Manly Food, by Simon Cave

Manly Food, by Simon Cave

Hmm. Hard to know what to think of this …

Manly Food is a cookbook dedicated to food with a distinctly masculine edge.

I had to stop and think about that for a while.

What does it actually mean?

What is ‘masculine’ food, and what makes it so? There are hints, of course, nudges in much of the language … ‘meaty’, ‘hearty’, ‘bold’, ‘adventurous’, etc … and the theme is clear across the collection of recipes. There’s a lot of meat, a lot of dishes with massive flavours and real punch. Each alone is very good indeed, and there would seem to be few duff recipes or ideas here, but taken together as a collection and presented in this way?

Well, it made me a little uneasy to start.

Here are the pros and cons:

  • There’s a lot of good recipes here, executed well.
  • The writing is sharp, and funny. There’s a certain wit about it that’s quite engaging.
  • Its mere existence perpetuates that view that men are essentially Neanderthals when it comes to cooking.
  • It walks a fine line between tongue in cheek and a little bit sexist. That’s a dangerous line to walk.

The big problem here is that because it so overtly calls out a certain theme, the book tends to highlight the opposite, to show that there really are people who think that food and cooking isn’t a masculine pursuit, that men don’t cook because women should do it for them, which is, of course, fucking stupid.

But then, what of this as a book that challenges this lazy, stuck-in-the-Fifties assumption?

What if Manly Food grabs a couple of blokes by the scruff of the neck and thrusts them into the kitchen? What if it transforms through challenge? Does it succeed on that level?

Partly, in that it’s a great collection of recipes that would appeal to anybody … but that just makes it a good cookbook.

The blunt and direct introduction sets out four rules of ‘manly food’ – that flavour comes first, that flavour comes first , that cooking should be done with attitude, and that tools should be respected. All perfectly valid and sensible points, but strip out the emphasis on ‘manly food’ and those are just pretty good principles for anybody to work to in any kitchen at all.

Flavour, attitude, sharp knives.

These are the building blocks of any half decent plate of food. Your mum had all three, or four, depending on how you’re counting the dramatic repetition of ‘flavour’. These are not particularly ‘manly’ principles, they’re just the basic principles of all good cooking.

It’s a slightly clumsy hook, but it works in the context of the rest of the book.

What follows is a fairly comprehensive collection of standards and classics – big curries, ribs, roasts, barbecue, lobster, bacon, a section that feels like a token effort on big desserts like a tarte tatin, chocolate brownies and, quite oddly, Roquefort and pears (chop up pear, serve with cheese). There’s a boozy section of cocktails, inevitably, covering all the standards. The recipe for a dry martini is lifted straight from the pages of Fleming’s Casino Royale, which I thought a nice touch, as there’s no need to improve on or re-imagine already brilliant prose.

So, I seem a bit down on this book, and I think that slight wariness is justified, but it remains an absorbing collection of recipes, presented and photographed in a bold and accessible way. As an introductory cookbook for a gentleman scared of the impact on his reputation of being caught actually cooking something, if such a complete fool should exist, it’s a great success, but I hope against hope that that demographic is shrinkingly small.

Yes, it’s a little abrupt. Yes, it’s a little retro, but there’s a part of me that admires that, that willingness to speak to these people who don’t understand what it is to cook, speak to them in their own testosterone-soaked language, on their own terms, and if it succeeds in getting just one of them into a kitchen, gets one of them to cook a dish of food that they enjoy and savour, well, then it’s a successful book.

And the inclusion of a DIY oral rehydration solution for the morning after the night before did raise a smile, and caused me to make a mental note of the ingredients …