A cookbook by a true expert
How often is an author able to share true expertise?
Reading through Grace Young’s latest book, “Stir-Frying To The Sky’s Edge,” it’s clear how thoroughly she has mastered the techniques and stories behind her subject. It’s a guidebook as much as a cookbook, where Young set out to show an American audience that stir-frying was more than cooking little bits of food in oil. She saw it as a way to bring food to life – an illustration of “cultural perseverance and healthy, flavorful cooking, of universality and subtle distinction, of the Chinese diaspora and local character.”
When Young’s book tour brought her to Seattle this week, I watched her demonstrate a section of the book – not a recipe, which would have been simple, but the process of seasoning a wok – simple if you know how, daunting if you don’t. A group of writers and cooks watched as Young discussed the appearance and heat levels and sounds that would take the tool from its factory sparkle into its first stages as a rustproof, character-filled, virtually nonstick kitchen mainstay. She was never at a loss answering our curious questions, whether the topic was stir-frying with lard, her research into culinary traditions as unexpected as Chinese-Jamaican or Chinese-Peruvian, the kitchen equipment used in Asian countries versus America, the logistics of taking a wok through airport security.
It felt so unusual, and so refreshing, to hear a master at work; comparable to a longtime university professor who has remained passionate about a given field of research. The afternoon and my subsequent days with the book have made me think about how many non-fiction books in recent years have, instead, focused on the process of discovery rather than the sharing of expertise. They’re not cookbooks, of course, but the “My Year Doing….” genre comes to mind, as do other books that start out with a question and then do (or don’t) end with an answer. Still others are written by relative newcomers to a field, who are excited and intrigued by a topic, but can provide only a personal or otherwise limited take on it. Such books aren’t necessarily bad – I’ve enjoyed my share of them – but seeing Young at work, and reading through her book, was another experience entirely.
Which true experts are writing books in their fields today?
Rebekah Denn blogs at eatallaboutit.com.