What is Cooking?


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?

  • Maggie
    Posted at 18:52h, 18 October Reply

    Perhaps the question is whether cooking is an art or a craft?

    • Charmian Christie
      Posted at 19:40h, 18 October Reply

      Good point. We call bakers and other food artists “artisans”. I just can’t see how anyone can dismiss the creative aspects of cooking.

      • Maggie
        Posted at 08:34h, 19 October Reply

        I like to think I am creative in the kitchen which has led to some really good meals and a few that have ended up in the trash. I appreciate good recipes that work when I don’t feel creative or am not familiar with the dish I am trying to make.

        • Charmian Christie
          Posted at 09:46h, 19 October Reply

          Exactly. Balance is the key. Sometimes you create (with triumphs and less than stellar results) and sometimes you replicate. But to say it’s hard work?

          For me, cooking isn’t hard. The hard part is writing down what I did in a way that someone else can follow.

          Keep cooking!

  • Robin Smart
    Posted at 21:04h, 18 October Reply

    Good Grief!! Mom invented a recipe and won a TV. That is creative. I’ve feed 6, on no notice, from a few scraps of this and that – that were not intended to go together. That took creativity. How about when you have flood, and all the labels come off your tins in storage, and you have to make a meal from what ever is in the the three tins you open? Rhea and I had to do that on the island one year. Creative – YES! Anyone who had to cook on a wood stove had to have the “art” part down too.
    “Nuff said.
    Love you and your recipes.

    • Charmian Christie
      Posted at 09:51h, 19 October Reply

      Oh, cooking from unlabelled food would be a challenge! Especially when you’re at a cottage on a remote island. That’s like Survivor meets Top Chef. There’s a new reality show for you.

      Nuff said, indeed! Thanks for sharing the stories of culinary creativity.

  • Lisa MacColl
    Posted at 09:33h, 19 October Reply

    No one will ever accuse me of being a culinary artist. My food may not be pretty, but it tastes good. Okay, the chocolate truffles I used to make were pretty…and they took 3 freaking days to make and I don’t make them any more. Stress baking is one of the best things I do just for me.

    I follow recipes precisely when I bake. I may omit the nuts or sub cranberries for raisins or omit the salt, but for the most part, I stick to the recipe. However, most of my soups and casseroles are thrown together-sprinkle the herbs across the top until it looks about right. I learned from my aunts and my mom who all grew up on a farm and cooked with what was on hand. The best baker in the family doesn’t own a set of measuring spoons. Her tablespoon is actually a tablespoon…and when she made cookies for my mom’s 80th birthday they had to hide them until the desserts were set out or they would have been gone. My cousins walked out the door to return to Calgary with a double handful of Auntie Beryl’s cookies because it’s one of the things they miss most about being so far from the family.

    I admire the artists. I admire the people who can spin sugar into wine bottles and artfully arrange 3 potatoes and a green bean on a plate. I am borderline addicted to Chopped and the cake decorating challenges. I have more cookbooks than I have space for. But if I’m going out to eat, I don’t want to stop at the drive through on the way home.

    My mom’s butter tarts are a thing of beauty. Perfect crusted top, perfect oozing interior. I should have been on trial for murder for the ones I produced last year, but they tasted good. I baked them too long, and should have sat at mom’s shoulder and watched more closely when I had the chance. I’ll figure them out, and the family ate them anyway. My mom’s best meal was turkey, and I put on a pretty good buzzard if I say so myself. The fanciest we get is honey and dill in the carrots and a cheesecake for dessert. It might now be pretty, but it tastes good and everyone has seconds.

    Just call me part of the proletariat. I can own that. Now please excuse me, I have to throw some apples and butternut squash in the oven to roast and chop some leeks. I’m making soup.

    • Charmian Christie
      Posted at 09:55h, 19 October Reply

      Love it! And I want your Aunt Beryl’s recipe — only I know I could never recreate it since I use measuring spoons.

      One of my favourite cookbook authors is Nigel Slater. His recipes are very imprecise and simple. He loves the ingredients and doesn’t get all “cheffy” on you. If you have good ingredients, a solid grounding in basic techniques and the desire, cooking is creative and not all that hard. Seems like you’re living proof. Thanks for sharing your stories!

    • Maggie
      Posted at 21:06h, 19 October Reply

      Exactly! I think you cook like a lot of us.

  • annie
    Posted at 00:45h, 23 October Reply

    Well, I count myself a pretty decent home cook. And where Cook’s Illustrated cookbooks have failed on more than one occasion (their “improved, easier, faster” scalloped potatoes comes to mind here), Ina’s recipes are actually much more delicious and trustworthy. The pages of her cookbooks are stained with many a use. Not so much CI. Overthunk may indeed be their problem. He looks like a sourpuss, too. So there.

    I’m actually looking forward to getting their latest, but I think there’s room for both science and art in cooking, or in anything that’s interesting to do in life. Without fun and creativity, what’s the point? And why should you not have candlelight and hydrangeas (or whatever your garden or TJ’s offers) on your table, and turn on a CD and invite some friends to celebrate, even if it’s only a pot of bean soup?

