chooses to so take it, it serves as a reminder that Whole Beasts are never wholly or solely the beasts they are taken to be, but are deeply implicated in and made up quite literally of other life-worlds; they are not only meat but guts and blood and other stuff, plants and bacteria and whole eco-systems. Stuff yes, but and stuff and relationships. Matter that may not be so easily disentangled, or only disentangled at great price, from the worlds of which it is a part. If one is alive to it, the threads of relationality, and even a casual assumption of material agency (although this is not so foreign to culinary discourse), can be discerned running all through the book – “Do not be afraid of cooking, as your ingredients will know”, preparations must often be given just enough time so that ingredients get to know one another, time for (savoury) pie filling to find itself. The ‘whole beast’ thus materially and conceptually extends beyond the borders of the organism itself, comes to know itself on in its relation to others, and of course vegetables are part of that. How’s that for an exploded view?
But you know, this coming from a guy who includes a recipe for Warm Pig’s Head under “salads”.