Our Insatiable Appetite For Cookbooks

Read Adam Gopnik's Article, "What's The Recipe?"

For many, the enjoyment of a good cookbook isn't the end result, it's the reading itself. And even if they never recreate the perfect Coq au Vin, they keep buying more books.

The New Yorker's Adam Gopnik and Modern Spice author Monica Bhide disuss why we love cookbooks.

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts.

Neal Conan is Jacksonville, Florida, today at member station WJCT. We'll catch up with him later this hour.

If you love to cook, you and I may share a bad habit, which is a bottomless appetite for cookbooks - the dog-eared ones from your grandmother and the pristine, gorgeous ones from the fancy super chefs and a whole bunch of them with one spectacular recipe that you swear you will try some day. Maybe your collection is taking over your kitchen. Maybe it's even spilled over onto your coffee table or even maybe your bedside table. But none of that will stop you from buying another cookbook.

New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik can't stop either, and in his latest article he explores what we're looking for when we open up a new one. How about you? Why do you love cookbooks? And what's your favorite? Call us here in Washington - 800-989-8255. Our Email address is talk@npr.org. You could also join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining me from our bureau in New York is the New Yorker's Adam Gopnik. He is a three-time winner of the National Magazine Award for essays and criticism and his most recent article is - �What's the recipe? Our hunger for cookbooks.� Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. ADAM GOPNIK (Staff Writer, New Yorker): Wonderful to be here, Rebecca.

ROBERTS: So, you confess that you do actually read cookbooks in bed. But you say that it's a deferred frustration. Why is that?

Mr. GOPNIK: Well, because the space between what the cookbook promises, what the recipe promises, and what home cooks like us can achieve is always so enormous that you end up with a kind aching sense of the dissolution of the actual. You never make quite the thing that you see.

And, in fact, I think, you get to the point where you have a sort of shortcut - that is, you read the recipe for halibut with vanilla saffron sauce and narcissus bulbs. You imagine yourself failing at having made it and then its finished. Then you have done the work. Cooking is - you know, what you can get out of a recipe is a lot. But so much of doing anything involves a kind of knack, a skill.

My mom was a fabulous cook - is a fabulous cook. And she really taught me how to cook. And if you have a mom around of that kind - I should have my mom - a scientist too. She wasn't just home cooking. But if you have someone around with that kind of skill, that kind of expertise, everything that they sort of do naturally� It's like, you know, the thing that I always point out to people is that good cooks know that when the pan gets too hot, you lift it off the fire, you don't turn down the heat.

Well, that's the kind of knack, that's the kind of skill that you can never really get in the book.

ROBERTS: On the other hand, if the recipe were not for halibut with narcissus bulbs, but something incredibly pedestrian, why would you get the cookbook?

Mr. GOPNIK: Well, that's right. You wouldn't need it. Well, because we all have to begin somewhere. I mean, one of the things that's going on right now, Rebecca, that I write about in that piece in the New Yorker is that we're living in the great age of disaggregation. Everything is getting torn apart - CDs, books, newspapers. You have new stories without newspapers, now, and you have recipes about cookbooks. If you're looking for a recipe for goulash soup, you go online and you get 40 different recipes for goulash soup. So, one of the questions is - what's the cookbook about now that it wasn't about 10 years ago, 20 years ago before that vast disaggregation took place?

ROBERTS: Well, one of the things I would argue is about surprise. I mean, if you're searching online, you're only going to find what you're looking for? If you're looking through a cookbook, you are going to find something you weren't necessarily looking for.

