Cooking for Two

by James Barber

Published by Macmillan Canada

386 pages, 1999







Taming the Wild Peasant

Reviewed by Linda L. Richards


He doesn't know it, but James Barber taught me how to cook. A couple of decades ago he wrote a monthly column that appeared in my local lifestyle magazine. I'd read every word carefully and then head to my kitchen with my arms akimbo, ready to bend all of those ingredients to my will. Through his writing, Barber showed me how to approach food preparation with abandon and enjoyment rather than reverence and trepidation. Barber's happy style makes it nearly impossible to think about your next meal as anything but a wonderful adventure rather than a chore to be gotten through before you get to the good stuff.

Since that time, Barber's irreverent style and inimitable gusto have endeared him to foodies worldwide. The host of the widely syndicated television show The Urban Peasant, Barber is also the author of ten bestselling books, and -- if this particular fan is anything to go by -- Cooking for Two will be the next in this illustrious lineup.

The theme for this latest book is fairly obvious: cooking for a single other. But there's more. Barber's take on cooking for a pair demands involvement by all parties concerned. As he writes in the introduction of Cooking for Two :

Cooking, like sex and dancing, is a pleasure best shared. This is a book about what two people can do with their own four hands, and not a lot of time. It's also a book about pleasure. Two people in the kitchen can have as much fun as two people in the bath.

The gourmet cookbooks and the glossy magazines with their beautiful pictures always assume that cooking is a solitary and precise occupation for celibate interior decorators, with recipes as rigid as drugstore prescriptions, and their cooking becomes a joyless duty, when it ought to be a shared courtship, a foreplay to the intimacy of a shared dinner. "Let's cook supper" will do a lot more for your relationship than "I'm cooking. Leave me alone."

To follow up this thought, Barber puts his money where his mouth is and gives chatty instructions for each recipe: and all with two chefs in mind. Over 140 recipes fall into natural categories. Appetizers; Soups; Eggs and Cheese; Pasta; Vegetables; Rice, Other Grains and Beans; Fish and Seafood; Chicken; Lamb; Pork and Beef; Salads; Holiday Dinners for Two; Bread and Cakes; and Desserts. In fact, there is such a good range of recipes that it's hard not to wonder how Barber keeps doing this book after book: creating wonderful and easy-to-prepare meals that stir the appetite even at a casual glance.

In true urban peasant style, Barber's choices in this volume include recipes like Mussels and Beer and Eggs Piperade that are simple and elegant as well as things like Pan Haggerty and Cabbage and Butter that seem almost textbook examples of Barber's modern peasant style.

Overall, the layout of Cooking for Two is clean and easy-to-follow. As well, the photography and food styling are great. There aren't a lot of color photos in Cooking for Two , but it's the sort of book where you don't miss them: Barber's witty and descriptive prose is often enough to start you salivating or bring a chuckle. Try this, from the introduction to the Vegetables chapter:

Eating vegetables doesn't mean you have to be a Buddhist or wear Birkenstocks winter and summer and look like a pink-eyed rabbit. Everbody's eating vegetables today, and because of that a lot more people are learning to cook. Any fool can burn a steak, but vegetables need care, a little gentling, a little understanding.

James Barber seems to give care and understanding to all of the food he tries to gentle. It's fun and enriching to go along for the ride. | July 1999


Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of the Madeline Carter novels: Mad Money, The Next Ex and Calculated Loss.