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… and season to taste

06/07/2012

This, once again, is old but gold, dating as it does from 2010.

Penguin Australia proudly published The Pasta Bible, but a recipe for spelt flour tagliatelle with sardines and prosciutto proved a brief but considerable embarrassment. A customer spotted a misprint which had escaped the proofreaders, and which advised the addition of “salt and freshly-ground black people” instead of black pepper.

The embarrassment was considerable, as it resulted in the 7,000 copies still at the publisher’s warehouse being sent for pulping, at a cost of A$20,000. There were, however, no plans to recall copies that were already in the nation’s bookstores, as Penguin’s head of publishing was reported as saying that it would be “extremely hard” to achieve. With a robust defiance which would get him into trouble in the increasingly prickly and humourless UK de nos jours, he said that he was “mortified that this has become an issue of any kind” but “why anyone would be offended, we don’t know”.

The mistake was unconvincingly excused on the grounds that, since almost every recipe in the book mentioned black pepper on every page, it was an error that he considered “quite forgivable” under the circumstances. He then described any complainers as “small-minded”.

The company’s website was rather more obviously contrite, offering sincere apologies “for any offence this error may have caused readers”. It also suggested that proofreaders “would have been concentrating on checking quantities, a common source of error in cookbooks”. It offered “to willingly replace (oops, a naughty little split infinitive there!) a copy of The Pasta Bible owned by anyone who feels uncomfortable about having a copy of the book in their possession”.

The embarrassment to the company was only brief, though, because the resultant nationwide publicity for the flub inevitably meant that there was a stampede to buy the book. Remaining copies of the now rare first edition were suddenly in huge demand, and they disappeared rapidly from the shelves. The Bookseller reported that weekly sales of the book were up 275%.

My passing comment up there, about the UK’s increasingly po-faced and Victorian attitudes, prompts me to mark this week’s news of the death of Eric Sykes, in his sleep at the age of 89.  He was a gentle and innovative comedian (despite being profoundly deaf for most of his adult life, and also blind for his last 20 years) who once said, “If you understand comedy, you understand life. Drama, death, tragedy – everybody has these. But with humour you’ve got all these, and the antidote. You have found the answer”. What a fine epitaph.

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