18 Oct What is Cooking?
I had planned on ignoring the whole New York Times article with its provocative title “Cooking Isn’t Creative, and It Isn’t Easy.” Alex Halberstadt’s article profiles Christopher Kimball and gives a behind-the-scene look at Cook’s Illustrated. I was ignoring it. I had my La-La-La-I-Can’t-Hear-You fingers stuffed firmly in my ears, and was avoiding the Food feed on Google News.
Then Camilla Saulsbury posted about it on her Facebook page. I pulled my fingers out of my ears long enough to type a smart alec comment. But the damage was done. With my newly freed fingers, I clicked the link. I skimmed the article. I hit the roof.
I found myself shouting at the monitor. “They don’t call it the Culinary ARTS for nothing!” And “Shortbread. How hard can it be?!” Momentarily, I’d calm down to reassure the cat I wasn’t choking to death, and then Halberstadt would quote Kimball again, and I’d be all, “Bowties are for pasta!” Yeah, I can get petty. I’m not proud of it, but there you are.
Just as I resolved to walk away from the issue, my cousin emailed me a link to the article in question. She began her email with “Dear One,” and I knew I not only had to read, not skim, the whole (very, very long) article, I had to think about it.
What do I think? Despite my snarky comment, I don’t care about Kimball’s attire. If he gets his kicks channelling his inner Les Nessman more power to him. I’m writing this is a green bathrobe covered in orange cat hair. Clothes don’t make the man. But the recipes make the magazine. And this article explained a lot.
I love and loathe Cook’s Illustrated. I subscribe because I always learn something about technique. Their explanations are clear and to the point. They look at a recipe from every possible angle. And sometimes that brings a revelation. I also trust their thorough product reviews. If a blender survives Cook’s Illustrated Boot Camp it’s going to have a fighting chance in my accident-riddled kitchen. And their recipes? Reliable. Solid. Safe. Or should I say “bullet-proof.”
But me? I like a little risk. These kevlar-coated recipes rarely inspire me to rush to the market or sharpen my knives.
And how could they? Kimball’s approach is a classic case of over-thinking it. After three attempts at biscotti I was foaming at the mouth and hurling crumbs about the room. Part of my frustration came from knowing I couldn’t trust my judgement on the final results. I had Recipe Fatigue. (I’m not sure this is an actual medical condition, but after tasting anything long enough, you lose your prespective. You need to walk away, do something else, let the idea percolate while your tastebuds recover.) But at Cook’s Illustrated a recipe gets tested and retested. To death. And something dies with it along the way.
Sure, I want a recipe to work, but maybe this relentless pursuit of perfection, this seeking the one best way, means you miss the joy of improvisation that can lead to new discoveries? Maybe by taking apart the process and examining the parts, the beautiful whole is irrevocably lost? And perhaps, while the testers are comparing notes, Cooking’s unmeasurable, unobservable artistry quietly slips out the back in search of a more welcoming refuge. My door is open.
I know this condenses an extremely long and nuanced article into a four soundbites, and that Halberstadt cherry-picked the Kimball quotes for effect, but these just beg a reply.
“Cooking isn’t creative, and it isn’t easy. It’s serious, and it’s hard to do well, just as everything worth doing is damn hard.” When I was in Grade 3 I used to rush home from school to bake a batch of cookies, unsupervised, from scratch. I thought it was fun. It brought me joy. And my cookies were damned good. It wasn’t damned hard. It simply required paying attention. But then so does walking down the street. If Kimball thinks cooking is hard, how would he describe driving a car?
“I hate the idea that cooking should be a celebration or a party.” Noted. Striking Christopher Kimball off my guest list. Replacing him with Ina Garten.
“Cooking is about putting food on the table night after night, and there isn’t anything glamorous about it.” Sometimes it is. Sure, there are days when I don’t feel like cooking and I welcome a bullet-proof dinner. But sometimes it’s about coming home from the Farmers’ Market with a really gorgeous basket of peaches or gigantic head of romanesco, and figuring out what you want to do with it — all by yourself.
“Disaster in the kitchen puts the reader at ease, and that’s why we start our recipes with it.” Okay, Kimball. Now you’re talking. Pour me a scotch and we’ll swap war stories.
What’s your take on cooking? An art? A science? Or best when these two worlds meet?