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What can you learn from a cookbook?

The New Yorker's Adam Gopnik ignited a virtual flambé of debate on this question.

By Rebekah Denn / February 17, 2010

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Can cookbooks teach people to cook? New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik decided the answer was “no,” and ignited a virtual flambé of debate.

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Gopnik wrote recently that “the first thing a cadet cook learns is that words can become tastes, the second is that a space exists between what the rules promise and what the cook gets. It is partly that the steps between – the melted chocolate’s gleam, the chastened, improved look of the egg yolks mixed with sugar – are often more satisfying than the finished cake. But the trouble also lies in the same good words that got you going. How do you know when a thing “just begins to boil”? How can you be sure that the milk has scorched but not burned? Or touch something too hot to touch, or tell firm peaks from stiff peaks? How do you define “chopped”?

Food writer Monica Bhide, author of the recent cookbook “Modern Spice,” debated Gopnik on the radio, and delved into the issue on her blog. She felt, as I do, that some cookbooks do indeed teach people how to cook – and yet that isn’t always their purpose, or their true benefit.

Readers and other writers further stirred the pot on Bhide’s blog. Author Michael Ruhlman commented that “I think it takes a certain sensibility to teach yourself to cook from books. [Y]ou've got to be very aware. [A]nd you've got to store what you learn each time.” (He took on a similar question in this post last year.) David Leite commented that, when writing his cookbook, "The New Portuguese Table," “My editor and I had long discussions about who the book was geared to. What level of cooking skill would she have? That would determine how much and what type of material to include in a recipe – therefore not all books are created equal. So bottom line, yes. But get thee to a basics cooking class, too.” The discussion continued on Serious Eats, and former Gourmet editor Ruth Reichl took it up on her own blog.

Gopnik’s thoughtful piece covered many aspects of cookbooks, but the whole debate would have resonated more with me a few years back, before my own definition of a cookbook began to change. Andrea Nguyen, for instance, has delightfully demystified Asian dumplings in her new book of the same name – but anyone still struggling with her recipes can watch her step-by-step cooking videos online, or ask her advice via Twitter. How was I convinced to pick up Bhide’s new cookbook, and start avidly following her work? Through a review on a blog. How do I know, as Gopnik asked, how an author is defining “chopped”? Often, these days, it’s through a photograph online. Sure, nothing substitutes for hands-on experience in the kitchen – but what we can read and see gets us closer to that point now than ever before.

Rebekah Denn blogs at eatallaboutit.com.

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