Mr. GOPNIK: That's a very good point. That's true, isn't it? Yes, you know, I was looking through - to do this piece, I've read about 200 new cookbooks and I came upon a wonderful recipe. It was a lot of fun. Well, nothing that work is complete fun. I mean, how is it if you didn't have to do a piece about it, you'd say, wow, that would be exactly what I would like to do. But the moment you've to write a piece about burlesque shows or something, you say, oh, God, I have to go another burlesque show.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GOPNIK: And reading cookbooks, you feel the same way. I found this wonderful recipe for a Greek food - shrimp with feta cheese and that's not something I would normally make at all, and I was inspired to try it - for my kids, of course. The problem is when you have kids that you are cooking for, they basically always want breaded chicken. It's like - you know, it calls like, you know, the cocktail pianist who always gets asked to play �Feelings.� You know, the kids really want breaded chicken with parmesan, so you make them the shrimp with a feta cheese and you work at it. And your wife makes a few encouraging sounds and the kids push it, in a kind of disconsolate way, around the plate.

ROBERTS: Well, the other analogy you use in the piece is that sort of the big iconic cook book of each generation has gone from being a dictionary to an encyclopedia to an anthology to a grammar text.

Mr. GOPNIK: Yes. I think - I really think that - so think about it. When the first great cookbooks at the beginning of the 20th century, things like Escoffier's collection of recipes and they were really dictionaries meant for professional chefs. You couldn't remember how you made tournedos rossini. You looked it up, there were four lines, didn't really tell you how to cook it, but it reminded you what the dish consisted of - dictionary. And then you had books - wonderful books like Julia Child's �Mastering the Art of French Cooking,� which were really encyclopedias of a particular cuisine.

You had those great figures, Julia Child, Marcella Hazan, doing the same thing for Italian cooking, and you felt, if I master this book, I will have mastered the whole thing. It's the premise of that, lovely movie, �Julia & Julie.� And then you had a moment in the 1970s when that seemed sort of too limited, when that passion for just mastery being the French chef or the Italian chef seem limited. And then you had wonderful books like �The New Basics Cookbook,� do you remember that one, the �Silver Palate Cookbook.�

ROBERTS: Yeah, (unintelligible).

Mr. GOPNIK: Right, exactly, where one night you did penne puttanesca, and the next night you did goulash soup, and the next night you did something French, and you could do an Apricot souffle. Every imaginable kind (unintelligible) came together in this anthology-like way. And now we've got, in the hands of someone excellent like Mark Bittman, or the �Cook's Illustrated� people - I don't know if you look at their best recipe books - what it really - grammars, in the old-fashioned sense, that is they try to isolate all the independent elements you need to master: how to saute, how to boil water. Mark Bittman has wonderful patient instructions: you fill the pan, three quarters of the way�

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GOPNIK: �turn the heat to high�

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GOPNIK: �that's you boil the water. And you - if you learn the premises, you'll learn all of those individual elements just the way when you're studying French, you learn the genders and the verbs, and you'll be able to out together complicated sentences. It's a grammatical turn in the history of the cookbook. And you why I think, partly, that is? It's partly because more and more men are having to cook. You have to cook because you get out of college, get married, you're involved with someone, and you discover that women have better things to do than cook, and if you are really hungry, you're going to have to learn to cook for yourself. And I was lucky, but many men don't have the kind of home background in what it is to boil water or saut� a chicken breast or poach an egg.

ROBERTS: Well, you also have - and this may be revealing too much to my house - but if you have the other one person cooks, and the other one cleans up, then you learn to cook pretty quickly.

Mr. GOPNIK: But don't you find - I take it, you're at the cooking end of that.

ROBERTS: Well, not anymore. I thought I had the good deal set until my husband decided to learn to cook.

Mr. GOPNIK: Ah, that's good. Because see, in my experience, the person who draws the cooking end - which actually is the best straw - it's the golden straw, because you get all the praise and you get all the attention and you can yell at people and say, I need it, now. I mean, now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GOPNIK: And then�

ROBERTS: Call me chef.

Mr. GOPNIK: Right, exactly. But the problem is the cleaning up, though, it's supposed to be assigned elsewhere, it never really is�

ROBERTS: Yeah.

