Jeffrey Steingarten Is Wrong About The Alinea Cookbook
Jeffrey Steingarten has written the obligatory holiday cookbook roundup essay, and its introductory paragraphs smell faintly of rodent.
His focus is on the three holiday biggies — Thomas Keller’s Under Pressure, Heston Blumenthal’s The Big Fat Duck Cookbook, and Grant Achatz’ Alinea* — and he comes to the blisteringly ludicrous conclusion that Alinea is "the most simply beautiful" one. (This declaration emerges a full two paragraphs before Steingarten admits that he contributed to the winning title.)
I’m not going to argue the ethics of such an ill-founded declaration; I am merely going to present my (subjective) side-by-side evidence in favor of Blumenthal’s effort. Sure, Alinea’s pretty, but The Big Fat Duck Cookbook is the most stunning book I have ever seen, culinary or otherwise. If Steingarten can’t see that, he’s blind.
- The books as objects. While Alinea is quite the production, it in no way compares the gorgeous heft of The Big Fat Duck Cookbook. Ignoring the slipcase, (I haven’t seen a slipcase edition of Alinea), BFD is pure luxury to hold in your hands. The multiple ribbons, the silver-bound pages, the creamy, creamy stock… Alinea pales in comparison. Its fragile pages are susceptible to fingerprints, and the “daring” decision to print on gray stock is a subtlety that’s lost on all but publishing insiders. Winner: BFD
- Photography. While both have stunning photography, in both books the food outshines the photographer. Neither volume does anything revolutionary with the images; the typically luscious food porn nicely demonstrates both chefs’ revolutionary creations. Winner: Tie
- Illustrations. BFD’s illustrations are both visually fascinating on their own, and also contribute measurably to the points Blumenthal is trying to make. They’re fantastical and warm and totally insane. They elevate the whole cookbook. I’m not going to fault Alinea for not having illustrations; BFD’s illustrations are its signature. Anyway, Alinea’s got supplements to the food porn, too: restaurant porn! (By which I mean pictures of the inside of the restaurant, not … some other thing.) Winner: BFD
- Layout. When my mom read my BFD review, she thought that the comment about the table of contents representing Blumenthal’s brain was a metaphor. It is not. The center of the book literally opens into a 4-page spread illustrating the innards of his mind. Most of which are made out of meat. This is incredible and hilarious. Not incredible or hilarious: Alinea’s recipe headings have different positions from page to page, which makes it really hard to tell where a recipe ends and the next one begins. I had no problem with the organization of the recipes in BFD. Winner: BFD
With a score of 3-0-1, that’s a clear win for BFD in my book.
It should be noted that, overall, I actually find Alinea to be the better book — it's more thoughtful, a little less haphazard, a little less intimidating. But it’s just not more beautiful. Alinea is a theoretical and culinary accomplishment. BFD is simply gorgeous. Steingarten is wrong.
–special Eat me daily contributor Paula