In Defense of Uncookable Cookbooks

A page from The Big Fat Duck Cookbook. See our review.

There's a post on Grocery Guy, the personal blog of hipster butcher Tom Mylan, slamming the seemingly unattainable world of "books you can't actually cook out of" by way of praising Moro: The Cookbook by Samuel and Samantha Clark.

It's understandable that there would be a backlash against the extravagant — I don't know if you've heard, but we're in a recession and everyone is broke. When people are broke, they begin to get their panties all knotted up about fancy things, things that "aren't necessary" or are "elitist." In corollary, there is a simultaneous obsessive appreciation of the everyday, the homemade. Just look at last month's food magazines, each of which prominently covered budget friendly, simple, home-cooked food. People are eating out less, and while that's murdering the restaurant industry, it's helping out the pocketbook.

The problem is that extravagance isn't the same as complexity, or even sophistication. It's a huge mistake to forsake both of these in the name of "real cookbooks with real recipes." Mylan singles out Thomas Keller's Under Pressure and The French Laundry Cookbook as examples of uncookable books, and it's clear the type of book he means. Largely chef- or restaurant-based, unwieldy hardcovers with shiny close-ups of meticulously plated food largely of the "molecular," "avant garde," or "futurist" variety, these books often come complete with a hefty price tag. I understand how this looks to Mylan, but I hope he understands when I say that he is just completely wrong.

A Problem of Audience

"How many people have $4000 worth of food technology sitting around their apartment?" Mylan asks, in response to the equipment required for Keller's sous vide masterpiece Under Pressure. "Who cooks like that? Who has the room?"

Well, one answer is professionals. The fact that professionals use cookbooks shouldn't be terribly surprising. How many times have we seen lists of "Famous Chefs' Favorite Cookbooks"? They aren't just using them at home; the techniques and ideas shared in cookbooks are helpful even to the most accomplished chefs.

That said, not everyone who buys a cookbook, or any book for that matter, is a professional member of the audience for whom it was written. For all their ubiquity and general use, cookbooks are part of the genre of technical writing, and the purpose of technical writing doesn't always have to be the recreation of a specific process. Understanding that process can be as valuable as recreating it, particularly for someone learning to cook. I know how my car works, and although that doesn't mean I'm going to build one from scratch, it does help when I drive it.

The same can be said of any technical field in which one learns the process of procedures well beyond one's skill level. A line cook working at a diner could find value in Under Pressure if she has ambition to work in a more technically advanced kitchen at some point in her life. A home cook might be alienated by the book's techniques, or he might come out of it with a better understanding of the application of heat to protein. One cannot make a generalized statement about what any given person gets out of a book.

A Problem of Value

Mylan goes on: "Literature is important in it's [sic] ability to inspire the reader, but literature (or pornography) also can't help you make dinner unless you're looking at the kidney recipe in the beginning of Joyce's Ulysses."

Cookbooks are a victim of marketing, as is any product. Although advanced cookbooks aren't necessarily written for the home cook, they are marketed to him. In order to be publishable, these books must sell to more people than they are intended for. That said, these books can have immense value. For example, the culinary industry is notorious for overworking and underpaying its employees. Most of us are incredibly passionate about what we do, and one may place us in a creative category. Access to cutting edge restaurants is limited by geography and cost, and, after all, haute cuisine has always been intended for the upper class, and the cost of ingredients used in high-end dishes reflects this.

Spending $50 on Under Pressure or The French Laundry Cookbook, or Alinea or A Day at el Bulli is infinitely less money than traveling to any these restaurants, let alone eating in them. These cookbooks improve accessibility instead of restricting it, and so while the price may seem hefty, isn't their purpose in the basic line with why books were invented in the first place? They transport the passionate, and they expand the worlds of those who have no other means.

Ease of Recipe versus End Product

"Even if they all tasted like throw-up I would still make myself a Moro t-shirt with a magic marker like it was 1992 and they were Fugazi," says Mylan. "Why? because they are real recipes that I would enjoy making and moreover could make with nothing more complicated than a knife, an oven and some pots and pans."

Sigh. There is a reason why advanced recipes are advanced, and a reason why they take hours or even days, and a reason why they require expensive equipment. Because we, as human beings, have been cooking for thousands of years, and we know how to do it fucking well. Take shortcuts and your food will taste like shortcuts. There are some dishes that can be prepared in a small amount of time and taste fantastic, and there are some dishes that take time. The best lesson I have ever learned about cooking is to be patient (and to hurry your ass up, but that's another essay).

Everyone, in every field, has to study at some point, and cooking is no exception. It takes time to cook well, and that time is not always spent in the kitchen. The brisk sales of these glossy, hardcover, inaccessible cookbooks is a testament to the fact that there are some cooks out there who realize this — even if Tom Mylan isn't one of them.


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