Mr. GOPNIK: �because come about 11 o'clock, it's got to be done and the chef lowers himself and becomes the - what the French call the plongeur, the washer.

ROBERTS: We are talking about cookbooks and why we read them with Adam Gopnik. His article in the New Yorker is called, �What's the Recipe: Our hunger for cookbooks.� You can join us at 800-989-8255 or send us Email at talk@npr.org. Tell me what your favorite cookbook is and why. We're also joined here in Studio 3A by Monica Bhide. She writes the weekly online column, �iSPICE� for the Washington Post. She is also the weekly food columnist for aarp.org and she's got a new cookbook called, �Modern Spice: Inspired Indian Flavors for the Contemporary Kitchen.� Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. MONICA BHIDE (Weekly Food Columnist, aarp.org; Author, �Modern Spice: Inspired Indian Flavors for the Contemporary Kitchen�) Well, thank you for having me, although I have to say speaking after Adam is like asking some - a tone-deaf person like to me to sing after Jennifer Hudson.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Well, except you have actually written a cookbook.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: And when you're writing a cookbook - your cookbook, in particular, has recipes and a lot of (unintelligible). You are a writer as well as a cook. Are you - how are you expecting people to use your book?

Ms. BHIDE: That's a really good question. I mean, you guys were talking about why people use cookbooks when they can just go online and find, you know, 40 different recipes. So I'll give you an example.

There's a recipe in my book for rice pudding. It's a recipe that's written simply. I wouldn't say it's a simple recipe because if you don't know how to boil milk, you're in trouble, but the reason people come to that recipe is because it has a beautiful story around it.

You know, I used to love rice pudding as a child, and I met my best friend in Cleveland, and we used to eat rice pudding together all the time. And then she got really, really sick, and I stopping eating. I said a prayer in my heart that until she got better, I would never eat that rice pudding again. I made it for people, but I never ate it.

And then the recipe found a place in the book is because she beat her illness and came back. So, you know, the person I met at a book signing a few days ago told me that she had tried several rice puddings, but she read my story and tried my rice pudding and that it was just a little bit sweeter.

ROBERTS: Now, if someone read the story and decided not to try the rice pudding or even just read your book and looked at the beautiful pictures and decided not to try the recipes, would that hurt your feelings?

Ms. BHIDE: Absolutely not. You know, some of my favorite, favorite books are books I've never cooked from. I mean, I love reading Ruth Reichl's books and her memoirs. They take me to a different place.

You know, I'm the person that Adam describes in his article who's in bed at 11:00 at night reading a cookbook. And there will be books like the beautiful book called "In Memory's Kitchen," about the women in a concentration camp who were documenting their recipes so that they wouldn't lose part of themselves and part of their culture. I read that book. I don't think I'll ever cook from that. It makes me cry every time I read it, but it teaches me the importance of documenting who we are.

ROBERTS: Let's take a call from Laura(ph) in Washougal, Washington. Laura, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

LAURA (Caller): Hello.

ROBERTS: Hi.

LAURA: My favorite cookbook is from a Time-Life series. It's - they have an international series of cookbooks from, like, the '50s or '60s, and when I was a little kid, I wasn't interested in cooking, but I was very interested in anthropology. And it didn't have very many recipes, but it had a lot of pictures of people at the market and farms, and it talked about the way people live and how they eat, as opposed to the recipes. And that's what got me interested in cookbooks. And so now, I have all the cookbooks in that international Time-Life series, and I don't cook from them, but I just like to read them.

And I like to read about people going on mushroom hunts in Japan and, you know, when's the best time in France to pick strawberries. But I do like to look at the pictures, and I have a hundred cookbooks, and I always look at the pictures, and I read the ingredients, and then I close the book, and then I do it my own way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Laura, thank you for your call. She must have a lot of bookshelf space. I found recently that I took the book, some of the books that I never cooked from but that were beautiful, the ones - especially the Fancy Chef Restaurant ones that say things like, start with making your own duck stock, which I think of as fiction, and moved them into the big, fancy living room with the coffee table books. It's a better place for them.

