July 2002

Jonathan Van Matre


On being a Cookbookslut

I love cookbooks. Neither content to devote myself to a cherished set of three or four treasured tomes, nor to rely solely upon received knowledge inherited from the family tree, I succumb with a frequency that verges on depravity to the charms of a new collection of culinary instructions and insights.

Some I throw myself at with reckless abandon, others are compelled to seduce me slowly and subtly. Like any true slut, however, I give myself over to each of them wholly, take from them what I need, and then move on. There is always another luscious specimen just down the shelf.

I have a messy love affair with even the most beautiful of them. Those I have chosen to own hang about in my kitchen like jealous ex-lovers, speckled with flour, crinkled by spilt bourbon, scented with fragments of burnt garlic and olive oil—scarred by the ravages of our past dalliances.

Ah, but to be a slut is not the same as to be “easy”. “Easy” I am definitely not. Most modern cookbooks are tarts, whores dressed up with pretty pictures and flashy graphic design. When the makeup comes off, the hideous culinary specimen hidden beneath would make one consider culinary celibacy. Worse, many are marketing executives in perfect-bound disguise, less concerned with pleasant gustation than with savvy branding and demographically-targeted appeal.

No, I am not easy. I am immune to the wiles of all such pretenders. What I want from a cookbook is art, fine art. Intimacy. Intuition. A sensuous and communal experience of one of nature’s most pleasurable acts: eating.

In this column, I hope to pass some of my sluttish wisdom on to you, to help you divine which is the true lover and which the lazy lothario. Eating is one of the most basic and pleasurable physical experiences available to us on this earth, yet most cookbooks miss their opportunity to show the human, communal spirit of pleasure and shared joy that underlies the best eating. Instead, they treat their subject like a centerfold: painstakingly lighted and airbrushed, all trace of soul and personality removed in order to create in us the desire for a dish which will never—can never—be served to us.

There are hidden among them, however, truly brilliant souls. A great cookbook can create in us not only the knowledge of how to prepare great food, but how to enjoy it, how to make it part of our lives, how to use it to create community and sharing among the people of the world. Or at the very least, the people of our dining rooms.

I will find and share these wonderful books with you. And, in the spirit of the true slut, I will not simply read them. It is a practice apparently quite common among many other book reviewers, but to review a cookbook based solely on reading it would be like rating a lover based solely on a third-party description of his sexual prowess, or how well she writes erotic poetry, or how strikingly photogenic he is. No, it is impossible to know the true nature of a cookbook without experiencing it carnally, by making and sharing the recipes.

Thus, every review will be preceded by a dinner party, in which I and my friends will share the process of making and eating food. Then, and only then, will I report to you on the process—the successes and failures of our cooking efforts—and the results: how well we loved the food, how well it loved us.

It’s a dangerous world out there, after all. Bad cooking is spreading like an epidemic virus, and I wouldn’t want you to catch anything.