    • Charmian Christie
      Posted at 09:47h, 23 October Reply

      Exactly! Science is essential to successful baking/cooking, but once you understand the basics, it frees you up to be as creative as you want. This is food science, not rocket science. Anyone can learn the basics fairly easily if they are motivated.

      I love that your Ina Garten books are stained from use. Finding a cookbook author you trust (and whose palate you share) is a wonderful thing. It’s even better when that author understands that food is more than recipes and invites joy to the table.

      Study after study proves that dining together plays a key role in our social web. Here’s to bean soup, candle light and shared meals.

  • Sharmila
    Posted at 15:55h, 26 October Reply

    I read that article thinking, wow, his ideas on cooking differ from mine on so many counts. I would tend more to agree with you. Still, I couldn’t help but hear my mom in some of his comments. While she is one of the best and most creative cooks I know, she shrugged her shoulders and believed this was no big deal. She is a bit bewildered by how much public talk there is of cooking now. She thinks of it as something to celebrate with, not what the celebration is about. Food was, to her, first and foremost, about feeding her family.
    The fact that Cook’s Illustrated is so popular must mean a lot of people agree with Kimball. I know enough tentative cooks that really need those bullet-proof recipes. I’m all for it if it gets people cooking instead of reaching for a Big Mac.

    • Charmian Christie
      Posted at 21:22h, 27 October Reply

      Oh, good line — food is something to celebrate WITH, not what the celebration is about. So true. I’m going to steal with line.

      I believe there is value in Cook’s Illustrated. It teaches people how to prepare food. I’m not crazy about their rigid approach and that they think theirs is the “best” way, but at least they are getting you into the kitchen — and I’m all about that.

      Great comment. Thanks so much for weighing in!!!

  • Marj Weir
    Posted at 14:33h, 27 October Reply

    I loved this article – on so many levels.
    When we started a restaurant and had a hell of a time figuring out the espresso machine, there were a few that got it and did well after a simple training. But we want ALL to be trained. So we had the coffee expert come in to do training, and he started with what a craft it was, that in Italy, you must work for years before you may have your own shop, etc and it scared the bejeezus out of everyone – after he left no one was good enough. Everyone felt judged. And a few weeks later we got rid of the machine. How to suck the fun out of life.
    I always look at cooking as creative, baking as science. I’ve screwed up many a baking project when trying to wing it with what is on hand, but rarely do I need to throw out a cooking “experiment”.

    • Charmian Christie
      Posted at 21:34h, 27 October Reply

      Oh, I feel your pain. I would have felt judged, too. I believe everyone is good enough to cook. Maybe pulling an espresso is a craft, but years of work?! If everyone took years to hone the craft of cooking, we’d all starve.

      I’m so glad you chose joy over defeat. Sounds like you have a happy and creative kitchen. Bet your customers can taste the difference!

  • Diane
    Posted at 22:13h, 27 October Reply

    I cook “night after night to put food on the table.” I also work 80+ hour weeks and frequently travel for work . I cook almost every night I am home because I find it relaxing, and more importantly grounding. In my stressful life, it allows me a creative outlet. Heck, I love a good spreadsheet and all, but if I wasn’t able to have the fun of cooking I’d get very grumpy and my head might just explode.

    But seriously. The reason I DO fit it into my long weeks is exactly because I find it fun. Cooking isn’t hard either if you know basic rules of food behavior and can follow a recipe.

    As an engineer, I like reading Cook’s, but I don’t cook from it because I find its recipes dull. Serviceable but…dull. And yes, their product reviews are awesome. I do think they are good for people who are new to or scared of cooking, but really – what’s to be scared of? So every now and then a recipe goes sideways. That’s not the end of the world, and you just shrug and say, “well, that one didn’t work well,” and move on.

    • Charmian Christie
      Posted at 09:38h, 28 October Reply

      Love this. It’s very refreshing to hear someone say they put food on the table “night after night” and still find the process creative and fun. I know not everyone feels this way, but there is a satisfaction to home-cooked food that you can’t get from a frozen TV dinner.

      What’s to be scared of? Great question. Some of my most delicious meals resulted from salvaging a less than stellar recipe “gone sideways.”

      Since you’re an engineer, I assume you know about Jeff Potter’s Cooking for Geeks. It’s a great book and highly recommended. Will you find the recipes dull? I can’t say for sure, but you’ll love the writing. Here’s a link to a short review http://christiescorner.com/2010/09/08/educational-books-for-cooks/

      Thanks for weighing in! Happy cooking!

  • khana khazana recipes in urdu
    Posted at 04:10h, 15 February Reply

    An impressive share! I’ve just forwarded this onto a co-worker who has been doing a little research on this. And he actually bought me breakfast simply because I stumbled upon it for him… lol. So let me reword this…. Thank YOU for the meal!! But yeah, thanx for spending some time to discuss this subject here on your blog.

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