December 2007

Melissa Lion

Culinaria Bookslut

Yellow on Gold: The Final Showdown between Gourmet and Bon Appetit

Growing up a middle class white girl in San Diego, LA’s gang culture and, by extension, the early days of gangsta rap were a large part of my popular culture landscape. My first boyfriend took me to see the opening night of Boyz n the Hood, and I remember my friend Amy weeping at the end of Higher Learning. I drove a Volvo, just like Ice-T used to, in which I rocked a face-off JVC stereo. To this very day, Ice Cube tops my list of celebrities I’d jump through burning hoops… to well… you know. (Private message to Ice Cube: there is a girl in Portland who loves you despite your gut and cringingly awful family movies. Once you go white and middle class, you never go back, I assure you.) It wasn’t just me either. I grew up in University City, a neighborhood whose claim to fame was the mall on which the mall from Fast Times at Ridgemont High was based. One scandalous day the gang from our school tagged, the *gasp* stairs leading up to the mall. UC White Boys, we all read as we trudged to the food court.

It’s no wonder then, that as an adult, all conflict for me boils down to the final showdown between the Crips and the Bloods. (Wikipedia has a fascinating study on the Crips and their use of language and spelling to avoid words using the letter b -- for Bloods -- or ck -- for Crip Killer. I only add this because in a moment of self-doubt I thought Crips would be spelled Crypts and I googled Crips Bloods and Gang. You should try it. Scintillating stuff.)

My bookcase has been hosting the latest gang warfare in my life. This month it’s on between the Gourmet and Bon Appetitcookbooks. Both cookbooks are the spawn of somewhat inaccessible cooking magazines, both weigh more than a small child and both editors state their goals on the back cover of the book. Ruth Reichl for Gourmet: “to give you a book with every recipe you would ever want.” And a little more realistically, Barbara Fairchild for Bon Appetit: “to give you the cumulative expertise of Bon Appetit, with more than 1,200 recipes that will be delicious the first time out.” If these aren’t fighting words, then I’ll just turn in my AK and collection of shivs right now.

The volley began with my waking up one morning and deciding that a pot of macaroni and cheese was called for. I opened Gourmet. Reichl tells me, “this is arguably the best mac and cheese on the planet.” But the recipe calls for panko -- aka Japanese breadcrumbs. I’m a lazy cook and that would involve my finding panko somewhere in Portland. I’m new here, and the thought of searching for a Japanese market was exhausting, so I checked Bon Appetit. They have two recipes: one with prosciutto and one for “Upscale Macaroni and Cheese.” If I’m craving mac and cheese, by default, I’m not hungering for anything upscale or Italian. I want yellow American food. I bought regular breadcrumbs and made Reichl’s. It was very good, but arguably the best? Mac and cheese is so intentionally bland and lifeless it’s hard to work up a good violent urge to defend to the death one recipe against another. It would be like stabbing someone over marshmallows. Or clouds. I don’t have the energy.

The next day I had a craving for cinnamon bread. Reichl promised me a book with every recipe I could ever want. There is no recipe for cinnamon bread in Gourmet. Oversight or intentional escalation of tension? Bon Appetit had no recipe either. I compared bread recipes in each and went with Gourmet’s Pumpkin Apple Bread because it made two loaves, one of which could be frozen. It was moist, spicy and perfect for a fall afternoon. Gourmet survives another firefight.

I hate to pop a cap in the ass of a cookbook when it’s down, but I live by the streets so here goes: the intro of Gourmet is written by Ruth Reichl. And Bon Appetit’s is not. Reichl writes in her ebullient voice about growing up with the original Gourmet cookbook, “The last was a recipe for leftover chicken that casually began, ‘saw off the tops off six small fresh coconuts and scrape out half the coconut meat.’ The fact that I had never seen a fresh coconut, much less a truffle, a duck, or any kind of soufflé troubled me not at all…” Fairchild writes a five paragraph essay, “Today, if I could use three words to describe Bon Appetit, they would be approachable, relevant and fun.” Because I was a college professor, and I’ve read my share of these essays, I’m compelled to write in the margins: Parellism, Ms. Fairchild. Fun is a NOUN, fo’ shizzle.

Fairchild claims LA while Reichl is decidedly New York. I’m a Cali girl, and under most circumstances I roll West Coast, but in this Battle Royale, East Side has it all over West. In fact, the Gourmet cookbook is looking more like the Bloods and the Crips combined, while Bon Appetit is busy tagging the mall and rolling with the UC White Boys. Now that it’s settled, can’t we all just get along?