The Flavor Bible by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg [review]
"I don't really get it," a friend said to me when I mentioned that I was reviewing Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg's The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America's Most Imaginative Chefs (buy from Amazon). "They already did that book, like a million years ago." She was referring to Culinary Artistry, an earlier book from the duo, which came out over a decade ago and which, yes, exactly like The Flavor Bible, is a meticulous index of ingredient pairings.
When it came out in 1996, Culinary Artistry was revolutionary. Ostensibly a multi-format exploration at what makes a great chef, its recipes and brief interviews with 30 or so prominent culinary figures fell by the side next to the book's extraordinary heart: An alphabetical listing of ingredients, each annotated with the season in which it was best, the smartest ways to prepare it, and — revolutionary — a list of other ingredients with which it plays nice. The chefs who were polled to make the list read like a who's who of late twentieth century culinaria: Alice Waters, Jasper White, Norman Van Aiken, Jean-Georges Vongerichten.
In the preface to the more recent The Flavor Bible, which was published late last year, Page and Dornenburg take care to note that while they are playing essentially the same game in this volume, the books are, in fact, more complementary than redundant.
A Contemporary Picture
Vaguely citing the evolution of home cooking since the turn of the millennium — haute cuisine's rising profile, the globalization of the culinary landscape — they justify the simultaneous existence of both volumes by drawing a timeline of flavor pairings. "Classic flavor pairings before 1996," they say of Culinary Artistry, and then The Flavor Bible is "modern flavor combinations since 2000." And it's true — a look at the books side by side reveals that The Flavor Bible paints a much broader, much more contemporary picture of what we eat. It opens its alphabetical listing of ingredients with "achiote seeds," "acidity," "Afghan cuisine," "African cuisine." Culinary Artistry starts with "almonds."
For the introspective cook, there's tremendous wealth to be found in the two short chapters that open The Flavor Bible. Using a metaphor of language, the chapters present, respectively, the vocabulary and grammar of food. Explanations of the difference between "flavor" and "mouthfeel" are interspersed with anecdotes, advice, and meditations from current culinary luminaries of all stripes, from New York's Andrew Carmellini, to Vancouver's Meeru Dhalwala, to Hoboken's Maricel Presilla.
These opening chapters are in service of "culinary creativity," an elusive but seductive notion that we've dealt with before. Page and Dornenburg believe two things: First, that cooking is a fundamentally creative act. Second, following from that, that the traditional, prescriptive recipe cookbook doesn't so much foster creativity as record it; a home cook attempting to recreate a great chef's dish is like a paint-by-numbers of Monet's Waterlilies.
Those tenets are easy enough to wrap your brain around, but their simplicity is deceptive. What the authors imply, but never come right out and say, is that the creative components of cooking don't come instantaneously. Like any other creative pursuit — art, music, architecture — one has to be fully in command of the medium before really being able to break new ground.
Their book is in service of this: the vocabulary lessons, the categorization of food as "mental," "spiritual," "visual," and "emotional" — it's all done with the goal of the home cook attaining fluency with every facet of the culinary endeavor. This can be daunting (and mini-essays on topics like "Understanding the Essence of the Moment" flirt dangerously with the off-puttingly precious), but the end result is a neat package of culinary navel-gazing, one that seeks to better the reader and can't be faulted for it.
This academic exercise in kitchen creativity is dense, but it's only a couple dozen pages. The real make-or-break here is the ingredient cross-referencing. Most people will buy (and use) this book for Chapter 3, the ingredient matchmaking that takes up 350 of its 370-odd pages.
The real question is whether this system works for you — can you read a list of flavors and start making dishes in your head? Will this litany of flavor pairings send you off reeling into culinary ecstasy? It won't for everyone — novice cooks aren't likely to benefit here, neither are cooks without much of a mental palate — but for those who are already fluent in the metaphorical culinary language, this could be a peerless launching point.