Cover images of Lessons in Chemistry and The Debt to Pleasure

Part 15 begins with extracts from Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus, in which the heroine has a TV cookery show. That is followed by A Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester.

Lessons in Chemistry: Bonnie Garmus

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus cover imageElizabeth Zott is a single parent in early 1960’s America. She has a small daughter Madeleine, called “Mad”. Mad’s father has died and Liz is bringing her up by herself. She is a brilliant chemist and has an uncompromising, fiercely honest and independent approach to life . This puts her on a collision course with every aspect of American suburban, academic and business life. She sees no reason to hide the fact that she was not married to Mad’s father. She refuses to flatter or flirt with male colleagues or bosses. What makes it worse for her is that she is beautiful, so that the misogynists who she encounters at work are intimidated by her intellectually and sexually, and their aggression is therefore doubly vicious.

In a way the book reads like a fairy story, the characters are technicoloured in their villainy or benevolence, and there is even a dog with a huge vocabulary, whose unspoken but highly insightful thoughts take up a great deal of space. However Garmus is a really good writer, with an elegant, wry style and the episodes of work place bullying, marital cruelty and sexual assault are set out unsparingly.

Liz has been bullied and cheated out of her rightful place in the world of chemical research and she has bills to pay and a child to bring up. At the suggestion of the father of one of Mad’s school friends, who is one of the good characters, she therefore very reluctantly agrees to front a cooking show on day time television. It’s called Supper At 6.

Cooking shows in this era were aimed at the stay at home housewife. They were also reliant on sponsor ship by food manufacturers. Liz is expected to conform to type, to wear lipstick and tight dresses with a frilly apron, to deliver the programmes from a kitchen set filled with cute ornaments and decorated with floral curtains and wall paper and to gushingly endorse the sponsor’s products.

She refuses to do any of this. Her view is that cooking is about good nourishment.

You’d never find Elizabeth Zott explaining to us how to make tiny cucumber sandwiches or delicate soufflés. Her recipes were hearty, stews, casseroles, things made in big metal pans. She stressed the four food groups. She believed in decent portions. And she insisted that any dish worth making was worth making in under an hour.

Eizabeth may have insisted on a rigorously scientific approach to cooking but her food is always delicious. Elsewhere, in one of my postings about MFK Fisher, I describe her school lunch box. Mad’s bears a striking resemblance.

While all the other children gummed their peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Madeleine opened her lunchbox to find a thick slice of left over lasagne, a side helping of buttery zucchini, an exotic Kiwi cut into quarters, five pearly round cherry tomatoes, a tiny Morton salt shaker, two still- warm chocolate chip cookies and a red plaid thermos full of ice- cold milk.

Elizabeth also believes in spontaneity. She starts one of her programmes with a recipe that needs eggplant:

"…to remove the bitterness.. " She stopped abruptly, turning the vegetable over in her hands as if she wasn’t at all satisfied. "let me rephrase. To guard against the eggplant’s tendency towards bitterness… " She stopped again and exhaled loudly. The she tossed the eggplant aside. “Forget it” she said. “Life is bitter enough”. She turned and opened a cupboard behind her, withdrawing all new ingredients. “New Plan”, she said. "We’re making brownies.

However, her unshakeable and revolutionary approach was that:

“Cooking is chemistry. And chemistry is life. Your ability to change everything—including yourself— starts here.” She urged her audience to believe that “Fearlessness in the kitchen translates into fearlessness in life”.

She led her viewers through an elaborate description of chemical breakdowns, which when induced by combining disparate ingredients would result in a complicated mix of enzymatic interactions that would lead to something good to eat.

Throughout the process Elizabeth, her face serious, told her viewers that they were up for this difficult challenge, that she knew they were capable, resourceful people and that she believed in them.

She changes women’s lives, encouraging them to believe that the same resourcefulness and endurance they brought to running the home could make them revisit their girlhood dreams of having careers outside it.

