Thursday, 21 October 2010

A Tale Of 12 Kitchens by Jake Tilson

Well, this is a fairly eccentric book and I'm not entirely sure what I made of it.
I found it in my local country village library and, on flicking through it realised there was a chapter on Aberdeenshire so I immediately checked it out.  On actually reading the chapter on Aberdeenshire where he cooks in his in-laws farm kitchen I realised that I can pinpoint fairly accurately where this farm is and that it's only a few miles from here.  Presumably that's why my local library had a copy.

That photo at the top looks just like my home.  It is strange reading a book which is so familiar.

How to describe the book?  Well, it's really a memoir of food in his life from the first house he remembers living in with his parents through to his current place with his wife and daughter.  So, a big chunk of the book is set in and around London, he also spends long summers in Italy, he talks about the cooking at his wife's parents home in Scotland, and there are periods of time where he lived in different parts of America.  The book is filled with family photographs, pictures of food he is nostalgic about, hand-written recipes, etc.  Most of the reviews I can find really rave about the book eg 'An enchantingly evocative kitchen memoir... fascinating and delicious... an exhilarating work of art around his love of food.' (Claudia Roden ), 'a wonderfully personal and evocative scrapbook-cum-recipe book ... serves up thoughts, touching memories and some very tempting grub' (THE OBSERVER ).  I'm not sure that it thrilled me as much as these reviews would make me expect.

There is a stark contrast between books that have been designed to within an inch of their lives and this which has real photos and collages of pictures collected by the author himself.  This makes the nostalgia feel very real - it is not fake or manufactured.  And there are thousands of images so it is intriguing to flick through.  It certainly made me feel nostalgic and I enjoyed my own reminiscences.  This was especially the case as the Aberdeenshire section has photographs of the countryside and villages where I actually live and all the food he talks of is my own childhood food.  However, the writing wasn't as engaging as I had hoped.  I ploughed through the book because I loved the pictures and, essentially, I wanted to get to the bit about Scotland but a lot of the time I was skimming a bit.  He does have an interesting story.  His parents were artists so he seemed to have this amazing bohemian upbringing.  And they started off in a one-room shop as their home before moving on to grander things.  I love the stories about their big farmhouse kitchen table which was the centrepoint to loads of gatherings of artists and friends.  Food was obviously very central to their lives.  Some of his travels in the California desert are particularly quirky too.  However, I still found my mind wandering at bits and wishing he had cut down on the text.

I also feel that there aren't many recipes I would particularly want to use from the book.  A lot of his creations are simply that - things that you might throw together yourself because you had them at home.  A bit of student experimenting.  Nothing wrong with that but not something I would want to copy, particularly.   The only recipe I am going to photocopy from the book before giving it back to the library is one for Aberdeenshire butteries.  It has never occurred to me to make these as they are available in all supermarkets, shops, bakeries around here but I do wonder if the home made version might be worth trying once.  It looks a bit of a faff though so I'll probably get Steve to make them for me.

One thing I only noticed at the end of the book is that he has a huge interest in typefacing.  In each section he has put the headings in a particular typeface that he has selected (and, in some cases designed) himself to match the country he is discussing.  In the Aberdeenshire section he used the indivudual tiles that we have here to make up street names.  In fact, I had never even noticed that they were unique.  They are so familiar to me and this is the first time I have really paid attention to the fact that nowhere else uses the same lettering for their street names.

Another interesting section is where he collects some pictures of packaging he happens to like.  I love poring through this.  I just wish he had made this section bigger and cut out some of the slightly long-winded text.

In conclusion, I'm really glad I picked it up; I gleaned some nuggets of information that I loved; I enjoyed the voyeuristic aspect of looking through his family photos; I was genuinely amused by his child-like enthusiasm.  However, I would maybe suggest borrowing this from the library rather than paying for it.

A painting by his daughter.  He doesn't say how old she was when she did it but I think it is fantastic.


  1. Nice to see skirlie in a book like this! His recipe is about right, only missing a splash of water at the end.

    Looks like an interesting read. I quite like books like this, telling a life story through cooking or, but like you I never get round to trying much from these books. Honey From A Weed would be a similar example or Mathew Fort's travelogue around Italy (forget the name now).

  2. I have seen this book and it does have a very nostaligic feel and wonderful pictures. But I too decided not to get it, as it was more of coffee table book - to flick through - go ahhhh admire and put down again. So take heed of your advice - borrow it from the library.

    I've had Aberdeenshire butteries - very salty, perhaps the version your dear man makes will be a lighter version.

  3. It looks very interesting. I will look for it on my next trip to UK.
    Have a nice week-end.

  4. i came across his other recent book, In at the deep end. It focuses entirely on seafood and he travelled to countried from venice to japan trying to overcome his previous fear of fishes. I foudn it amazing. not entirely sure about the recipes either, but as a graphic design student, I absolutely love his attention to typefaces, the way he;s combined photos and text, very tactile, very hands-on. in fact, came across it because it was recommended by my typography tutor (: was wondering about his first book, a tale of 12 kitchens, which brought me to surprisingly, your blog! yup it's on the first page of a google search haha. I think you might like the second book more. for me, I'm quite intrigued by the last few pages dedicated to packaging for sure.

  5. Wow - that's a coincidence! I'll have to see if our library service has a copy of In At The Deep End. Thanks for the heads up!