On the Pleasures of Reading Recipes

Bee Wilson, writing in The New Yorker, on the pleasures of reading recipes:

Recipe readers are always talking about how cookbooks are like novels, and there’s a clue here to how we actually read them. Like a short story, a good recipe can put us in a delightful trance. The Oxford English Dictionary defines fiction as literature “concerned with the narration of imaginary events.” This is what recipes are: stories of pretend meals. Don’t be fooled by the fact that they are written in the imperative tense (pick the basil leaves, peel the onion). Yes, you might do that tomorrow, but right now, you are doing something else. As you read, your head drowsily on the pillow, there is no onion, but you watch yourself peel it in your mind’s eye, tugging off the papery skin and noting with satisfaction that you have not damaged the layers underneath.

Wilson writes the piece after reading William Sitwell’s A History of Food in 100 Recipes. Wilson continues:

My favorite recipe was No. 65, “Creamed Mushrooms,” taken from “The International Jewish Cookbook,” by Florence Kreisler Greenbaum (1919). The recipe itself is for mushrooms simmered in a béchamel sauce with “a gill of cream” added. “Cooked like this,” Greenbaum tells us, “mushrooms have more nutritive value than beef.” Sitwell uses the recipe as a springboard into a discussion of the pop-up toaster (invented by Charles Strite in the same year as Greenbaum’s cookbook), and the “frantic and fiercely fought battles” driving rival patents for toast-making. Finally, he ponders “the Cat and the Buttered Toast Theory.” Buttered toast is notorious for landing buttered-side down. Likewise, it is said that a cat “if dropped, always lands on its feet.” So, Sitwell asks, “what happens if you tie a slice of buttered toast to the cat’s back? When the cat is dropped, will the two opposing forces of butter and feet cause the cat to hover?”

Indeed,

[B]eing asked to read recipes for their own sake, rather than with a view to cooking, gives a clearer sense of how they stimulate our imaginations. The vast majority of the recipes we read are hypothetical.

Read the rest here.

The Baguette Police in France

An intriguing piece on Bloomberg about how rule-heavy the country of France is. There are rules for determining the height of sidewalk,  to the composition of the concrete used for construction, to the length of baguettes that can be sold at boulangeries:

A French baguette has to measure between 21.6 inches and 25.6 inches, or between 1.8 and 2.1 feet. Civil servants are required to check how windows open and close in the nation’s public buildings.

The 400,000 norms that go to make France France — many of them “absurd” — cost the state more than 500 million euros ($640 million) to implement and need to be reviewed to stop them strangulating the country, a 116-page report said this week.

All of this scrutiny adds up to a big cost:

Rules including those that ensure hotel stairs are bi- colored and that four-year-old children’s public school lunch has the protein equivalent of half an egg and two chicken nuggets have cost France more than 2 billion euros between 2008 and 2011, with more than 700 million euros just for 2011, according to the report.

More here.

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(via Chris Peacock)

Modernist Cuisine, or the Art and Science of Cooking

Earlier this year, Modernist Cuisine was published, much to the fanfare of those who love to cook (and design aficionados). With a list price of $625 (though you can buy it on Amazon for the bargain price of $450), this six-volume, 2,400 page set reveals the art and science of cooking.

Last month, one of the authors of the book, Nathan Myhrvold (CEO and a founder of Intellectual Ventures, a firm dedicated to creating and investing in inventions) sat down with Edge.org and explained the premise of the book, who would want to read it, and offered a few thoughts on the publishing industry.

Cooking obeys the laws of physics, in particular chemistry. Yet it is quite possible to cook without understanding it. You can cook better if you do understand what is going on, particularly if you want to deviate from the ways that people have cooked before. If you want to follow a recipe exactly, slavishly, what the hell, you can do it without understanding it. As a rote automaton, you can say, “yes, I mixed this, I cook at this temperature” and so forth. But if you want to do something really different, if you want to go color outside the lines, if you want to go outside of the recipe, it helps if you have some intuition as to how things work.

For this book, we set out to describe the science of cooking — and do so in a very visual way. Other people like Harold McGee, in 1984, wrote a book called On Food and Cooking, which is a seminal work that started a whole trend of people explaining the science of cooking to both average people and chefs. Therefore we were not the first, but we decided that we would have a more visual description. We would first explain how traditional cooking actually works and then use that as a springboard to talk about more modern cooking techniques and how you can use them.

Not only have we written a book, but we have written a paper-based book — we don’t have an electronic edition. There are a couple of reasons for that. The first is that every task should have the best appropriate technology deployed behind it. If you want to deploy large, beautiful, high-resolution pictures to people in the world of cooking, there is no better platform in 2011 than a paper book.

This is an interesting perspective on the book. The mindset for publishing this book is similar to Steve Jobs’s thought process behind his products (When asked how much market research Apple did for the iPad, Jobs boldly answered: “None. It’s not the customers’ jobs to know what they want.”). Anyway, Myhrvold explains:

I’m not sure actually who is going to buy and read the book. We’ve created this without focus groups. There are two fundamental approaches you can take to designing a book or any product for that matter. You can run all kinds of focus groups and do market research and ask yourself, “what do people want?” There are a lot of very successful products that are made that way. Or you can say, “I’m going to follow my own curiosity and vision and make the book that I would love to have and hope someone agrees.” That is the algorithm that we took for this book.

On the remarkable effort to get this book completed:

At peak we had 36 people full time working on the book. We had about 18 for a period of 3.5 years overall. Now, that is wonderful and it has some issues. The wonderful part is that you benefit from everybody’s knowledge and you get pushed in ways that you wouldn’t have gotten pushed otherwise. There are lot of things where I would have said, “oh, forget it, we don’t need to do that,” but somebody else got excited about it and by the time I realized it, we had already done it.

The bad part is you have to negotiate things. You have to make decisions as a team. Somebody has to be Solomon and cut the baby sometimes and say, yes, that is enough. You may think that we didn’t have very many “No” decisions given that we have 2,400 pages. But in fact there was a ton of stuff we left out because I didn’t want to have 24,000 pages. Running a book project as a team is unusual and of course, it’s unheard of for novels.

On comparing publishing to various restaurants:

Producing the book is different. The world of publishing has been so oriented around inexpensive books, which is wonderful in many ways. It’s great that the world is focused on cheap things that you can sell to lots of people. But image a world of restaurants where the only restaurants were chain restaurants that were in malls, where Ruth’s Chris was the most high-end restaurant in the country? Not that Ruth’s Chris is bad. I go there and it’s a great thing. But Ruth’s Chris and PF Chang’s are not the sum total of the restaurant world.

But publishing executives want their books to be at best Ruth’s Chris. In fact, they would really prefer the Cheesecake Factory. So cookbooks are all made to be the Cheesecake Factory of restaurants. The Cheesecake Factory is great, I am not denigrating it. But it is wonderful that there is an El Bulli, that there is a Per Se, there is a Le Bernardin, a Daniel, that there’s a Momofuku, that there’s a variety of restaurants that in their own way, some very high end, some not particular expensive or high end, but it’s that cultural richness that makes the world of food fantastic.

I haven’t bought the book (nor can I afford to), but I find the purpose behind this book fascinating. Do read the whole conversation at Edge.org.