“Stability and structure,” she repeated, looking out at the studio audience. “Chemistry is inseparable from life. But like your pie, life requires a strong base. In your home you are that base. It is an enormous responsibility, the most undervalued job in the world that, nonetheless holds everything together.” Several women in the audience nodded vigorously.

She also makes them question whether the chemistry lessons on the combinations of ingredients, some that can work and others that can never be made to bond successfully, can be applied to their relationships with their husbands and boy friends.

“Exciting news” she said. “Today we’re going to study three different types of chemical bonds, ionic, covalent and hydrogen. Why learn about bonds? Because when you do you will grasp the very foundation of life. Plus, your cakes will rise.”

“See?” A woman in Santa Monica demanded, as she turned to her sullen seventeen year old daughter, the girl’s eyeliner so thick it looked as if planes could land there.“What did I tell you? Your bond with that boy is hydrogen only. When are you going to wake up and smell the ions?”

Elizabeth also believed and let everyone know that she did, that the women of America who fed their families well were doing extremely important work and that they should be respected for it. Her programmes always ended with the words: “Children, set the table. Your mother needs a moment to herself.”

Unsurprisingly, Lessons in Chemistry is soon to be released as a film.

The Debt to Pleasure: John Lanchester

The Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester cover imageThis was a best seller in 1996, and there are some similarities with Lessons in Chemistry. Both the main characters have an extremely individualistic and intellectual interest in food. Both novels are examples of what could be called magic realism, grounded in reality but with characters and a narrative that are at times highly exaggerated.

However, while Elizabeth Zott is eccentric, uncompromising and highly principled, Tarquin Winot, the first person narrator in Debt to Pleasure, is a psychopathic, obsessive snob. He reminds me in some ways of the principal characters in two other books I’ve posted, Charles Arrowby in The Sea, The Sea and Gerald Samper in Cooking With Fernet Branca.

There is so much writing about food in The Debt to Pleasure, that I have had to be very selective. I have just made, under headings, a selection of the chief character’s aphorisms and observations, extracts that you might compare and contrast with others in this series, which also show the depth of Lanchester’s knowledge of cooking and food history.

1. His seasonal menus, chosen to provide perfect balance. These include:

Winter. Blinis with sour cream and caviar, Irish stew and Queen of Puddings;
and Goat’s cheese salad, fish stew, lemon tart
Spring. Omelette, roast lamb with beans, peaches in red wine.

2. Lists of the versions of a dish to be found throughout the world. As with the blini:

Of the many extant butter, pancake and waffle dishes—crèpes and galettes, Swedish krumkaker, Finnish tattoriblinit, generic Scandinavian aggvaffla, Italian brigidini, Belgian gaufrettes, Polish naesniki, Yorkshire pudding—blinis are my personal favourite.

Or Irish stew:

… one should also take into account the hearty Germano-Alsatian dish backenhoff, made with mutton, pork, beef and potatoes; soothing blanquette de veau, exempted from initial browning but thickened by cream at the last moment; and of course the twin classic daubes, à la Provençale and à l’Avignonnaise. In France indeed the generic name for this type of stew—cooked from cold—is daube, after the daubière, a pot with a narrow neck and a bulging swollen middle, reminiscent of the Buddha’s stomach.

3. His scientific knowledge of the essential components:

The distinguishing characteristics of the blini, as a member of the happy family of pancakes, is that it is thick (as opposed to thin) non-folding (as opposed to folding) and raised with yeast (as opposed to bicarbonate of soda); it is Russian and, like the Breton sarrasin pancake, it is made with buckwheat (as opposed to plain flour). Buckwheat is not a grass and therefore not a cereal.

Or, when speaking of Irish stew, as Elizabeth Zott might have explained;

Science has not given us a full account of the difference between floury and waxy potatoes. If the reader is having a problem in identifying to what category his potato belongs, he should drop it into a solution containing one part salt to eleven parts water: floury potatoes sink.

And Elizabeth Zott would certainly have agreed and might almost have used the same language about the love of her life, namely that:

Complementarity is a deep mystery about taste just as it is about people. There is a profound unity-in-plurality that comes into being when one meets a spirit that vibrates to the same frequency as one’s own.