We are talking about cooks and cookbooks and why we read them with Adam Gopnik and Monica Bhide. You can join us at 800-989-8255 or send us email, talk@npr.org. I'm Rebecca Roberts. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERTS: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington. We are talking cookbooks. Few of us will actually make the perfect Boston cream pie, but we gorge on the cookbooks anyway. As Adam Gopnik writes in his New Yorker story, we reanimate our passions by imagining the possibilities, and the act of wanting ends up mattering more than the act of getting.

His article is called "What's the Recipe: Our Hunger for Cookbooks." Also with us is Monica Bhide. Her latest cookbook is "Modern Spice: Inspired Indian Flavors for the Contemporary Kitchen." She also writes a weekly online column, iSPICE, for the Washington Post.

Why do you love cookbooks? Tell us your favorite. The number is 800-989-8255, or email talk@npr.org. And if you love your cookbooks but aren't sure which ones are worth shelling out the dough for, NPR compiled its own list of the year's 10 best cookbooks, from baking to cooking for one. You can find that at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

You, Adam Gopnik, you write that recipes are blueprints, but they're also red herrings. In addition to the really nice turn of phrase there with red and blue, what do you mean by that?

Mr. GOPNIK: Well that on the one hand, you can get a recipe and it is a blueprint for whatever it is you're going to make. It's interesting, you know, listening to Monica talk because one of the things, a good example of this for me is curries. I love curries but I never had any kind of background in the whole mechanics of doing them, and so I'm always struggling with them. So I learned how to make a green curry when we were living abroad in France, and a kind of Thai green curry. And it seemed way too thin to me. So I tried to thicken it up with yogurt and extra coconut milk. And then, when we got back to eat at Thai restaurants in New York City, discovered that that's the way it's supposed to be. It's a very soupy kind of dish.

So on the one hand, it's a blueprint, it tells you how to do it. On the other hand, it can lead you in the wrong direction. And what's interesting, Rebecca, and not, I think, too far-fetched is that that becomes a very powerful metaphor for so many things we do in life.

What in our political life is a recipe? What in it is a cookbook? What is it just you follow the rules of the Constitution and you've got a liberal society? And what has to - can only come out of accumulated knowledge - craft, tradition, culture, the things that are handed down mysteriously from generation to generation? The question of what's the recipe is a question that isn't just restricted to cooking alone, as we try and built liberal societies around the world.

Ms. BHIDE: Really interesting. I would love to tell a story here because I actually teach people how to develop recipes. I develop them for organizations and magazines, but I also teach people. And the example that I like to give them is of my friend, who was nine months pregnant, who called me on the phone and was laughing so hysterically she was crying.

And I said, what happened? And she said, my husband decided to cook and he's following a recipe in the kitchen, you've got to come see what he's doing. And I said, what is he doing? And she said, he's down there in the kitchen and he sliced all these potatoes really thin. He's got them all on the counter and he's standing there frantically waving at them. And she asked him, what are you doing? And he said, well, the recipe said to fan the potatoes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BHIDE: You know, I always tell my students when they're writing directions, go for simplicity in direction. You know, I've been so�

ROBERTS: Because Amelia Badelia(ph) could be following your recipes?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BHIDE: You know, people - you know, Adam said something about, how do you boil water? Would you believe the number of emails that I get from people that say, what is simmer? You know, so when I say it's bubbling up at the top, I'm not trying to be stupid. I'm responding to reader questions on, you know, I never cooked in the kitchen, I've never - you know, I've seen my mother, but that doesn't mean anything. I didn't follow anything. Tell me, what does it mean to simmer? Explain to me, you know, when you say the curry, the oil should separate from the onions, what does that mean? What does it look like? What are my visual clues? So it's really important and�

Mr. GOPNIK: I get the one from my wife sometimes is what does it mean, it says in the recipe warm it until just before it's ready to boil.

