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."