“When I was a girl, I wanted to be a policewoman. But then, when I was sixteen, I handed in my application too late. It’s funny how a small thing like that can change everything.”
I find the first sentence of Chef April Bloomfield’s A Girl and Her Pig so telling.
I love first sentences. In them I’ll know whether the book in my hands is one for recipe skimming or one for devouring cover-to-cover. In hers I read humor, sweetness, and an admiration of the little details that turn cooks into chefs. Absent is her notorious shyness. In its place is a chef who’s come far from Birmingham with a hearty story to tell.
“Remember, it’s easy to make simple food taste great – as long as you don’t fuck it up,”
I sense maybe I shouldn’t just skip to the recipes. As I read pages of basic ingredients and Bloomfield’s beliefs I’m reminded why simple food works in hands more patient than mine: “Once you’ve found a great product, get to know it. Taste it raw and as you cook, but first give it a sniff and a good look over. Touch it. The more you do this, the sharper your intuition will become.”
Somewhat slighted by this intro, to mind comes all the produce that has made its way blandly through my kitchen. It’s not that Bloomfield chastises. Rather, she details and describes each recipe so intimately and respectfully that I can’t help but realize missed opportunities: Oh, the golden carrots of yore that I so foolishly peeled!
I make my way through each recipe, and the oft reclusive chef teaches with certainty. I nod at the idea that a tiny addition of steel cut oats and a swirl of cold milk that will fortify my morning oatmeal. Filling deviled eggs via pastry bag and serving them “cold, cold, cold” once again elevates something relatively simple. Then one title induces a shudder: Fried Pig’s Ear Salad. A mindful carnivore who believes in eating the whole animal, I still shimmy past whole heads at the butcher’s counter. But as Bloomfield describes the contrast of tart lemon to fatty, salty, cartilage-laden pig’s ear in the salad, I’m desperate for a go at making it. And when she details how to cook the ears – “make sure they’re free of hair, add duck fat, cover with parchment and weigh down with a saucer, cook until your fingers meet when you pinch them” – my confidence that I actually can increases. My kitchen has never met a veal kidney, but as Bloomfield describes trimming off the white fat, sizzling them in batches and taking in a hearty sniff of the smell she so adores, I daydream about that introduction.
I keep flipping, inundated with intriguing first sentences:
“What a gorgeous thing—a lamb’s head all deep brown from a slow cook in the oven, perfect for anyone who likes nibbling on bones”.
“The combination of strawberries and cream is as English as the Queen.”
And ones that begin like food fairytales:
“Gin reminds me of my nan.”
“Every Sunday night, my dad did teatime.”
“My granddad never did travel light. Whenever we went on holiday, whether it was a car ride to Devon or a plane trip to Portugal, he’d bring some kidneys with him in a cooler.”
I’m not naïve enough to believe I will make every recipe in this book. But I feel, under her tutelage, as if I could. More so, I get the sense that if I cooked only from this book, those around me would eat heartily, satiated with the details in the simplest ingredients. Instead of starting off with something unfamiliar, though, I’m starting simple: Swiss Chard with Olive Oil. I find it easy to “fuck up” simple food, but in this first sentence I’m fortified:
“This might be the simplest preparation of chard imaginable, yet I still can’t get enough of the way it accentuates the earthiness of this green vegetable.”
That was a book review I did for Easy Eats Magazine. Following is an applicable snippet of our interview for Serious Eats.
So, your first cookbook comes out next week. Can you believe it’s next week? Ahh!
Was there anything that unnerved or challenged you that you didn’t expect when you were putting it together? I started off with quite a lot of recipes – I think I have 100 in the book but I started with a lot more. And as I worked on them I whittled away and figured out what wouldn’t be appropriate for the book. I think that was the biggest challenge: getting it down to fantastic recipes that people would really want to make.
Any unexpected joys or things that excited you? I loved working with JJ [Goode] – he’s a really special guy and did a great job of keeping me on track…. Except for asking me whether I’d measured stuff – that wasn’t quite so joyous, a little bit annoying. As cooks we’re so instinctual, we throw stuff together and before you know it he’d be like “how did you make that? When did you make that between the five other recipes?” That was nice – getting to know JJ and getting to work with him.
In your mind, what is the book about? You know, it’s always nice to know where you’ve come from. I’m a girl from Birmingham. I come from a working class family and I’ve had this great opportunity in my life to meet people and eat great food and travel. And so I kind of wanted to have poignant stories throughout the book. I’m quite a shy person in general, I think, but I wanted to get my voice across and people to get to know me a little bit better.
If there’s one thing you want us to learn from it, what would you say that is? Be open – things change. It’s good to be aware of an ingredient from the moment you buy it, to the moment you prep, cook and eat it. Because things are just not “the same”. A tomato in one part of the season isn’t the same as another tomato in another season. So just learn to trust your own palate, and keep training your palate to know how to work with something to make it delicious.
You’ve started taking steps away from the gastropub with the John Dory and your cookbook. What’s next? You know, I don’t know. I have ideas flitting around my head all the time, and me and Ken talk all the time. I’m going to do a book… I don’t know if I’m supposed to tell you… I’m going to tell you anyway. It’s a vegetable book, actually, because I love cooking vegetables. But it’s not a vegetarian book. It’s going to be vegetable dishes with a bit of ground pork or lard or bacon in there. I love all vegetables. Other than that, you know… I don’t know!