Cookbooks and Cooking

In today’s New York Times, Kim Severson writes that “Written Recipes Undergo a Makeover” which argues that in today’s modern cookbooks “instructions have shifted away from formulas toward deeper explanations of technique, offering context and lyricism in ways Fannie Farmer could not have imagined . . . they teach the reader to be a more intuitive cook, a cultural change that reflects a nation that is cooking better than it has in decades.”  (Editor’s Note, I will not embed any more links to New York Times articles, since readers inform me that you need to be a paid subscriber to open some of the links.)

While this is a well-balanced article – only if you read the entire article – the underlying proposition is that today’s modern cook requires and receives more information to help them become a “more intuitive chef.”  Indeed, Ms. Severson argues that today’s cookbooks are focused on stories that relate food to use and cooking techniques that allow home chefs to become more creative.

Does Ms. Severson’s proposition hold water?  Maybe, but observing popular cooking on TV or YouTube doesn’t make for inspired cooking anymore than learning the theory of brick-laying makes you a better bricklayer.   Consistently great cooking requires practice to refine techniques and to help the “inspired” chef think outside the box.

I’ll site just a few examples from my experience to illustrate the point:

  • I once watched Martha Stewart prepare a paella on one of her TV programs.  While I might call her preparation a fish and chicken rice stew, it lacked the subtlety of an authentic paella.    In short, it was a disaster and you didn’t need to taste it to know why.  Sure, there are hundreds of instructional videos on YouTube on how to make paella, but does anything taste like an authentic paella that Gwyneth Paltrow and Mario Batali had prepared at La Matandeta?:

  • I once watched an Iron Chef some years ago in which popular TV cooks, Giada De Laurentiis and Rachael Ray, were paired with Mario Batali and Bobby Flay.  To refer to Giada and Rachael as anymore than sous chefs in this exhibition would be an insult to most any serious chef.  And yet, these two  “inspired” chefs each have their own cooking program on TV and now teach technique to others.  Doesn’t make sense to me!
  • When I worked in the stationery industry, we would often buy “cookbooks” at the Gift Show in New York for resale at Christmas.  Sadly, we needed to judge the book by its cover (the title and sometimes the author), since the staged food photography and the recipes hadn’t yet been written.  And yet, these are the cookbooks from which future generations of chefs will draw their inspiration.  I think not!!

Having cooked for well over 50 years, I am not averse to inspiration but feel that every home chef that truly wants to feel more confident in the kitchen needs to practice, practice and practice.  Learning from “true” cooking experts is far better than watching popular TV programs.   For instance, my sister-in-law practiced making bread daily for well over 2 years, before she decided she had become proficient.  She insists that she is still learning.  Mind you, bread has only four ingredients:  flour, water, salt and a touch of yeast.

In any event, I have prepared a list of my 5 favorite cookbooks for those who want to jump-start the learning process.  For those interested in the “whys” of cooking, I would strongly recommend a subscription to Cook’s Illustrated.  (Editor’s Note:  Don’t bother with the cookbooks, but the bi-monthly magazine is very good!)

Libraries and the Kindle

While browsing through the Greenwich library last week, I came across a remarkable book by Richard C. Morais entitled The Hundred-Foot Journey: A Novel.   Mr. Morais is an American born in Portugal and raised in Switzerland.  He has  lived most of his life overseas, returning to the U.S. in late 2003. He was stationed in London for 17 years as Forbes’ European Correspondent (1986 to 1989), Senior European Correspondent (1991 to 1998), and European Bureau Chief (1998 to 2003.) 

Mr. Morais traces the evolution of  the book’s main character, Hassan Haji, a young boy of a pre-WW2 Indian family of poor Muslim subsistence growing up in Mumbai.  To quote one reviewer, the book’s theme ” is Hassan’s unrelenting, heroic pursuit of his destiny, overcoming some very heavy odds.  His journey culminates many decades later when the restaurant he created in Paris achieved the recognition and honor of earning 3 Stars. We are given a front row seat to his process of both life-discovery, and of his personal self-discovery, emergence and crystallization as a very wise and compete person and a premier chef.” 

This exquisitely well-written book invokes the smells, artistry and “magic” of  fine cooking and I join others, like Anthony Bourdain and Tom Colicchioof Top Chef fame, in concluding that it is one of the finest novels about food, cooking and dining that has ever been written.  And there is so much more!  Well done Mr. Morais. 

Which brings me to the subject of books and libraries.  I love the Greenwich library and – short of spending an introspective morning or afternoon in a musty book store of used books – I can think of few more enjoyable pass-times than browsing a library.  When I think of books, I think of some of the world’s most beautiful libraries shown below: 

University Club Library, NYC, USA

Admont Abbey Library Austria

Escorial Library Madrid, Spain

Mitchell Library Sydney, Australia

Strahov Technological Hall, Prague, Czech Republic

Now some of friends have  tried to convince me of the the virtues of The Kindle and other digital readers, including one hopeless soul that was actually reading a book on his iPhone.    I think I will stick to books and dream of libraries and let my tech-savvy friends dream of the source of their digital inspiration: 

Bank of Servers

It is reassuring to know that we are evolving as a species.  Oh, and by the way, “save the rain forest” and think Kindle.

Farewell Gourmet: You will be missed

A few days ago, we were all sitting in our living room lamenting the demise of Gourmet magazine.  For as long as I can recall – and it goes back far more years than I care to remember – Gourmet magazine has been my trusted companion when seeking to experience the culinary delights of some exotic travel destination.  The news that Conde Nast had decided to suspend its publication cames as a rude surprise.

My husband Rick and I spent almost 15 years in Europe following the food trails so gloriously pioneered by famed photographer Ronny Jacques and legendary food writers such as Mary Frances Fisher. From bistros to 5 star restaurants and from coffee bars to biergartens we followed in the footsteps of Gourmet’s intrepid explorers and never once did we regret our decison.  Gourmet was an education in living more than it was about fine dining.

 While Gourmet may have lost its way in recent years or, perhaps, its readers are no longer so nimble afoot, this magazine has had more  influence on my life that I care to admit.  Lamentably, I have lost my zest for cooking and fine dining as I work around dietary restrictions, likes-and-dislikes and the complicated schedules of both young and old.  A sit-down dinner with candles, fine china,  a three-course meal and,  perhaps, topping it off with a glass of vintage port or brandy is now just a faded memory.

Feeling my angst, Rick’s mother, his sister Alison and our two daughters suggested that we pool our collective resources and put together a Blog where each of us can share our passions about food, dining, travel and most any other subject that tickles our fancy.  GourMay seemed to be an appropriate name for our Blog.  In fact, the May family, extended May family and Gourmet-stricken fans are cordially invited to share their favorite recipes, dining experiences or memories.  We will all be enriched by your contributions.