Chewing the Fat by Jay Rayner

This is a delightful book. It is a collection of newspaper columns written for the Guardian. The subject of these columns, very broadly, is food, and Rayner is an enthusiast. He writes about a variety of subjects, from the joys of cooking with what he likes to call piggy products, to his inability to ever get up from the table without wearing his meal, at least some of it on his shirt, his guilty pleasures, his intense dislike of picnics and picnic food, the pleasures of sometimes eating alone and the joy of cooking alongside a friend.

He has plenty to say about Christmas, about the season, the smells, the food and the joys of sequestering himself in the kitchen for the first half of the day, doing what he thoroughly enjoys, while avoiding at least some of the stress which comes with gathering the whole family under one roof. He even lays out his ten commandments for Christmas. Some of it is tongue in cheek, some of it is entirely serious and some of it is just common sense. It’s a delightful mix of subjects and Rayner clearly has opinions about pretty much everything to do with food.

He loves food, he loves cooking and eating and he’s unapologetic about it. I like that. I know this is not a popular opinion, but I’m tired of feeling guilty about food. I’m not advocating gluttony, nor am I saying that it is okay to eat all manner of junk food just because you want to, but I think it is possible to make sensible choices about food, while also enjoying the process of making and eating it without driving yourself crazy, wondering if the meal you’ve just created has too many carbs or too much fat, or God forbid, too many calories.

It is refreshing to read Rayner and encounter his unabashed enthusiasm for food. He writes well, and you can sense that he enjoys both the food and the writing. He even seems to enjoy his indignation at things that restaurants do which he is absolutely not a fan of. He’s primarily a restaurant critic, so quite a few of the pieces have to do with restaurants, not specific restaurants or particular dining experiences, not in this collection, but the things that restaurants do in general, like bad lighting, menus in plastic jackets, waiters taking orders without writing them down, weirdly labelled bathrooms and of course, twelve course and twenty-four course tasting menus with tiny bits of food, that you eat a morsel at a time over several hours and leave feeling unsatisfied.

Other writers have written about similar topics, but Rayner has a style all his own and he’s genuinely entertaining. I listened to the audio version of this book, read by Rayner himself. That, very likely, made the book even more of a joy, because the reading is so full of emotion: joy, wonder, pleasure, annoyance, indignation, it’s all there. The writing is honest and engaging. He confesses to being something of a control freak in the kitchen. He doesn’t like being that way, but he can’t deny that if he thinks that you are doing something that you could maybe do better if you just took his advice, he has a hard time shutting up.  

Each of the pieces in this collection started as a newspaper column, so Rayner was limited in each instance, to 600 words. It takes some skill to be that concise and still say what you want to say. As a nod to this book, this review is exactly 600 words long.

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