ROBERTS: Oh, yeah.

Mr. GOPNIK: There's a real Zen concept, right?

ROBERTS: Right, right, how do you know?

Ms. BHIDE: How do you know? It's exactly - and there is a big distinction between writing a recipe that's simple and simple recipes. An omelet is supposed to be a really simple recipe, and yet you pick up Julia Child's book and there is a six-page recipe on how to cook an omelet. Six pages.

Mr. GOPNIK: An omelet is - I can't - I do lots of things. I can't do a good omelet. An omelet, you're a born omelet-maker. Being - you know, omelet-making is sort of like being able to play the piccolo. You know, you either can do it or you can't.

ROBERTS: Let's take a call from Katie(ph) in Morehead City, North Carolina. Katie, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

KATIE (Caller): Hi, thanks. Wonderful program. I wanted to say I have hundreds and hundreds of cookbooks, not that I ever really cook from any of them, but I feel like I have to buy them for some reason.

My thing is that I have to rip out every recipe in every magazine I come across. If it's in the doctor's office, if it's - I have to buy it, I have to take the recipe out. That's my thing, and I have, like, thousands and thousands and thousands of cut-out or ripped-out pieces of paper in my bedroom just waiting for me to do something with them. Half of them I'll never cook, ever. And they're just sitting there, just collecting dust, saying what are you going to do with me? But I have this obsession. I have to rip the recipe out of a magazine.

Mr. GOPNIK: There is something, isn't there, that's so seductive about a recipe in a magazine. Even when, you know, I'm reading Men's Health, you know, or Men's Fitness, and there'll be a recipe for, you know, poached halibut. And I know how to do that but think, hmm, that looks very good. He looks very strong. I'm going to cut it out.

ROBERTS: Maybe I'll look like him�

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GOPNIK: And put it in my box. It's true. And then you end up with these enormous piles of magazines, which are underneath, which are on the shelf at the bottom, underneath all the cookbooks. It's a horrible obsession.

ROBERTS: We have a bunch of emails and tweets that sort of get to the point that people read cookbooks because of the stories they tell. Purple Phoenix(ph) says: I love my cookbooks because they tell me stories of people from the past who loved to cook just as much as I do today.

We have a tweet from someone recommending "The Settlement Cook Book," first published in the 1800s by the Jewish Settlement House in Milwaukee. And Lee(ph) in Foster City, California, says: I have over 600 cookbooks, not because I use them to cook, per se, but because of the history of the older recipes, the way foods used to be prepared or displayed. I try to find the older cookbooks, which have bits and pieces and hints of ideas from the actual cooks. The ideas are fantastic to read of history in places where I may not travel.

Of course, in some of those older cookbooks, you also end up with, like, recipes for a whole calf's head.

Mr. GOPNIK: Right.

Ms. BHIDE: Not happening in my kitchen.

Mr. GOPNIK: In French - you now, you often find in old French cookbooks, there will be recipes for, you know, (unintelligible), and it would begin, you know, you take two whole truffles and you slice them, and then you put them underneath the skin of the chicken, then you bury the chicken in your backyard for a week. That - you know, that seems a little impractical.

Ms. BHIDE: Well, yeah, or like the Indian recipe for making dessert with the cow's colostrum after she gives birth to a calf. Sorry.

Mr. GOPNIK: We do that at our house a lot, you know, breaded chicken and the cow's colostrums. It's a wonderful combination.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GOPNIK: But you know, something that Laura, you know, your caller before was saying that I think is true, and that is that I love that Time-Life series, too, "Foods of the World" from the 1960s.

Ms. BHIDE: Yeah, it's excellent.

