Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Cookbook Learning

Over on Serious Eats, the conversation about 'Learning to Cook' has popped up again.  The question comes from Monica Bhide's post on her blog, A Life of Spice.  In December, Bhide was on Talk of the Nation with Adam Gopnik, discussing his New Yorker piece (November 23, 2009), What's the Recipe?.  The premise of his piece is that you can't learn to cook from a book; following recipes leads to the..."perpetual disappointment of the thing achieved".  Ruth Reichl just weighed in on her blog, here

I have to admit, I have trouble with the basic question.  Learn to cook? Reading comments on Serious Eats, I see people credit a particular book for teaching them to cook.  I can't quite wrap my mind around saying "I learned to cook last month"; to me, learning to cook is a process, one that never really ends.  It's not like learning to drive a stick shift, where there's a clear before (remember the lurches and grinding?) and after (that blessed moment you were stuck at a stop sign on a steep San Francisco hill and didn't bat an eyelash).

Obviously, there's a question of degree.  I can pinpoint the moment I learned a language, that delicious morning when I woke up and realized I'd dreamt in Danish (of course, I have no idea when, exactly, I forgot Danish!).  But how fluent was I in?  How well can you play the piano?  I'm sure there are many people who cook dinner for their families quite ably every day, but can't make puff pastry.  Can they cook?  I'd say so.  And then there are people who only attempt to cook for special occasions, dutifully following complex recipes for a bouillabaisse or cassoulet, but never making a simple supper, or learning to feed their family night after night.  Some of those people, I suspect, haven't really 'learned to cook'.  (Best of all, of course, are the people who do both: their dinner invitations are to be treasured!).

I've already written a piece about my kids learning to cook, Teaching the Kids to Cook, on Culinate.  I think the real question is less about learning to cook than about learning to eat, to taste, and especially to share meals.  And that's started early on in our lives.  So in the end, I suspect what I bring to the reading of a cookbook is fundamentally different from what Gopnik or anyone else would bring to the same book. 

What I hope to take from the book is also different.  Gopnik strikes me as being task-oriented, wanting to replicate a Sacher Torte.  To me, that's not really cooking; rather, it suggests an interest in performing.  Or, as Reichl said on her blog, "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."

5 comments:

h. hart said...

This is a really thoughtful contribution to this discussion, and I find that I agree with all of you--of course, Adam perhaps less, but it is true that without years of watching and smelling and tasting at my mother's elbow, I would not have been able to learn later, on my own, how to sift through recipes to find the one with the techniques or proportions that suit the dish I have in mind. Perhaps I am missing the point he made that is causing such ire, but I didn't feel that what he wrote was so very different from what Reichl argues, which is that cooking is a process, continually refining and readjusting, as imperfect and messy and exciting as the life the food sustains--thus, cookbooks cannot possibly be it, cannot possibly contain the whole story, or unlock the ability to be a good cook, any more than a spanish textbook can make you fluent in the subtleties and gorgeous idiosyncracies of the language. But what Adam's article leaves out are the other functions of cookbooks--as inspiration and as an art form, and as a dialogue between people who are excited about the act of cooking.

Giovanna said...

What struck me in Gopnik's piece (and possibly also the radio interview) was the sense that he expected something different from cookbooks than I do. I got the feeling he wanted to be able to replicate the picture of the Sacher Torte, or make a shrimp dish that would satisfy his kids' cravings for chicken strips. The idea that a recipe is a discrete thing, that you can make this item and it fulfills a role.

To me a cookbook is another tool--it can provide so much: other people's palates, helpful hints, new techniques, time travel, romance...I can't quite imagine even wanting to reduce that all to a picture-perfect cake (in the end, I'd prefer it just tasted great) or a cure for a child's picky habits.

And of course, all the information the cookbook brings mixes with everything a particular reader has to add (cooking and tasting experiences)--the more I think about it, the more delightful and wondrous cookbooks seem.

Charles Shere said...

I like this, a lot. You make me realize that a recipe is like a musical score. Some of us read scores silently, just to have the music in our heads; professional cooks can read recipes that way. Most of us read scores by performing them, and I suppose most cooks treat recipes that way. But you can perform for yourself or for an audience (or for a best friend). And some of those who perform for themselves play the same score over and over, hoping to "get it right," never realizing that there isn't any right.

kab said...

Great essay! My first cookbook was one that would most likely send shudders up the spines of most foodies, Betty Crocker's Cookbook for Girls and Boys, but it opened the door to the kitchen when I was a child. Its basic recipes taught me techniques that would be improved when I graduated to more sophisticated tomes, and helped me experience success when even my picky brothers gobbled up my attempts. And I agree with you…cooking for me is a process, one that I practice (nearly) daily and that brings me and, hopefully, those I love a great deal of pleasure!

Giovanna said...

How interesting--I hadn't thought of the idea of recipes being like music scores--I like that.

And KAB, was that the cookbook with the cookies made to look like kids? I used to make eggnog from that book after school quite often. And I think I made a coffee cake from the book as well.

Remember that feeling that the book was full of possibilities?

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