January 2012

Charlotte Freeman


A Cookbook Crisis

Cookbooks. I struggle with ambivalence about cookbooks. There are so many of them. All that shiny paper and those gorgeous photos and the recipes. The thousands and thousands of recipes. Frankly, most cookbooks (like most other books) are pretty forgettable, and the curmudgeon in me, the one who thinks we're at peak oil, and that we need to stop being so profligate, worries about all that paper and ink and shiny coating and the boxes on the trucks driving the piles of cookbooks from bookstore to bookstore. And all for what?

I'm having an existential cookbook crisis.

The problem with cookbooks, for me at least, is that most of them are just about recipes. They're not about learning how to cook, or how to think about food, or even how to think about your life, they're just about recipes. The old addiction model. Get people hooked on recipes, on the idea that cooking is hard and they can only do it with guidance, that the only way to do it correctly is to follow these specific recipes, and you have customers for life. People who will keep buying cookbooks.

And I guess that's fine if your hobby is following recipes, if you're the sort of person who wants to simply recreate someone else's food, or a dish you ate at a restaurant. Granted, sometimes, a recipe really is necessary -- when baking, for example, or making charcuterie, or even putting up jams and pickles. Things that either require precision to work or to avoid killing your loved ones. But for ordinary cooking, the proliferation, the endless parade of cookbooks full of the same old color photos and yet another recipe for another pasta or chicken or soup -- well, it's all beginning to seem absurd to me. I realize cooking is an industry, and one in which I have myself at times toiled. I realize there are a lot of writers and recipe testers and food stylists who want to keep their jobs, and who are good at what they do. It just seems to me that there are so very many cookbooks, and most of them are, even when inspiring, sort of unnecessary.

Over the holidays I repainted and reorganized my kitchen, which forced me to cull the cookbooks. The ones I kept fell into a four categories: reference, essay, best-in-class, and sentimental. So I kept The Joy of Cooking and The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, and the new Jacques Pépin and my ancient copy of Laurel's Kitchen. I kept the best of the Italian and French and Asian and Middle Eastern cookbooks. I kept sentimental favorites like the Patricia Wells and my late brother's Cooking with Claudine. But the real pleasure of culling the cookbooks was that it gave me an excuse once more to page through the great food writers: M.F.K. Fisher, Patience Gray, Laurie Colwin, Elizabeth David -- writers who were far less interested in recipes than they were in teaching the reader how to cook, how to eat, and by extension, how to live. They each described how to live well without a lot of money, and more importantly, described various paths to finding one's authentic life. Eating well was part of living well, and for these writers, living well was not, as the magazine editors might say, aspirational. Each of these writers described how one could live well on simple ingredients, cooked and served with care, and shared with good company. Each of these writers described how eating well connected to living an authentic and creative life, and an authentic and creative life was what I wanted. It wasn't about the countertops, or the cabinets, or the kitchenware, it was about creating something lovely for yourself and others out of what you had.

One criteria for buying or keeping a cookbook is because it contains the experience of someone who has gone and researched how to cook something you want to make, and has then adapted the recipe for the home kitchen. It is for this reason that I am currently wildly in love with Nancy Silverton's Mozza. We have a pizza problem here in Montana. There's a Pizza Hut, and a couple of local takeout places that serve flaccid pizza slathered in salty sauce, with too much stringy cheese, and sausage of indeterminate origin. There's a local bistro that makes pizzas, but they are very small, and too expensive, and the quality varies enough that we just don't order from there. Silverton's Mozza contains a recipe for the perfect pizza dough, a recipe worth buying the whole book for. Silverton is a talented baker who set out to make the perfect crust for her L.A. pizzeria, but what makes this a great recipe, is the thoroughness with which she tested it for the home cook. This is a recipe that has made good pizza a regular part of our lives again. You will need to buy a food scale, and you'll need to plan ahead for this one, since the dough needs to rise a couple of times, but I bet that even busy people could mix the dough in the morning and leave it rising and fermenting all day, then make pizzas for dinner on a weeknight. This pizza crust is so good that at least in this house, we don't even care that much about what goes on top (although I'm particularly fond of ham and cheese with egg). It does exactly what you want pizza crust to do -- makes big bubbles along the edge, and retains a chewy texture that reminds us that we weren't just being snobs all those years we were so disheartened by commercial pizza. So to Silverton I say thank you, and I promise that one of these days I'll cook some of the other recipes in the book (in particular I'm looking forward to experimenting with her homemade pasta recipe). In the meantime, it has a place of honor on my recently-culled shelf.

