Is That Cookbook for the Kitchen or the Coffee Table?


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:

2/9/2011 9:48:09 AM

Not a big fan of the Momofuku cookbook, and cookbooks have clearly become coffee table fodder, BUT the notion that all recipes have to be possible for "an accomplished home cook to prepare on a busy weeknight" is precisely the kind of deluded american thinking that brought us industrial food and frozen dinners. Why should everything be available immediately and without meaningful work? Would a gardening book (last year's coffee table porn) be criticized because it calls for a cold frame or because tomatoes just take too long? Like gardening, cooking is a real discipline that takes time and deserves respect. It took most cultures generations to develop the techniques industrial domestic conveniences helped us forget. Most likely it'll take the "accomplished home cook" more than "one busy weeknight " to redevelop those muscles...

2/9/2011 9:40:46 AM

My favorite "cookbook" is was already well-used when it was given to me after I got married. Published in 1959 by Harper and Row, it is called "Cooking Without Recipes" by Helen Worth. It does have some recipes but it mostly tells how to use different food ingredients and how to interchange and substitute them in recipes. A true "cookbook" and not just a "recipe book".

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