At the start of March, having tackled some big and/or challenging books in the previous two months, I decided that I needed to treat myself to some shorter, lighter reads. With that in mind, I finally picked up the Lives of Notorious Cooks by Brendan Connell, a fictionalised collection of biographies of famous cooks. Which was published back in 2012 and embarrassingly not long after that, I realise now, I must have received a copy from the author.
Making up for lost time, I went into this not really knowing what to expect and the blurb wasn’t much help either, as it simply told me I would ‘Learn of the outrageous and sometimes dubious lives of Peng Zu and fifty other notorious cooks from the pages of history and legend, in a picaresque dictionary of delicious and playful story-telling’. Well it certainly sounded interesting, if a little mysterious too. On reading the book, what I discovered was a collection of very short biographies of fifty cooks, known of whom I can claim to have heard of before, which were written in a surreal prose style.
These cooks included: Peng Zu, a legendary Chinese figure known for cooking excellent soup; Marie-Antione Carême, an early exponent of the elaborate French grande cuisine; Joseph Cooper, a cook to Charles 1, in 1654; Coroebus (Koroibos) of Elis, an Ancient Greek baker and athlete; Lala Sukh Lal Jain, founder of the Ghantewala sweet shop in Delhi, India in 1790; Robert May, author of The Accomplisht Cook (1660); Marcus Vergilius Eurysaces – a Roman baker, whose tomb can still be seen today in Rome; and Ibn Sayyār al-Warrāq, compiler of the earliest known Arabic cookbook, in the tenth century.
As you can see, Connell’s has included a wide range of interesting figures, from across history and the world in his collection: spanning the cultures of Ancient Rome, Greece, Egypt, China, Japan, Europe and the Middle East. Having not heard of any of them before it meant I learnt a fair bit, even with most of the biographies being very brief. The unusual style in which they were written reminded me of poetry, and so the collection did have a nice flow to it, but at the same time it wasn’t always clear if the cooks were legendary or real. I did find myself looking up the figures on the internet to find out more and to better understand what I was reading.
Overall, I found the Lives of Notorious Cooks to be an interesting collection of surreal, succinct biographies of cooks from across the globe and throughout history. Not the type of book I would usually go for, however it made a nice change and I was able to dip in and out whenever I liked, thus making it the lighter, shorter read I was looking for. Okay read.
Thank you to the author for providing a review copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion.
Have you read this? Have you read any biographies of famous chefs, past or present?