Michael Ruhlman is another writer who survived the cut, because each of his books is aimed at teaching you how to cook well without relying on recipes, and he believes that developing the habits of a good cook will improve not only your cooking, but the rest of your life. He wants you to get beyond recipes, to learn to think in food the way a cook does, to understand the craft of cooking so that you can become an instinctive cook, the kind who is no longer chained to recipes. His latest book is Ruhlman's Twenty: 20 Techniques 100 Recipes a Cook's Manifesto, which like its predecessors The Elements of Cooking and Ratio, wants to help you learn the skills you need just to cook. This book reminds me of James Beard's Theory and Practice of Cooking from which I learned to cook way back in the dark ages when I was living in Manhattan, working as an editorial assistant. Just as cooking through that book has served me throughout the intervening decades by laying down an experiential understanding of how braising differs from roasting and sautéeing, one could similarly cook one's way through Ruhlman's Twenty (along with Ratio for how ingredients combine) and come out not only with technique, but just as important, an understanding of the fundamental ingredients upon which all cooking depends.Twenty not only contains chapters on techniques like these, but chapters covering core ingredients like salt, sugar, onions, butter, and acids. He explains not only how techniques work, but how to use the most basic of pantry ingredients. The onion soup "recipe" has gotten a lot of press (and he made it on Martha Stewart) for good reason. It is a perfect example of his central point: real food, cooked simply and well is not too difficult for the everyday cook, and indeed, with some care, can be astonishingly good. Recipes, he argues, preclude thinking. All a recipe asks of us is to follow it, where cooking, real cooking, asks us to think. Thinking is required, and if you want to learn to cook, you are going to have to actually try. You're going to have to pay attention. You're going to have to taste, listen, watch what you're doing, and perhaps even make some notes so you'll remember the next time.

Ruhlman's been fascinated with the fundamentals of cooking since he attended the Culinary Institute of America. In the epilogue to Twenty he notes: "What I needed first was the stuff that was bedrock, the stuff that remained fixed and immovable in the work of cooking." What Ruhlman seems to have found, and it runs like a thread through all his subsequent books from Soul of a Chef to House right through the cookbooks, is that learning the discipline of cooking and of kitchens can change the way you live your life outside of the kitchen. As he told Amateur Gourmet in an interview after Elements of Cooking came out:

I can say that learning how to cook at the CIA changed my writing. Before I learned to cook, I couldn't write a book in four months. But once I'd become a cook, once I realized you didn't ever, ever, say no to a task, I knew that I could. I wrote Making of a Chef in four months because that's when the money ran out. I knew I could do it because I'd learned how to cook. Writer's block -- it's a bunch of hooey, it's an excuse to be lazy. Imagine a cook using that logic. Chef: Ordering! One lamb shank! Line cook: Sorry chef, didn't get to the shank today, had cooking block.

Using Twenty or Elements of Cooking or Ratio to learn to cook will teach you to think about cooking in ways that you probably didn't before. And if you take seriously these lessons about thinking, paying attention, and really learning the fundamentals of a craft like cooking, you can apply those lessons to other aspects of your life. Which doesn't mean you can't also have some fun. One of Ruhlman's most beloved techniques is roasting a chicken, and over at Slate, he did write a recipe for "Roast Chicken for Two," where he argues that the hour during which a chicken roasts provides the perfect window of time in which to reconnect with your partner. My kind of recipe.

