As of this review, I officially declare my dislike of books that blend stories and recipes. But, say you, you liked this one, didn’t you? Yes, I did, but what I liked in The Best Cook in the World: Tales from My Momma’s Table was not so much the recipes, but rather the fascinating story of the author’s family, starting with his great grandfather, who had had to exile himself out of state because the law was after him — but returned to teach his daughter in law the basics of cooking. The author’s mother is a central character, as are her beliefs that sorting beans require a child-free kitchen, microwave ovens are the work of the devil, and onions need to be cooked with a light hand so as not to bruise them (I agree with this last one!).
Along the way we hear of cows mysteriously falling to their deaths (conveniently for people who need meat), more than one shooting, feeding train-riding hoboes from a version of stone soup, and incredible care lavished on food made from the simplest and cheapest ingredients. Of course, the cooking occurs without modern conveniences so that the first step is to chop the wood needed to heat the stove. We have it so easy.
Don’t expect great literary style, clever construction, or deep philosophy of like in My American Dream: A Life of Love, Family, and Food. What you will find is a great story of a Communist country refugee (from the Istrian peninsula of Italy, which was annexed by Yugoslavia after WWII) who found great success in the US as an Italian restaurateur and TV chef. The best parts of the story are when she describes her childhood experience of moving first to a refugee camp and then to New York. An intriguing personal story, especially at a time when refugees are not always welcome.
That innocuous can of baking powder in your kitchen cabinet comes from a long line of chemists (understandably) and also schemers and corporate villains who made consumers believe their competitors sold poison and in the process changed the way home cooks baked. Baking Powder Wars: The Cutthroat Food Fight that Revolutionized Cooking tells all about it, in often excruciating detail.
I think this may be the first cookbook reviewed on FT Books, but The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science is not really a cookbook, or is a lot more than a cookbook, depending on how you look at it. The author, the descendant of a family of scientists, decided mid-way through his undergraduate career at MIT that cooking was a better fit for him than working in a biology lab, and the book revels in experiments with classic cooking principles, along with many recipes but surprisingly few for 900 pages. If you’ve ever wondered why hard-boiled eggs are sometimes difficult to peel, whether the sine function is useful to cut meat, and how salt matters for cooking beans, this is the book for you, regardless of the recipes themselves. My only puzzlement is that the author fails to cover desserts. That’s a horrible omission, or perhaps, volume II.
There is much to love, and much humor, in An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace, a collection of essays about cooking whose first chapter is entitled “how to boil water”. There are recipes strewn throughout the book but the general message is that cooking can be done without slavishly following recipes and by carefully using excellent ingredients without ever throwing things away. So far, so good. As the book progresses the advice becomes more esoteric: buying a whole cow and freezing it even with friends, as suggested, doesn’t seem to be a simple undertaking, and saving fish bones until one has two or three pounds of them (to make fish stock) would take me a long time. Economy and grace are great goals, but by the end I also felt that it entailed spending too many waking hours in the kitchen.
I enjoyed The Sorcerer’s Apprentices, which talks about a season working at elBulli, the famous Spanish (or should I say Catalan) restaurant that is (was!) the center of so-called molecular cuisine (explored in Life, On the Line, reviewed earlier in this blog). (I will go on a parentheses diet now.)
The author tells the story of the restaurant though the eyes of the stagiaires, the unpaid, overworked, exploited, in my book, apprentices who make it possible. They are a very international bunch, with some barely speaking Spanish, which turns out to be a big problem, not surprisingly, and their lives are told in what could quickly degenerate in the syrupy athlete portraits we get for the Olympic Games, but somehow the book avoids this tiresome cliche — perhaps because the author is not afraid to show character flaws and planning mishaps or complete absences of planning along with their more glorious adventures. She shows how the fifty chosen few (out of 3000 applicants, to heck with the parentheses diet) are drawn into the obsessive, oppressive machine of the restaurant, expected to function as little more than deft fingers and to not think independently for fear of messing up the system. And get this, they never get to taste the food! Still, it’s an inspiring story of driven and creative cooks, and I’m talking about the stagiaires here. A good summer read.