Monday, April 04, 2011

The Best Cookbook



I have about seven cookbooks on our counter which, admittedly, I almost never use. They range from the "Betty Crocker Cookbook" my mom gave me a long time ago to the two Rachael Ray 30-minute cookbooks I got Sweetie as a retirement present when she stopped working in an office and opted to spend every day chasing after twin boys to the "It's a Wonderful Life Cookbook" which has lots of recipes for food that we imagine people in the 1930s would eat (or at least people in the 1940s would eat if they weren't busy having their banks shut down and leaping off bridges, that being my understanding of both the movie It's A Wonderful Life, which I've never seen, and life in the 1930s, which I've never seen, either.)

What those books all have in common, besides not ever really being used, is that they all try to make cooking more fun or interesting, bringing new combinations of flavors and textures to meals, teaching us how to cook like Grandma imagines she used to cook back in the 30s, or how Han Solo would cook in a different galaxy...

... did I mention that one of the cookbooks is actually the Star Wars Cookbook?...

...
teaching us, in short, how to come up with something other than "throw the hot dogs in the microwave and put them on the table next to a bag of chips," which I personally have never done. I always boil the hot dogs. It only takes about 3 minutes, after all, so it's not that much longer than in the microwave, and I prefer my hot dogs to have that authentic home-cooked flavor. I don't want my kids growing up having only tasted microwave-warmed, individually-wrapped hot dogs.

Which, as an aside, how did we get to a point where hot dogs are individually packaged and wrapped but Reese's peanut butter cups are not? Was unwrapping the Reese's really all that difficult? And couldn't a case be made that for most of us, me included, making it easier and faster to eat candy isn't really a wise idea?

I have all these cookbook options, allowing me to cook a meal that almost-literally spans space and time, slow-cooking a ham while whipping up a side dish in 30-minutes or less and topping it off with a dessert of Wookie-ookies. And when I look at those cookbooks, all I can think of is why bother?

Cooking these days has stopped being functional. And you probably didn't even notice, because didn't even notice until recently. We no longer have to cook, not for any practical reason, and that has led to some interesting (but stupid) developments.

The realization that cooking isn't functional anymore, that it's become a luxury like racquetball or commuting to work, things we do for fun or romanticized reasons or because we've not yet adapted to the new world (like people who still read books), dawned on me slowly, beginning with the KFC $10 Challenge. Remember that?



I remember that - -and I remember it well, because I watched that commercial and thought "That's stupid; cooking the stuff yourself is always cheaper," which at the time I thought was true for the same reason almost everyone thinks everything is true: because I believed it.

Cooking stuff for yourself might once have been cheaper than eating out or letting someone else cook it for you and bringing it home, or making frozen meals; that may have been where I and probably everyone else began to believe that cooking for yourself was cheaper than having someone else do it. So I initially, believing that cooking for myself and my family, was cheaper, dismissed that ad... until I was in the grocery store a few days later and thought to myself "I wonder just how wrong that ad was," and looked at the ingredients of such a meal myself, and found out the ad was right.

It didn't immediately sink in at that point that letting someone else do the cooking was almost always, if not actually always, cheaper and easier. That ad came out a long time ago and I only recently decided that cooking is no longer practical, that it's a hobby and something that people do because they want to, not because they need to, and it took a while to get there as I noticed that meal after meal, basic meals that we love around our house, were cheaper and easier if we simply ordered out or got frozen stuff.

We like, for example, to make burritos (or soft tacos, or chimichangas, whatever we might call them that week), beef and cheese and salad-y stuff wrapped into a shell. And I began to notice that there were frozen versions of those selling for two bucks. And they were good, and they were done in 20 minutes without any frying, chopping, mincing, or grating. One dish Mexican food for less than the cost of the meat I'd have to put into them.

The final straw was pizza. I pride myself on cooking pizza, and cooking it well. I make my own dough (using a basic mixture that I then customize) and fry the meat and use fresh ingredients and I even once owned a pizza stone and I let the dough rise. I experiment with sauces and cheeses and meats and even fruit, and I make a damn good pizza, as everyone who ever has tried it has said. (I also make a damn good cheesecake, but I don't do that as often because if you eat leftover cold cheesecake for breakfast people look at you all funny.)

I originally began making my own pizza back in law school, when my grocery budget was $20 per week; I was able to afford pizza back then by scrimping on other groceries -- lots of Ramen noodles and oatmeal -- and by getting the ingredients myself and making the pizzas myself. I bought flour and yeast and cheese that I'd grate myself and meat that I'd fry up, and the total ingredients, about $10, would make 3 or 4 pizzas overall, and they were good, and as I got better at it I'd occasionally imagine myself, someday, running a successful chain of pizza restaurants that would have people flocking to them, waiting in line to get into them.

(Two things stand out from that story: One, I'm completely incapable of doing anything without imagining that the thing that I'm doing will someday lead me to be rich and possibly famous, although I'd settle for rich. Whether it's blogging, cooking pizzas or raising twins, I'm always certain that I'm moments away from that serendipitous, Harrison-Ford-painting-doors-moment that will lead to my discovery. And, Two: In my imagination, people still go to restaurants to sit down and eat pizza, which really hasn't happened since 1983.)

But nowadays, I don't have to do that, and not just because my grocery budget now exceeds $20 per week. Not only are there frozen pizzas at the grocery store that cost as little as $1.00 -- one dollar -- but there are higher-quality, really-pretty-good frozen pizzas that go for only a few bucks, too, and there's delivery and carry-out pizza for five bucks, also, and all of them don't require that I fry, grate, mix, roll, and otherwise work for my food, so why bother?

And so on, with almost every food you can think of, including peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, which it's now cheaper to buy pre-made than to make yourself, and how hard was it to slather PB&J onto some bread? Not very hard. But hard enough, apparently, that our civilization found a way to put the ingredients into a little pocket of bread called an "Uncrustable" and sell it to us for less than the basic ingredients of that sandwich, too.

We have, then, reached a point in our culture where cooking is purely for entertainment, which is demonstrated not just by all those facts I just gave you, but by the fact that there is a cookbook out there, and a cooking movement out there, which is "reinventing" the PB&J sandwich and urging you to cut your oven in half or cook with liquid nitrogen.

I'm talking about "Modernist Cuisine," and I'm using that phrase to denote both the cookbook and the trend. If you haven't heard about modernist cuisine then you either don't subscribe to The New Yorker, or you don't eat at restaurants whose menu might read like this:

Foods that change temperature when you eat them,

a cup of tea that is cold on one side and hot on the other,

a “Styrofoam” beaker that turns into a bowl of ramen when the server pours hot water over it,

edible clay and rocks,

a pocket watch that turns into mock-turtle soup,

a bar of soap covered in foam that is actually a biscuit with honey bubbles,

a milkshake volcano


Those are actual items listed as part of "modern cuisine" in an article in The New Yorker that talked about the trend and the cookbook that details the trend. Apparently, restaurants are now employing Penn & Teller as the cook and waitstaff. (Also, the article mentions, at some places the menus are edible. But you should probably wait to snack on it until after you choose your entree.)

Those all sound fascinating, true -- who wouldn't want to take their watch off and have it become a soup? -- but also they sound less like a meal than a show, and when did we go from "dinner and a movie" to "dinner is the movie?"

Whenever it happened, it was a major shift, because the book that chronicles what modernist cuisine is all about -- a book titled, obviously, "Modernist Cuisine" -- is huge.

Not huge like "a lot of people want to read it" but huge like "so big that you'll never be able to order it and sneak it past your wife... she's going to find out." Here's the description from the book's website:

Modernist Cuisine is a six-volume, 2,438-page set that is des­tined to rein­vent cook­ing. The lav­ishly illus­trated books use thou­sands of orig­i­nal images to make the sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy clear and engaging.

It takes six books and 2,438 pages to describe how to boil a hamburger that's been frozen using liquid nitrogen... whereas it only took J.R.R. Tolkien half of that to invent an entire world.

So what does it take 2,438 pages to tell you how to do? I haven't read the book yet -- it's on back order, despite being self-published (although "self-published" doesn't mean the same thing when the self-publisher is Nathan Myhrvold, the millionaire former chief technical officer of Microsoft who once worked with Stephen Hawking; it's safe to say he can afford, even with a book this size, to get a few advance copies and send them to reviewers) but the reviews and articles about it I have seen make a point of mentioning that it will teach you to slow cook things -- extremely slowly, apparently, over days -- and how to cook things in vacuum-sealed bags boiled in water that is precisely one temperature, or another.

There's even a recipe for freezing a hamburger in liquid nitrogen and then cooking it. Or maybe you're supposed to do that in reverse; I forget.

Amidst all that are pictures of stoves cut in half and deconstructed tomatoes, or something. It all sounds, frankly, fascinating -- one article pointed out that Myhrvold notes that ovens heat up at different rates and hit different top temperatures depending on sea level and air density, so that there can be as much as a 59-degree difference if you're cooking something in Mexico City versus New York City, and the idea of freezing hamburgers with liquid nitrogen will appeal to anyone who (like me) bought a deep fryer and then began imagining just what else he could deep fry.

But is it helpful?

That's the question I was asking myself as I read about Modernist Cuisine, and I followed it by this: Is it really a cookbook?

The first cookbook I ever owned was -- and still is, as I have it -- is that aforementioned red-and-white-checkered Better Homes & Gardens cookbook that has about 500 pages in it and is broken down into sections like Cakes and Meat and pastries. It has recipes in it that I use from time to time -- last night, I used the recipe for Meatloaf as a starting point for making meatloaf, freely replacing some of the ingredients with others: I substituted "club crackers" for breadcrumbs, left out the onions at Sweetie's request, and inserts a layer of Ritz crackers and parmesan cheese midway through. The result was delicious and unexpected, and I couldn't have done it without the Better Homes & Gardens cookbook, primarily because I didn't know how long to cook a meatloaf for and at what temperature, here or in Mexico City.

Even with that, I didn't need the cookbook; I wanted it because I wanted the experience of making a meatloaf. It wasn't faster or cheaper or easier to make a meatloaf from scratch. I'm sure that I could have bought a meatloaf already made and simply put it in the oven (and, having checked, I know now that you can), but in this case, the process was what I wanted. It was a Sunday afternoon, and I didn't have much else to do, and Sweetie wanted meatloaf, and I enjoy cooking things and experimenting.

As I made that meatloaf, and thought about Modernist Cuisine, it struck me that cooking really has become an art -- exactly like books and movies and paintings and sculptures and other art forms that serve as decorations or enhancements to our life but which for the most part we simply consume rather than produce.

Cooking, for about 2,011 years, has existed in a sort of limbo between art and activity: it was art that anyone could do, or almost anyone. From Jell-O molds to birthday cakes to homemade pizza to Christmas cookies to breakfast, we all not only had to eat, we had to make what we ate or at least get someone close to us to do it for us.

It wasn't, really, until recently that food became both fast and easy: drive-through restaurants were still relatively rare when I was a kid, and while there have been restaurants for decades (if not centuries) they haven't been convenient or cheaper than simply doing it ourselves.

But as food dumbed down and became easier and cheaper -- as chicken went from having to kill the chicken, pluck it, and cook it to a McNugget, it became less and less like a do-it-yourself necessity and more and more like an art, until we hit the stage we have, where food is an art.

Like clothing before it, food has jumped from things we all do to things we all mostly consume, joining that pantheon of arts that most of us look at and say "Wow, that's neat: wish I could do that."

Most of our art forms have done that. Cave paintings used to (judging by the quality, and not based on any knowledge of my own) be done by just about anyone. Then, in the middle ages, art moved to being done by masters with apprentices working under them. Now, "art" is commissioned by corporations and done by teams of people working for them. (Or it's done by James Franco, but either way it's not very accessible to the common man). Art is in museums and sells for billions and has to in some way involve a preserved shark corpse, and for the rest of us there's that guy who paints while jogging on a treadmill:



Writing and storytelling, too, have taken this route before cooking. In the olden days (before 2002), stories were communal affairs, people taking old legends and adding their own twists on them and re-telling them. Then someone started writing them down, and the Brothers Grimm hired J.K. Rowlings' lawyer when he was just a boy, and suddenly everything was set in stone and nobody told stories anymore: they bought them on their Kindle or went to see them at the Globe Theater. Nothing stops us from writing a book, and it's easier than ever to do that (unless, like Nathan Myhrvold, you want your book to include sawed-in-half stoves, which can get expensive, I bet), but you only write a book, nowadays, if you like to write; if you just want a story, it's far cheaper to download a book for $0.99 on your Kindle than to sit down and write up the story yourself.

So it's gone with all our other art forms, and so it now goes with cooking: Cooking is now something you do for fun, or not at all, and people will begin (or continue) the process of dividing themselves up into people who consume other people's cooking or people who try to do it themselves.

Cooking, after all, has all the other hallmarks of an art that isn't practiced by most people. We have more TV shows about chefs and cooking than we do about detectives with troubled homelives, and we have shows about restaurants and how to find them, and we have shows where cooks go to restaurants. We've done from dinner theater to dinner as theater, something you know about if you've heard of the Messi Dessert.

Cooking, I think, is the last activity to fall, too -- clothing ourselves went from activity to art a while ago, and I can't think of anything that's left in our lives that can go from pasttime to part-time, so we've finally hit the point where all of society either does something or consumes something but rarely does both. (People who make a thing, after all, rarely seem to take part in that thing. If you followed Stephen King's columns in Entertainment Weekly, you know he rarely reads horror or talks about it. Paul Simon, in an interview with The AV Club, recently seemed to admit that he doesn't listen to much pop music.)

Most of us fall on the side of the consumer -- partaking of art that other people have made, although there's hope that it won't always be a one-way street, that as our society advances we'll find ways to let people make their own art, whether that be music or cooking or painting. You may criticize her, but Rebecca Black's "Friday,"



is an example of how a regular person, with a modest investment that ddn't even include sawing a stove in half, can create something (sure, with some help, but I bet that Myhrvold didn't typeset his book himself), and the Internet has been helping regular people get back into making art that others can enjoy for some time, as people make home movies that get them not only fame, but a $30 million Hollywood contract -- as Fede Alvarez got for his movie, Panic Attack!:




So cooking, having spent the better part of human existence as a shared task but now having become art, may someday cross back over again, the way music and writing and filmmaking are, but for now, cooking has moved on and is the province of the Da Vincis, the Rays, the Myhrvolds, and the rest of us can dabble in our kitchens in anonymity, and buy our take-out chicken, and marvel at the wonders that the brilliant minds out there have come up with, and hope that someday, we, too, will be able to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich like an expert.

Wait, what? Even that's an art now?

It sure is: The following is taken from the highbrow article "Deconstruction, Architecture, and a Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich,"

One of the signature dishes served at Alinea, the Chicago restaurant that's now widely regarded as the best in the country, is a deconstructed peanut butter and jelly sandwich (above). The dish is architectural: the sandwich is presented on a structure resembling a whisk with the loops cut off. At the top of the structure is a single grape, still attached to its stem, dipped in peanut purée and wrapped in brioche.
This is that sandwich, which The New Yorker called a "cutting edge classic":




And just to show you how deconstructed (read: arty) that sandwich is, the article notes this important point about that "Deconstructed Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich:"

There's no jelly.


Click here to read more food-related posts.

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Rogue Mutt said...

Growing up I remember we had a Marvel Comics cookbook, though I don't remember what's in it or how we came to own it.

My average meal costs $5.50-$6 altogether, which is the same or more than most value meals at fast food joints, but my meal is more nutritious, so it's got that going for it. Though I could always do like Jared and just go to Subway every day for $5. Hurm.

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