Tamar Adler is a new writer whose first book An Everlasting Feast, Cooking with Economy and Grace is exactly the kind of book I keep looking for -- a book about how eating and living are connected, and about how cooking and eating your own real food, made from actual ingredients (see Michael Pollan for more on the distinction between "food" and "food-like products") is neither too expensive nor too difficult for the ordinary cook who probably does not have a well-stocked kitchen. Arranged as a series of how-to chapters on topics from boiling water to getting over one's fear in the kitchen, from roasting vegetables to fixing your mistakes, the entire book is dedicated to helping the novice get out of his or her own way. "No matter how well a cookbook is written," she notes, "the cooking times it gives will be wrong. Ingredients don't take three or five or ten minutes to be done; it depends on the day and the stove. So you must simply pay attention, trust yourself, and decide." Her avowed literary antecedent is M.F.K. Fisher's How to Cook a Wolf and although I find her prose a little stiff still, it is stiff because as Flannery O'Connor once noted, when one is speaking to an audience who does not share your worldview, "you have to make your vision apparent by shock -- to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures." Fisher could assume an audience that had some acquaintance with cooking as an everyday experience, Adler, speaking to an audience raised largely on microwaved frozen meals or takeout on the one hand, or terrorized on the other hand by the food police who shout that the ingredient of the week -- dairy, gluten, meat, eggs, have somehow become mysteriously toxic -- does not have this luxury. And so she's written a book of essays, seeking to talk people of her generation off the ledge, to convince them that if they shop for vegetables and cook them all up simply, right away, then they'll have a week's worth of meals ready to make. (I've been using her tip for roasting a big tray of broccoli and cauliflower and carrots on the weekend, and it's been enormously helpful.) She proselytizes the glories of soups for the busy and the broke, especially minestrone, that all-purpose wonder of a soup that has sustained generations. She urges new cooks not to be afraid of their ingredients, to touch their food, and not to be taken in by the ridiculous idea that all leftovers are immediately toxic and must be thrown out. In fact, she's a zealot (in the best way) about leftovers, and the book is packed with ways to transform them into something different and delicious that will make you glad you didn't throw them out. If you didn't have a mother or grandmother to teach you how to stretch your food budget, Adler is here to help, and her tips are smart, and easy to follow, and delicious.

Like Ruhlman (and to a less overt extent Silverton), Adler wants you to see food as an extension of your life. She wants you to not only stop buying adulterated food marketed with false promises of speed and economy, but she wants you to learn some uncomplicated skills that will make your life richer. Chapters like "How to Light a Room" and "How to Weather a Storm" concern themselves with the little comforts we can muster, no matter how broke, or how frightened, or how closely the wolf, as Fisher would describe it, is sniffing at the door. Just as Ruhlman argues that by effectively making use of the time during which a chicken roasts you can feed your relationship sexually, spiritually and physically, so too does Adler argue that by learning basic householding skills like shopping, cooking ahead, and using your leftovers, you can set yourself free. Perhaps not from all your shackles, but at least from the shackles of food marketing, that great grinding engine that wants to convince us all that one of the central tasks of everyday life, the cooking and serving of meals, is too difficult, too taxing, and too expensive for the ordinary person to handle. This is one of the many Big Lies of modern life, but luckily, it is one that people can actually wiggle free from. We are not that stupid. It is just not that hard to buy and cook real food for ourselves and our loved ones.

My sweetheart is not a foodie, and in fact, is something of a picky eater, but he cooks for himself and has done so for decades. We were talking about these books last night (while looking up online the sneaky terms food processors use to hide MSG, a substance to which he is allergic) and he said, "It's not that hard to cook with real food. It might not always come out like you thought, but it's really hard to fuck up real food." I suppose if there's anything I'm looking toward the cookbook industry to provide at this point, it's not more shiny photos, it's not one more way to cook a chicken, or one more soup, or one more fad like bacon-on-everything or pickling or pork belly -- but more revolution. More encouragement of the general populace to subvert the marketing paradigms and to shout to the deaf and dumb and blind that you can make a good pizza at home, you can make a good loaf of bread or a soup to sustain you. Times are tough out there, but we are a resourceful people. Sometimes I think we just need to be reminded.