Here he is on Queen of Puddings:

… it exploits both of the magical transformations which the egg can enact. On the one hand the incorporation of air into the coagulating egg white proteins—the “stiffening” of egg whites up the eight times their original volume, as exploited in the soufflé and its associates. On the other hand, the coagulation of egg yolk proteins—as in custard, mayonnaise, hollandaise and all the variations thereof.


Note that bouillabaisse is one of the only fish dishes to be boiled quickly. This is to compel the emulsification of oil and water.

… an early stab at culinary experimentation (I) prepared a jam made out of peaches and also out of peach stones, the latter containing, as it turned out, cyanogen, a stable compound, that when broken down through contact with certain enzymes (or when, for instance, pounded up by using a pestle and mortar) produces the celebrated toxin cyanide… For the record it is not cyanide itself that smells of almonds, as portrayed in what has become a cliché of noir detective cinema, but the flesh that has been poisoned by cyanide. A similar toxicity can be achieved with roasted apple seeds.

4. The classical and historical background to dishes:

Of the blini:

(Buckwheat) does not fall under the protection of the goddess Ceres, the Roman deity who presided over agriculture. On her feast day, in a strangely evocative ceremony, foxes with their tails on fire were let loose in the Circus Maximus; nobody knows why. The Greek equivalent of Ceres was the goddess Demeter, mother of Persephone. It was in Demeter’s honour that the Eleusinian mysteries were held, a legacy of the occasion when she was forced to reveal her divinity in order to explain why she was holding King Celeus' baby in the fire—no doubt a genuinely embarrassing and difficult to explain moment, even for a goddess.


Aphrodite is said to have invented bouillabaisse as way of getting her husband Hephaestus—the crippled smith, patron of craftsmen and cuckolds—to ingest a large quantity of saffron, a then famous soporific, and so to fall asleep, thus permitting the goddess to set off for an assignation with her inamorata Ares.

From the date of the amalgamation of the Sopers Lane Pepperers and the Cheap Spicers in 1345 to the commercial launch of Worcestershire Sauce in 1868, and even more so thereafter, English eating is dominated by the pursuit of sweet-and-sour tastes together.

Take the tomato for instance, a fruit whose exotic origins and nature are testified to by its very name, a derivation from the Nahautl tomatl, and are very unrelatedly but still stirringly present in its Latin classificatory name Lycopersicon esculentum, “the edible wolf’s peach”. Surely its colour, its lividity, must have reminded those who ate it of the hearts they routinely saw ripped out at the daily human sacrifice?

The use of flowers in cooking has always had an element of decadence, from Apicius' recipe for brains with rose petals in the first century AD, through the herb and flower salads of the English baronial kitchen, to Marinetti’s Futurist recipe for the battered and deep fried rose diablique.

5. Aphorisms:

If Marmite was as hard to come by as caviar would it be as highly prized? (Of course.)

The gleaming banks of seafood on display at the great Parisian brasseries are like certain politicians in that they manage to be impressive without necessarily inspiring absolute confidence.

On a good restaurant:

… the awareness that one has finally arrived at a setting designed primarily to minister to one’s needs; a bright palace of rendered attention.

On the importance of buying only the freshest fish:

…which, as my father used to say, a competent veterinarian ought to be able to resucitate.

On the combination of lamb and apricots:

One of those combinations which exist together in a relationship that is not just complementary but that seems to partake of a higher order of inevitability—a taste which exists in the mind of God.


One might go so far as to say that a taste for spices is an ingredient(!) of the (English) character, an instinct comparable with the Welsh talent for singing, the German liking for forests, the Swiss knack for hotel-keeping, the Italian passion for motor cars.

Some sections of the book deserve to be quoted in full, or to form part of an anthology on the chosen subject. For example his section on the making of a martini, or his description of the perfect cheese shop. Perhaps I should save these for a later posting. The section on mycology falls into this category but would also be a plot spoiler.

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