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Is That Cookbook for the Kitchen or the Coffee Table?

 by Keith Goetzman

Tags: food, cooking, cookbooks, book publishing, The New Republic, The Art of Eating, media, Keith Goetzman,

Momofuku cookbookCookbooks are hot sellers these days: Americans bought more than 60 million of them in 2010, a 9 percent increase over 2009. But how many people are using them to, you know, cook food? Kelly Alexander at The New Republic has her doubts about some of these glossy tomes, noting that Momofuku whiz-chef David Chang’s new cookbook sometimes leaves out crucial details and routinely aims way over the heads of its audience.

“The recipes are impossible for even an accomplished home cook to prepare on a busy weeknight,” writes Alexander, noting that a recipe for pork buns simply “doesn’t work” and another “calls for the cook to boil a pig’s head and recommends removing the hairy patches with a blowtorch.”

Alexander also singles out for criticism the new cookbook by René Redzepi, a Nordic cuisine hotshot, that calls for a “part food processor, part crock pot” device called the Thermomix that’s unavailable in the United States.

Even foodies who are actually willing to try challenging recipes are noticing that the exotica factor is sometimes just too much. In the latest issue of The Art of Eating, reviewer Jarrett Wrisley is generally complimentary to the $60, 372-page, photograph-packed new cookbook Thai Street Food by David Thompson, but he notes:

Cooking your way through this book could be difficult, especially if you’re far from an Asian market. Occasionally it calls for prep work impossible in the Western kitchen, such as fashioning a barbecue brush out of the leaves of a pandanus plant. And if you use canned coconut milk rather than freshly pressed or if you fail to strain your own tamarind pulp from the dried fruit, you’ll likely disappoint the man behind the words.

Mr. Thompson, prepare to be disappointed.

Ultimately, The New Republic’s Alexander surmises, many of these photo-rich, detail-starved books are more about flaunting one’s gastro-adventurism than anything else:

The popularity of these modern manuals is only tenuously connected to the practice of preparing food for people to eat. It has become common for folks who work in the world of food to brag that they read cookbooks “like novels.” Cookbooks have become objects of kitchen, coffee table, and nightstand décor, in which useful information has been displaced by close-ups of pornographic-looking turnips.

Sources: The New Republic (subscription required), The Art of Eating (article not available online) 

Image by photojenni, licensed under Creative Commons.