Our Fascination with Cookbooks

Cook­books are designed to help us attain the “ideal sug­ar-salt-sat­ur­ated-fat state” in our cook­ing while hid­ing that fact between the sautéing of onions and the reduc­tion of the sauce.

That won­der­ful pro­pos­i­tion comes from Adam Gopnik’s look at our long-stand­ing fas­cin­a­tion with cook­books, and how they are used in our homes.

The first thing a cadet cook learns is that words can become tastes, the second is that a space exists between what the rules prom­ise and what the cook gets. It is partly that the steps between […] are often more sat­is­fy­ing than the fin­ished cake. But the trouble also lies in the same good words that got you going. How do you know when a thing “just begins to boil”? How can you be sure that the milk has scorched but not burned? Or touch some­thing too hot to touch, or tell firm peaks from stiff peaks? How do you define “chopped”? […]

Gram­mars teach for­eign tongues, and the advant­age of [Mark Bittman’s] approach is that it can teach you how to cook. But is learn­ing how to cook from a gram­mar book—item by item, and by rote—really learn­ing how to cook? Does­n’t it miss the social context—the dia­logue of gen­er­a­tions, the com­mon­al­ity of the fam­ily recipe—that makes cook­ing some­thing more than just assem­bling cal­or­ies and nutri­ents? […]

[Con­ser­vat­ive polit­ic­al philo­soph­er Michael Oakeshot­t’s] much repeated point was that one could no more learn how to make good gov­ern­ment from a set of rules than one could learn how to bake a cake by read­ing recipe books. The cook­book, like the con­sti­tu­tion, was only the residue of a prac­tice. Even the most gram­mat­ic­al of cook­books dies without liv­ing cooks to illu­min­ate its prin­ciples.

My ideal cook­book: one that explains why cer­tain recipes work. Not a book on ‘gram­mar’, but a sci­ence book mixed with art.

And one final quote:

In cook­ing, the prim­al scene, or sub­stance, is salt, sug­ar, and fat held in max­im­um solu­tion with starch; add pro­tein as neces­sary, and fin­ish with caf­feine (cof­fee or chocol­ate) as desired. That’s what, suit­ably dis­guised in some decent dimen­sion of dressup, we always end up mak­ing.

3 thoughts on “Our Fascination with Cookbooks

  1. Taylor

    Speak­ing of cook­books that explain “why cer­tain recipes work…a sci­ence book mixed with art” have you seen “Ratio” by Michael Ruhl­man? I haven’t read it entirely, but it’s an inter­est­ing take on the sci­ence behind baked goods espe­cially and a neat approach to explain­ing the sci­ence behind cook­ing.

Comments are closed.