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 responses to “Our Fascination with Cookbooks”

  1. 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.

  2. Taylor, thanks!

    I had heard of Ruhlman’s Ratio but had also completely forgotten the author and title of the book.

    Now that I know both, a quick search in my Google Reader shows the following:

    Thanks again!

  3. Bill

    The other book to check out is Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking:


    Granted it’s probably close to 1500 pages but it’s the final word (so far at least) on the whys of cooking.