April 2016

Teri Vlassopoulos


Head vs. Heart

While the two sometimes overlap, I categorize cookbooks into two camps: head or heart. There's the home cooking book, maybe inspired by family or childhood or a particular link to a region, usually titled something like, My ______ Kitchen. All heart. Then there's the textbook-style cookbook, more driven by research than emotion. Fewer stories, more technique.

Kenji López-Alt's The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science, just shy of 1000 pages and crammed full of text, obviously falls under head. The book is a beast, which I knew from the moment it showed up on my doorstep. I'm not sure what happened to it en route or if it was standard issue delivery, but it arrived encased in a massive sack the size of a feedbag that I had to cut open with a pair of scissors. I wasn't surprised by the heft of the book -- I was already familiar with López-Alt's brand of obsessive cooking from the website Serious Eats where he is the Managing Culinary Director. While I'm impressed by the research and care put into his posts, reading them often exhausts me. One quickly gets tired of being told on the Internet how to do something correctly, and making your way through a multi-step process on something as basic saucing your pasta can make you want to dump a jar of Prego on a pound of overcooked spaghetti and get on with it. And so I couldn't help but be sceptical of The Food Lab.

Within the first few pages López-Alt launched into an experiment: determining the importance of mineral content in the water used in pizza dough. With this as a base, he explained how his MIT biology background informs his scientific approach to cooking. After walking us through how he eliminates bias, introduces controls, and isolates variables, he gathered a group of testers to taste the various test pizzas. At the end of the long, detailed process, he analyzed the results. The conclusion he came to was that there were no significant data trends linked to mineral content. The most consistent comment was that everyone preferred a crispy pizza crust to a soggy one. I suppose this is the kind of experiment and conclusion I find tiring -- while it's reached thoughtfully, isn't it overkill for something obvious? Who likes soggy pizza anyway?

Maybe it was reading about it in a forum separate from the Internet, but I found myself more amused than irritated by the experiment, and the ones that followed it in the book. Despite anticlimactic results, López-Alt persists. Science, I guess, isn't supposed to be glamorous. The goal is to provide solid answers to even the smallest of questions, and López-Alt doggedly does so, breaking down recipes and techniques, giving scientific explanations either debunking or confirming things we thought we knew. I also realized that there was humor and joy in his words, an element I found lacking online.

The Food Lab isn't meant to be read in one sitting. It's too dense, too comprehensive, but it's a great primer before making something you've never made before, or, even better, for something you make without thinking, like boiling an ear of corn or searing a steak or even, yes, saucing a pot of pasta.

Susan Musgrave's A Taste of Haida Gwaii: Food Gathering and Feasting at the Edge of the World is the polar opposite of The Food Lab: pure heart. Musgrave, a well-known Canadian poet, had only one experience with food writing before writing the cookbook, a restaurant review during which she and her companion drank a lot of wine and... lost focus. "As far as recipes go," she writes, "I view them -- as I view stop signs -- as suggestions." Musgrave doesn't care about revealing when she lacks knowledge either, and occasionally her findings are annotated by URL citations, which seemed almost shocking after reading The Food Lab. But Musgrave, who has run a bed and breakfast on Haida Gwaii since 2010, can write herself out of any hole.

Haida Gwaii is an archipelago on the north coast of British Columbia. The area is fascinating, and food is intricately woven into its story, which is often the case with isolated communities. The indigenous Haida have always lived off the island's cycles of seafood, from the spring salmon and seaweed harvest, to Coho in the summer and fall, and the occasional winter storm wash-ups of scallops, clams, and cockles.

While the book includes plenty of staples from Musgrave's B&B (scrambled eggs, sourdough bread, etc.), it's the food specific to the region that's most interesting. The Haida language, for instance, has 34 words for salmon and the different ways of eating it. While most of us will likely never get the chance to cook with Devil's Club, a Haida medicinal plant, or pick cloudberries, salmonberries, or thimbleberries, reading about them is exquisite, like reading poetry. One particularly interesting recipe is for agutak, where a fat (like lard) is whipped until fluffy. Cold boiled whitefish is blended in until smooth and the end result looks like frosting and is often eaten frozen, like a kind of ice cream.

The anecdotes peppered through the book are the kind that come with a life well lived, like the one where Musgrave's ex-husband's car is seized by DEA agents for possible drug running. Musgrave agreed to help with the investigation and after reading wiretap transcripts, realized that the conversations between her husband and his alleged partner, while sounding suspiciously about drugs, were actually about the logistics of smoking a few boatloads of salmon. It's these kind of stories that give A Taste of Haida Gwaii a boozy feel, chatty and occasionally conspiratorial. It's a pleasure to read.

After reading so many cookbooks for this column, in addition to just going to restaurants and friends' homes or cooking my own food, I've recently found myself putting more weight on the intangible parts of eating and cooking. Give me enough wine, decent lighting, and good conversation, and the faults of most meals will be erased. This doesn't mean that the food doesn't count -- because it does -- but it's only part of the equation.

I know that the weight of López-Alt's The Food Lab might shift between plodding encyclopedia or necessary bible, and that on certain days it will give me the answers to things I didn't even know I had questions on. There's comfort in that. Musgrave's A Taste of Haida Gwaii may give that knowledge too, but it mostly appeals to the other part of food, the one that needs stories, personal history, myths. It's an elusive balance, though, and I think anyone interested in food will go through phases where certain variables are weighted higher than the others.

My shelves are lined with both of these kinds of these cookbooks, and sometimes that's enough to make me feel prepared for whatever comes next.

Teri Vlassopoulos lives in Toronto. Her novel, Escape Plans (Invisible Publishing), was recently released. More of her writing can be found at http://bibliographic.net/.