One man's quest to create the perfect chip

A dizzying story of money, obsession and the world's biggest cookbook.

I've recently returned from a trip to Las Vegas, home of the 1,000-item breakfast, 6lb burrito challenge and a dish called "fried chicken Benedict". So perhaps it's not surprising that I ended up reading two lengthy magazine articles about food on the flight home.

The first, from the US edition of Wired magazine, covers the quest of the former Microsoft chief technical officer Nathan Myhrvold, 51, to create the world's most comprehensive cookbook. It's 2,400 pages long, has 1,600 recipes, weighs nearly 50lb and costs £375.25. (Effortlessly besting Heston Blumenthal's Big Fat Duck Cookbook, a snip at £84.49, and even trouncing Ferran Adria's El Bulli 2003-2004, at £215.15.)

Why the need for all those pages? To accommodate Myhrvold's incredibly detailed instructions, of course. Listen to how he cooks his chips:

Myhrvold cuts his potatoes into batons and rinses them to get rid of surface starch. Then he vacuum-seals them in a plastic bag, in one even layer, with water. He heats the bag to 212 degrees for 15 minutes, steaming the batons. Then he hits the bag with ultrasound to cavitate the water -- 45 minutes on each side. He reheats the bag in an oven to 212 degrees for five minutes, puts the hot fries on a rack in a vacuum chamber, and then blanches them in 338-degree oil for three minutes. When they're cool, Myhrvold deep-fries the potatoes in oil at 375 degrees until they're crisp, about three more minutes, and then drains them on paper towels. Total preparation time: two hours.

You'll be pleased to know that, after this process, "the outside nearly shatters when you bite into it, yielding to a creamy center that's perfectly smooth".

It's a fascinating article, particularly as a portrait of one man's obsession -- for Myhrvold has built an entire laboratory in his backyard, with all manner of high-tech gizmos to realise his dream of turning cookery into a science. As the writer notes, he has "the lifestyle flexibility of a multimillionaire and the mental discipline of a world-class researcher".

But if all this talk of affluent people faffing around with vacuum chambers just to make lunch leaves you a little nauseous, then I suggest reading instead this piece from the current issue of The Atlantic, which asserts that "gluttony dressed up as foodie-ism is still gluttony".

The contributing editor B R Myers attacks the "gloating obsessiveness" of those who write professionally about food. While I can't say I agree with him entirely (a world where journalists were only allowed to write about Big Important Things would be a brutally dull one), some of his barbs do hit home. There is, after all, something distasteful about one part of the world fetishing food while another part struggles to get it at all.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

ahisgett - Flickr
Show Hide image

Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis