Cookbooks, ah yes…everybody’s got one, or wants one, or is planning on making one. They are compiling recipes from their grandparent’s famous fried chicken, to their Aunt Sally’s sumptuous shrimp dip and from all four corners of the earth. I was in the bookstore the other day, (that’s a place where they have actual honest to goodness real live books with covers and pages and binders, for those of you reading this on your Kindle) and I couldn’t help but notice everybody has a cookbook out…so what are these people trying to say? Better yet, why would I want to listen?
I believe most of these books are here because the author’s brand was hot so they were cajoled into putting one out with little or no thought as to the content of the book. They might have an audience of some sort so it seemed like a good idea from marketing / merchandising standpoint as the book is a convenient way to package whatever it is you happen to be cooking that particular season. What’s apparent to me, is that most of these cookbooks are just more noise in the food world. Probably one of the reasons amateur home cooks get discouraged from cooking good, honest, simple meals and resort to the same ole same ole.
There are blogs that do nothing more than regurgitate the latest cookbooks recipes in a continuous series of posts extolling the virtues of the author and their talent for putting the right recipes together. I flipped through cookbooks from some serious chefs in the industry who serve up in recipe form the dishes they serve in their own restaurants. The problem is when you take a recipe that is meant to serve several hundred people, and reduce it to a recipe that is only meant to serve four to six people…something gets lost in translation. (Why does this pasta Bolognese get 3 cloves of garlic, and the shrimp scampi only get two?)
I guess what I’m saying is this; I wished the authors of these cookbooks would concentrate more on the content rather than the recipes. What do I mean by content? Where do I begin…When I was a kid my mother kept just two cookbooks in her kitchen. Betty Crocker which was a wedding present and used by my mother to hold index cards and little slips of paper with “real recipes” on them, and then there was The Joy of Cooking which was read I think, mostly by me. I think my mother may have referred to it for such things as cooking times for meat and then just as quickly discarded the information as a bunch of chicanery. Preferring instead to follow her tried and true method of cooking said meat until dead, and then continued cooking for an additional hour to be sure.
I wasn’t a big reader when I was kid and struggled to pass in book reports with information that wasn’t merely lifted from the dust jacket. It wasn’t because I didn’t have the aptitude as in fifth grade during this or that standardized test, it was found I had the reading ability and comprehension of a tenth grader. This infuriated my mother because she couldn’t understand why someone with the ability was struggling to do book reports.
Today they would call it A.D.D. back then they called it laziness. I believe it wasn’t because I was lazy but rather, it was because I was bored with the content. Either way, I was still stumped on the question “What does the raft symbolize in Huckleberry Finn?” There was a raft in the book!? I’m pretty sure that may have been my answer.
That all being said, the one thing I loved to read was expository text. Anything I could learn from excited me and I was a voracious reader of any such text I could get my hands on. My parents had a 1968 set of Collier’s Encyclopedias which I would pull out one at a time on a rainy day and lay on the floor with my eyes glued to the pages. This would only garner a scratching of the head from my mother. She probably figured if I wasn’t going to be a genius in literature, at least I could be the most well informed ditch digger on various subjects such as the anatomy of a frog.
It was about this time I began watching more and more Julia Child shows with my father and I discovered The Joy of Cooking in the kitchen pantry. It was probably covered in dust, pie tins and meat thermometers…or other such things my mother wasn’t adept at using. I remember being fascinated by the lessons it contained and saw that this cooking wasn’t a memorization of ingredients and what order they went into a dish, but instead it was about learning technique.
You could learn most everything you needed to know about cooking with this book, from purifying water to cleaning a whole octopus and everything in between. I was fascinated by such exotica. Cleaning a whole octopus, I was pretty sure I hadn’t seen any in the freezer section next to the fish sticks or icy blocks of haddock. There was however some in cans next to the sardines and tuna fish in the canned section. The fact octopus looked so large in the book must be for demonstration purposes.
I think the first cookbook I ever bought was The Frugal Gourmet when I was in my early twenties and on my own. I was a bit of a natural in the kitchen so it wasn’t for the recipes so much as for what he was saying. With each of the recipes Jeff Smith presented, he would talk about the history of the dish and how it came to be what it is now. He talked about eating real fats and don’t bang your metal utensils on the side of a glass bowl or jar.
There was real information to be learned here and I was glad to be a part of that learning process, and despite the fact that I ate what most early twenty year olds eat. I had at my fingertips at any moment such delicacies as ramen noodles, spam, minute rice and a couple of cases of canned vegetables and some now rotting fruit my mother had brought on my parents last visit.
I think she did this from some deep rooted fear that I would contract scurvy from my meat and carb loaded diet…fear not mother I always had plenty of limes on hand. These were of course to be paired with the tonic water with quinine (So no scurvy or malaria…see mom, no worries!) and Tanqueray Gin. I drank top shelf gin despite my living room consisting of a TV on some milk crates (which would later become an entertainment center thanks to the addition of a single two by twelve and two cinder blocks!) plus two lawn chairs…but I digress.
I bought a few more of Jeff Smiths books before I had come across Jacques Pepin’s La Technique, and I mean to tell you people this was 470 pages of heaven! Not only could I clean that octopus I couldn’t find, but I could now do it in a way that wasn’t going to result in me slicing my hand off. This is where I first really figured out how to do different knife cuts, how to blanch vegetables, the different types of sauté and what a braise was. This was powerful stuff and on my return trips home this reading was paying dividends because I was put in charge of meat cooking by my father.
Before starting school I had to pick up Larousse Gastronomique and On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee and read them like crazy. These are pretty hardcore books and more in depth than the average cook would need, but if you are wondering what a soufflé is, or why one didn’t rise properly…these are must haves on your shelf. Since then I have also picked up other culinary books including The Pro Chef 8th edition put out by the CIA and Ma Gastronomie by Fernand Point and both are very good although not necessities.
I think it’s important to read as much as you can on cooking if that is what you’re passionate about, but how many recipe books do you really need? If you’re buying these for inspiration and want to keep the recipes handy I guess that’s one thing, but if you’re buying cookbooks to learn how to cook…you’ll be a slave to them in perpetuity. Find yourself a culinary school or instructional institution that gives basic cooking skills classes and enroll in one.
For the price of a nice dinner at a good restaurant you’ll be one step closer to freeing the chains that bind you to cookbooks. Learning culinary technique is the difference between a home cook and a professional cook, and the good news is you can become one even if you’re not in the kitchen at Chef Thomas Keller’s restaurant “Per Se.”
The benefit of learning technique is that instead of buying cookbooks, you’ll be able to spend money on books that can tell you so much more about the goings on in the culinary world. I would suggest almost anything by Michael Ruhlman who happens to be an excellent writer and a great cook. My suggestion would be to read his books in chronological order as they tell a story that you’ll also learn from. If you want to scare the hell out of yourself read The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan definitely a book guaranteed to get you thinking about how you look at food and the food system. Mr. Pollan has also done a couple other books worth reading and will certainly give you hope.
So I’m not sure why we need all of these cookbooks and I’m not sure who’s buying them or even why. I guess there are other reasons that I haven’t hit upon, and I’m sure I’ll hear about it. “Well for your info Pav, I like the pretty pictures!” Yes, I understand food porn, but with so many cooking sites and blogs and picture sites for food, why do you need a book for that? I’m not saying cookbooks are bad, or that they’re unnecessary or that people don’t ever need to buy them. I just wished the people putting them out would put some thought provoking content in them to make them worth more than a paperweight six weeks after they’re purchased.
So to all you aspiring or existing cookbook authors out there, let me offer you a challenge. Put some thought into what you’re offering and make sure there’s something in your book that is not just a plug for your programming or brand. Offer the people something besides your yummo recipe for chocolate yam sauce or how twizzlers make the cutest little handles for your Easter cupcake basket. Ask yourself this question…Is it going to still be around in twenty years as a viable book to expand people’s culinary minds or abilities? Or is it just going to be leveling the kitchen table for some twenty year old bachelor eating ramen noodles?