October 2003

Tom Bernard


Cookbook Confidential

Once upon a time, and for generations thereafter, a hefty tome known as The Joy of Cooking reigned as the undisputed essential reference for the home cook. Its dominion was well deserved, even in a world of Betty Crockers and Fannie Farmers, as Joy offered straightforward, easily duplicable instructions about everything from table setting etiquette to the best ways to casserolize tuna or stroganoffify beef to the whys and wherefores of cookin’ up a mess of critter.

This versatility contributed to its perennial indisputability. Outside of the culinary school curriculum, where else could ordinary American cooks find so much information in one place? Unlike culinary schools, The Joy of Cooking had the advantages of comparative cheapness and substantially increased portability. Moreover, those home cooks (or “housewives” as the presumptive audience for the book was known in its earliest, pre-feminist days) who had no occasion to know from fish in aspic or bagna cauda still had access to recipes just like mom or grandma used to make, even as an increasingly mobile population began moving farther and farther away from mom and grandma.

And so The Joy of Cooking reigned supreme for decades. A staple of the wedding and house/apartment warming circuit, the book, in its many incarnations, editions and revisions (including 1997’s The New Joy of Cooking) found its way onto millions of bookshelves, and the work product derived from the recipes contained in its pages -- pages invariably spattered, stained and spotted with the component ingredients and sauces of favorite dishes -- found their way onto tens (if not hundreds) of millions of dinner tables, buffets and covered dish supper plates. So ubiquitous was this resource that Alex Comfort appropriated the title when he wrote The Joy of Sex to do for America’s genitals what Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker had done for their stomachs.

I bought my own copy of The Joy of Cooking when I was still in college, at a time when I had access to neither kitchen nor cookware. It was the middle of my senior year, and while I had very little idea what I wanted to do with my life when I graduated and found myself face to face with the harsh reality of the real world, I knew that no matter what else happened, I would always need to eat. Like many novice cooks (on those rare occasions when I did have a stove at hand) asking my mother “How do you make…?” invariably led to a consultation with her battered, dog-eared copy of Joy, its pristine white dust jacket long since eroded to reveal a cracked and stained pale blue binding.

Though I never delivered my own copy to the same threshold of loving deterioration -- I donated it to a Joy-deprived relative after securing joint custody of my wife’s copy -- it was as invaluable to me as it had been to the legions of home cooks who came before me. I never considered the possibility that any could replace it at the top of the cookbook food chain.

Enter How to Cook Everything. Mark Bittman’s 1998 big yellow book is to The Joy of Cooking what The Godfather: Part II is to The Godfather*. That is to say it takes what came before -- something already pretty damn good in its own right -- and quite unexpectedly improves upon it. More to the point, like comparisons between the Godfather films, this perspective accounts for the notion that such comparisons are ultimately subjective.

In side-by-side, or at least dish-by-dish comparisons, the recipes in How to Cook Everything regularly produce superior results both in terms of taste and ease of use. This is especially true when considering such staples as bread, pancakes, pie crust or pizza dough. The book is also excellent for non carbohydrate-laden recipes, although given that meat, fish and vegetable dishes are customarily more forgiving of improvisation, I’m more likely to use the dictates of the recipe as jumping off points than I am when the control of ingredients is essential to a successful outcome.

With the holidays approaching and prime holiday baking season upon us, let’s use pie dough as an example. A comparison of the recipes in The Joy of Cooking and How to Cook Everything (pages 640 and 684 respectively if anyone cares to check it out for themselves) indicates that the primary difference between the doughs lies in the authors’ choice of fats. The Rombauers prefer shortening, while Bittman reaches for the butter.

Not a lot of difference, is there? By all rational measures, there should be very little difference between the fruits of these recipes. Here’s the thing, though: The How to Cook Everything recipe produces a crust that is lighter, flakier and more flavorful than its The Joy of Cooking counterpart. I’m sure that any food scientists out there would be more than happy to explain how the differences in molecular structure, melting point or the amount of water held in suspension contribute to the quality of one dough over the other. I’m enough of a kitchen geek that I’d even be interested in such explanations. Ultimately, though, when the time comes to reach for the recipe that will produce a crust worthy of the apples I just picked from the local orchard (ideally, 40% each of Cortlands and Macs, 20% Macouns or Granny Smiths), I’m going to reach for How to Cook Everything.

Granted, it’s difficult to determine absolute superiority on the basis of one recipe comparison, but with a combined 1859 pages worth of recipes to work with, you’re just going to have to take my word for it, or even better, check out How to Cook Everything for yourself. You may end up disagreeing with me, in which case it will be time for me to eat crow. This leads me to wonder: which book has the better crow recipe?

*The writer freely admits that this may stand as the most tortured, Bulwer-Lytton contest-worthy analogy ever, but suggests that if you hate this, just imagine what he must have rejected.

The New Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer, Ethan Becker & Marion Rombauer Becker
ISBN: 0684818701
1152 Pages

How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman
John Wiley & Sons
ISBN: 0028610105
960 Pages