Young and Hungry

Can You Learn to Cook from a Cookbook?

bhide cooking

New Yorker scribe Adam Gopnik turned into a one-man El Niño last fall, generating all sorts of ancillary disturbances, when he noted that, in essence, reading a cookbook is a waste of time. You'll never learn to cook from one.

Gopnik explains his position in his own sublime prose (a skill that we can only assume, based on his logic, was handed down from a long line of crook-handed quill-and-ink pushers who painstakingly demonstrated the impossible to Gopnik: how to generate life and meaning and nuance from the symbols on a page; I'm sure he never just read anyone and absorbed their brilliance on some atomic level). Sorry, here's Gopnik:

The space between learning the facts about how something is done and learning how to do it always turns out to be large, at times immense. What kids make depends on what moms know: skills, implicit knowledge, inherited craft, buried assumptions, finger know-how that no recipe can sum up. The recipe is a blueprint but also a red herring, a way to do something and a false summing up of a living process that can be handed on only by experience, a knack posing as a knowledge. We say “What’s the recipe?” when we mean “How do you do it?” And though we want the answer to be “Like this!” the honest answer is “Be me!” “What’s the recipe?” you ask the weary pro chef, and he gives you a weary-pro-chef look, since the recipe is the totality of the activity, the real work. The recipe is to spend your life cooking.

As you can imagine, Gopnik barely finished his essay before getting smacked by a brigade of angry spatulas. Two of the more prominent utensil twirlers have been cookbook writers; one is a friend of Y&H's, Monica Bhide, who rushed to the defense of cookbook authors everywhere on her own blog:

Well, watching someone riding a bike wont teach you how to ride. Getting on a bike will. And there in lies the point: to cook, whether by watching or by reading, will only happen when you perform the actual act – hold knife, cut vegetables, heat stove, etc. There are many types of cookbooks out there that help a reader try to accomplish this mission. The basic books, like Mark Bittman’s are where the intent is to teach the user fundamentals: how to boil an egg, what to do with asparagus, what exactly rhubarb tastes like. And from there we go up to books on techniques that focus on the art of doing one thing be it steaming or frying or baking. There are books that are full of essays and stories along with recipes. These document life more than just the food, many times.

Bhide even mixed it up with Gopnik on NPR's Talk of the Nation. Others soon chimed in, including another food writer and former Gourmet recipe pusher, Ruth Reichl, who thinks Gopnik missed the point of cooking from books:

Gopnik seems to cook for himself; for him it is an act of wanting. I cook for other people, and to me, cooking is an act of giving. When I leaf through cookbooks or magazines I am imagining all the people who will be sitting around my table, and I am looking for food that will make them happy.

Personally, I think there's truth on all sides of the argument. So many cookbooks do offer false hope that you can cook like Michel Richard or Thomas Keller. You can't. You likely never will. These chefs have, as Gopnik noted, spent their lives devoted to the craft and art of cooking. You cannot ever hope to reach their heights by cracking open their cookbooks and poking around the kitchen for a few hours on Saturday afternoon. But their books can inspire you (much like the novel writers who no doubt inspired Gopnik along the way).

But there are other complicating factors: Cookbooks are flawed by their very nature, which, as Gopnik suggests, is a sorry distillation of a chef's lifetime of experience into a deceiving five-step process. But cookbooks are also flawed in that cookbook editors are constantly dumbing them down for the widest possible audience, simplifying steps and making them approachable when, in fact, serious home cooks (like Gopnik) desire more information, not less. They want to understand, precisely, the difference between the hard ball and soft ball stages of cooked sugar. They want to feel it on their fingertips.

Which is why cookbooks are not pure instruments of instruction. They are guide books, road maps. Just because you have a blueprint doesn't mean you can build a house. This is where I side with Bhide and Reichl: Cooking is a process. You never learn by simply reading. You learn by reading and then doing...and then failing...and then calling someone who knows more than you...and then re-reading the cookbook and understanding something you didn't before...and then trying the recipe again.

That, believe it or not, is the joy of cooking.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

Comments

  1. #1

    Amen! It's the learned repetition that teaches. How many times did I have to add cornstarch to hot liquid and end with a clumpy mess before I learned to add it to cold water first before heating? Not until Queen Martha Stewart taught me to.

  2. Kelly in the Big Blind
    #2

    The cook book is just part of the equation. Your last paragraph sums it up nicely.

  3. #3

    I like your position, which is a little more balanced than Gopnicks (although I LOVED his essay). For most home cooks, we learn to cook from a variety of channels - cook books, TV shows, food articles, and doing it ourselves. To say that it's impossible to learn anything from cookbooks is taking it too far.

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