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Overbooked Cook

Oct
22
2007

At last count I had about 125 cookbooks and another 25 or 30 other books related to cooking. I think the first cookbook in my collection was a Christmas gift, The Meats Cookbook from Southern Living magazine. If my memory is correct my mother gave it to me when I was 13 or 14 years old. According to it, rare beef is cooked to an internal temperature of 140 degrees Fahrenheit. I would call that medium and if you let the meat rest (and you should) it’s going to hit medium-well – 145-plus degrees – before it’s finished cooking. I seldom use that particular book these days.
Click to view larger versionI think the first cookbook I ever bought was Cast Iron Cookbook from Nitty Gritty Productions when I was 18 and moved out of my parents’ house. It calls for frying chicken in lard, which is still a good idea although somewhat cholesterol-laden.
My dirty little secret is that I seldom use cookbooks anymore and the last time I bought one was over a year ago. I call this a “dirty little secret” because I love books. My dining room contains all my cooking books. The living room has my Tolkien and Kipling collections as well as the usual assortment of cocktail-table books on (in my case) either food, science fiction, or architecture. My guest bedroom has three large bookcases filled with technical/non-fiction works, and my bedroom hosts my fiction and travel collections. Movers hate me. But although I’d never give up a cookbook I also almost never use one anymore. Collections of recipes are an atavism.
My most recent cookbook is named 2500 Recipes: Everyday to Extraordinary, which a publicity house sent me hoping I’d review it. I flipped through the tome and simply wasn’t interested because it is, in fact, 2500 recipes, no more, no less. Claiming to offer 2500 recipes sounds impressive. For example, the back cover asserts the book contains 50 recipes for marinades. But a quick Google search for “marinade recipe” turns up over two million hits. Even better, the recipes are ranked (roughly) according to popularity. Why should I turn to a book for a marinade recipe?
I seldom follow recipes exactly anyway, what I really want when I look at recipes are ideas on how to cook things I like. I might do a search on “lamb shank” to see what turns up and then assemble a number of ideas to create a dish that appeals to me. Pre-Internet I would have pulled a bunch of cookbooks from my shelves, gathered together all my past issues of Gourmet and Bon Appetit and spent a couple of hours scanning through them. I might have ended up with, at most, half a dozen recipes to cull ideas from. Today I do a search and get over 300,000 hits, including my own recipe for braised lamb shanks sitting in the number three spot. It’s one I developed after just such a search. This is the sort of thing the Internet is perfect for and it makes cookbooks as collections of recipes seem almost useless.
Nevertheless, there are, in fact reasons for using a book. About a year ago I bought a now-out-of-print book on Spanish cuisine named, not so cleverly, Spanish. The author, Pepita Aris, is the Marcella Hazan of Spanish cookery. When I find a particular cuisine interesting and want to know more about it I buy three or four books by the most famous writers on the subject and then spend a couple of weeks studying each book. I do this because I’m trusting the author, who’s been vetted by having acquired a known name, to provide insights into the nature of the cuisine.
Around the same time I bought two books on charcuterie (techniques for preserving meat). It’s a topic that’s long interested me and that I’d finally decided to address. I purchased Bruce Aidells’ Complete Sausage Book and Charcuterie: The Craft of Smoking, Salting, and Curing by Ruhlman and Polcyn. There’s another book I need, Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery by Jane Grigson that I haven’t bought yet.
I read each book cover to cover and, as expected, gained far more than recipes and far more than I could have gotten from the Internet with it’s scattering of a little information here and a little information there. But once I’ve read the Grigson book I don’t anticipate buying another on the subject. I’ll know enough about curing meats to fall back on the Internet for ideas when I want something new.
If I had an ounce of mercy in my heart I’d get rid of 80 percent of my cookbooks the next time I move. But even though I seldom use them, I love having my cookbooks. So the poor guys who get the chore of handling my next move are just going to have to buck up. Maybe I’ll offer them some homemade sausage and biscuits before they start.
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