Saturday, October 09, 2004

Cookbooks 101

This afternoon, I found myself indulging in a favorite pastime: reading cookbooks. I consider a well written cookbook similar to a piece of literature. The latter may be an eloquent expression of the human condition, but depending on the author, the former can read like the classics.

I think that the Chez Panisse series can be as cerebral as Flaubert's Madame Bovary. It's not just that Alice Waters doesn't give instruction on technique; she'll often forgo exact measurements and cooking times. Home cooks looking for precision can be driven mad by her use of suggestions rather than directions--a handful of herbs...a spash of wine...poach until done. Her recipes and menus never spell out, say, what to to have for dinner. Like Flaubert, she will invoke a vivid experience through spare and adequate descriptions. It's like trying to cook with your French lit professor.

Julia Child, on the other hand, is like having your favorite aunt in the kitchen. She'll scold you for not attempting a recipe because it appears daunting, but her good nature and sense of humor means she'll let you off the hook if a dish doesn't succeed. All throughout Mastering the Art of French Cooking, her narrative makes every recipe approachable--and versatile. Ice cream doesn't set? Serve it as a sauce with cake!

I have a good number of cookbooks, but there are a few that I turn to regularly if I need a recipe. How does Deborah Madison cook rainbow chard? What kind of sauce would James Peterson make to accompany leg of lamb? What kind of cake would Rose Levy Berenbaum serve at a friend's baby shower?

But for those times I want to experience a philosophy or an aesthetic, I turn to MFK Fisher or Elizabeth David. If it were not graceful writing, it may read like a rigid and dogmatic tome. But they had strong, personal convictions about eating and enjoying life.

Many of my friends are avid readers. We will compare notes on the latest David Sedaris and debate the merits of The Corrections, but my cookbook reading is not subject to bookclub discussions. They simply don't share my passion for reading a cookbook cover to cover. But I don't take it personally.



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