Mr. GOPNIK: It's a fabulous series. I just found an old edition of it in a Pittsburgh secondhand bookstore. And part of the thing is every cookbook reflects its time, the way everything we do reflects the time. And so those books have all the kind of global optimism of the 1960s imprinted in them, just the way so many of the new cookbooks have the kind of the angst and memoir confessional urge that you find in so much of the literature of our time.

I was reading one of them by a wonderful young Greek chef who talks about the first time his father slit the throat of a lamb in front of him and the blood, the hot blood came spurting out all over him. And (unintelligible), but nonetheless, that's part of the sensibility of our time. And there's no better way to enter harmlessly and happily into the sensibility of the time than through its recipes.

Ms. BHIDE: And even now, Adam, we're seeing it so much. I get a ton of cookbooks to review and I'm looking at all the ones that are coming in now and they're all about how to be frugal.

Mr. GOPNIK: Is that right, really?

Ms. BHIDE: Yeah, 75 bucks or less for an entire family of four. You know, it's - everything is reflected in the way books are being created. I think that's a really good point.

ROBERTS: Let's hear from Helen(ph) in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Helen, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

HELEN (Caller): Hi, Adam, this is Helen Wilson(ph) in Wellesley.

Mr. GOPNIK: Hey, Helen.

HELEN: I first read a cookbook as a novel when a friend gave me the paperback edition of Elizabeth David's(ph) five Mediterranean - you know, recipes of Provence, the Mediterranean, Italy. And a lot of those recipes are very similar. They'll be doing things with tomatoes and olive oil and so on and so forth. There are tiny shifts within them, and from reading them without following a lot of them, I got the whole culture, sitting in a freezing loft in New York when, you know, I was in my 20s and 30s.

I wanted to ask you, to change the subject, if you had done a comparison of the newer version of "Joy of Cooking" and the one that came before it because I find the differences there are very, very interesting. For example, the older one has everything you want to know about canning, which I do a lot of, and the newer one doesn't even go there and has a whole new set of recipes, not all of which I find very satisfactory.

I want to say one more thing. Adam, you can do an omelet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HELEN: Recently, I was where you are, and I'm older than you, we know that. And recently I started keeping chickens, and I had to learn. And you have to do it every day, like practicing an instrument, and all of a sudden, boom, it happens.

ROBERTS: Helen, thank you so much. Well, there's some words of encouragement.

Mr. GOPNIK: Helen, I should add, is an extraordinary painter. So she has that dexterity in her hands. You know, it's interesting about Elizabeth David. One of the great blessings of the literature of food in the 20th century is that there were these two amazing women, Elizabeth David in England, and M.F.K. Fisher, Mary Fisher, here in America, remarkably kind of parallel careers.

And they both brought - Elizabeth David brought the cooking of the Mediterranean to Italy, and Mary Fisher brought the cooking of France to America, not just as little neatly nuggets of recipes in a food, but as a whole culture, as a whole literature. And I think that food writing, writing about the art of eating, would be vastly impoverished if we didn't have these two extraordinary parallel women bring it to us. And they remain, I think, touchstones for all of us who love to write about our experience as eaters.

ROBERTS: Let's here from Dov(ph)in Louisville, Colorado. Welcome to the program.

DOV (Caller): Thank you.

ROBERTS: What's your favorite cookbook?

DOV: My favorite cookbook is �The Flavor Bible.� And I think it is not great for everybody.

ROBERTS: �Cause it has no recipes in it.

DOV: Exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DOV: I mean - but I think it is good for people who spent some time cooking, who understand the basics, the basic techniques but aren't quite sure just how to include certain ingredients and exclude others. And I think it allows for a lot of creativity, sort of touching on what Adam was saying earlier about recipes being sort of like a blueprint. And it really gives you the opportunity to create your own.

ROBERTS: Thanks for that suggestion.

Mr. GOPNIK: Well, it's an example of...

ROBERTS: Yes, �The Flavor Bible� is interesting �cause it's...

Mr. GOPNIK: Yeah.

