On Cookbooks

February 9, 2010

Rereading Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker piece on cookbooks made me mad all over again. Because it seems to me that in all that overintellectualized hyperventilating he misses the main point. When he asks why we read cookbooks, he assumes that all cooks are like him. And that’s just wrong. Before asking why we read cookbooks, we need to question why we cook in the first place.

He does it in a vain search for perfection. “We reanimate our passions by imagining the possibilities,” he says, “and the act of wanting ends up mattering more than the fact of getting. It’s not the false hope that it will turn out right that makes us go on with our reading but our being resigned to the knowledge that it won’t ever, quite.”

I have to say that this thought is completely alien to me.  What’s “right”?  As far as I’m concerned, there is no such thing. For me one of the great pleasures of cooking is that nothing ever turns out the same way twice. Each time you walk into the kitchen you are setting off on an adventure. What will it be like this time?  Will it make people happy?

And that, to me at least, is the crucial question.  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. When I leaf through cookbooks or magazines I am imagining all the people who will be sitting around my table, and I am looking for food that will make them happy.

In the end it is their pleasure that will take me back to the kitchen for the next experiment. I love the physical act of cooking – the feel of the knife as it slices through the apples, the scent of the onions as they caramelize in butter, the moment when the cake comes sashaying out of the oven. But more than that, I love to watch as everybody takes the first bite, and then, hurriedly, another. And another. 

Right there at the table, as we all sit there eating, I am already imagining how I might improve upon the recipe. Better ingredients? A different technique? We are constantly learning to cook, both by reading cookbooks and by cooking. But the very first lesson for every cook is this: no recipe is ever perfect. That’s the point.  It’s only a meal, and there’s always the next time.

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2 Comments

  • It is the generosity of cooking that brings to me the greatest joy! Nothing pleases me more than seeing the faces of people gathered around my table enjoying the gift that I have made for them. That’s my paycheck.

  • Sue Yu says:

    My reason is more basic: for sustenance, and to have a better result than eating out – less grease and sugar. I’m fortunate the husband eats whatever is in front of him. He startled me the other night when he exclaimed over a yam/lime/coconut soup, and asked when we were going to eat it again.
    But, why do we read cookbooks? I’ve been cooking for 40+ years, so I like to read the back story of a recipe from Ismail Merchant or MFK Fisher or whoever. That inspires me – perhaps not to make the recipe, but to cook and eat something good or even great.

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