ROBERTS: ...just about taste.

Mr. GOPNIK: Right. It's an example of another kind of a grammatical turn, the grammatical cookbook we were talking about. The idea there is instead of giving you a recipe, it gives you these kinds of clusters of flavors and ways you could put them together. I always fail at that. This Thanksgiving, since I love the idea, I'll do a saffron cinnamon kind of curry gravy for the turkey. And people made that play, mm, delicious kind of sound as they tasted it.

The thing is - the truth is about cooking is that though we compare it to the other arts and think, well, I'll be the abstract expressionist of gravy, the reality is that food precedes - there's a reason why the recipes are the recipes they are, however limited they may be as models of how to do it. And that is that they're mostly tried and true approaches to what works and what doesn't.

Ms. BHIDE: I think that it's very important also to understand your ingredients. And, you know, if you know your ingredients, you understand the herbs and spices, you'll be great at following �The Flavor Bible,� �cause you understand the basics. I get emails from readers who use cayenne instead of paprika all over their quiche and then they're screaming, you know�

ROBERTS: Just like red pepper.

Ms. BHIDE: The heat level is a little�

Mr. GOPNIK: That's a bad substitution.

Ms. BHIDE: ...you know, a little different. Or people who will call me and say, you know, I'm lactose intolerant, can I use coconut milk? I mean, I get that all the time. So you have to know your ingredients and know how to behave, and then you can, I think, pretty much do anything �cause then you know how they interact with each other. That's - the place where I think �The Flavor Bible� would be awesome.

ROBERTS: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's hear from Linda(ph) in Mesa, Arizona. Linda, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

LINDA (Caller): Hi. Thank you so much. Hey, I wanted to tell you my favorite cookbook author is Nick Malgieri. I think that's right, Nick Malgieri, who wrote �How to Bake� and �Chocolate.� And I love baking. And I came from parents who both worked, growing up in the �60s and �70s. And we ate out every single meal.

And nobody cooked in my family. I had an older sister. And for me to learn how to cook is a great sense of pride. And I don't tell everybody that because I didn't have a grandmother who cooked. My mother was an engineer and she never ever cooked. And everybody was very busy, so I just love this discussion. It's a personal discussion.

I think everybody else from the world had parents who, you know, taught them everything in the kitchen and I didn't. And yet, here I am and I'm very proud to know how to cook. And I love - and I'm like Lee, your tweeter, I have 300 cookbooks easily and I got to sleep reading them at night just to take me away from my day.

ROBERTS: Linda, thank you so much for your call.

Mr. GOPNIK: You know, baking is a precise art. Monica, don't you agree that baking is the one place where you have minimal room for improvisation? You�

Ms. BHIDE: See, I was really hoping you wouldn't go there because I'm an engineer and I cannot bake to save my life.

Mr. GOPNIK: I'm a non-engineer and that's the one thing that I can't handle. You know, that - it just doesn't - and then, of course, everybody in the course of their baking life discovers the significant difference between baking powder and baking soda.

Ms. BHIDE: Oh, yeah, been there, done that. Mm-hmm.

Mr. GOPNIK: Yeah, everybody.

Ms. BHIDE: No, I can't bake. I was trying to make sugar cookies last week for my kids and my two-and-a-half-year-old came up to me, tugged at my shirt and said, it's going to be okay, Mama.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BHIDE: I mean, I'm bad.

ROBERTS: We have a tweet from Mindly(ph). It says: I love cookbooks because they make me think I can cook, which sort of encapsulates this whole aspirational idea of cooking.

Ms. BHIDE: Yeah. But, you know, when we say aspirational�

Mr. GOPNIK: I'm always a little bit perturbed when people say, oh, it's like pornography, because - to be a little indelicate now, pornography, the reading and the action and the achievement, the accomplishment, shall we say, are all the same thing. With cookbooks and reading recipes, there's a genuine sort of internalized desire to do the generous thing, to give it, to make it, to produce it even with the equally internalized knowledge that you'll never do it quite well enough.

ROBERTS: Well, but there is that whole sort of celebrity chef cookbook thing where you imagine yourself in their lives just by reading their recipes.

Mr. GOPNIK: Yes, I guess that's true. I mean, I always find that the celebrity cookbooks or the big chef, the big-name chef cookbooks tend to be intimidating. Although what's interesting is, is that now more and more of them, this speaks to something Monica was talking about too, so many of the books I looked at this year were by big-name, big restaurant chefs, but it's their at-home cooking.

Ms. BHIDE: Cooking at home, that's right.

Mr. GOPNIK: Thomas Keller, the master of the 17-course meal with red volcanic salt, is done this book of, you know, how to do a hamburger, how to do chicken cacciatore, the simplest kinds of things. So I think that that twist is coming in as well now.

ROBERTS: All right. Favorite cookbook from each of you. Adam?

Mr. GOPNIK: You know, I think my favorite cookbook is Patricia Well's French �Bistro Cooking.� Really simple, but there's nothing in it that's not delicious. And I suppose I could do those things with my eyes shut. If I had a second, it would be Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray's �River Caf� Cookbooks� from England.

ROBERTS: Monica?

Ms. BHIDE: If I have to pick two, the first one I would pick is Julie Sanhi's �Savoring India.� When I first moved to the States, I found that book and it took me home. I was so lonely, I would hug that book at night, I tell you. �Cause I'd look at all the pictures and that's exactly where I wanted to be. And the second one, I would have to say - and disclaimer here, Mark Bittman's done the foreword to my book, but I love his �How to Cook Everything� book. It shows you the basics and it makes you feel really smart in the kitchen.

ROBERTS: Monica Bhide...

Mr. GOPNIK: And tells you how to boil water.

ROBERTS: There you go.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Monica Bhide is a food writer and cookbook author. Her cookbook is called �Modern Spice.� She joined us here in 3A. Thank you so much.

Ms. BHIDE: Thank you very much.

ROBERTS: And Adam Gopnik is a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine. We have a link to his story, �What's the Recipe? Our Hunger for Cookbooks,� at npr.org. Thank you so much for joining us from the New York bureau, Adam.

Mr. GOPNIK: It was wonderful time. Thank you, Rebecca.

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The 10 Best Cookbooks Of 2009

Cover Detail from 'Rose's Heavenly Cakes'

Michael Pollan famously lamented, earlier this year, that cooking has become a spectator sport. Not if this year's cookbooks have anything to do with it! Traditional cuisines get broken down and re-introduced, ingredients that have become familiar only recently get recombined as casually as speed-daters. Meanwhile, the bakers outdid themselves this year, clarifying flavors and streamlining their methods until they fit snugly in anybody's kitchen. This year's cookbook instructions are detailed and sure-handed, so you'll feel confident even taking on those fiddly little jobs you usually leave to your good friend Joe, the Trader.

If you're the kind of person who's believed all along that a book can teach you to do anything, congratulations! You were right. With these books you can, if you want, make your own bread, your own pasta, even your own dumplings. If, on the other hand, you thought you were the kind of person who could never produce a picture-perfect mushroom tart, guess again. That competent soul is only a few well-described pages away.


'Cooking For One' Book Cover

The Pleasures of Cooking for One

The Pleasures of Cooking for One, by Judith Jones, hardcover, 288 pages, Knopf, list price: $27.95

Cooking when you're on your own can be a challenge. Who wants to slave over a single serving? And guess who's going to do the dishes? Often we just solve the problem with takeout or pizza. Thank goodness for Judith Jones! Widowed 13 years ago, the redoubtable magazine editor conclusively demonstrates that the joie de manger belongs to everyone, not just breeders, honeymooners and clans.

There are easy recipes, like Linguine with Smoked Salmon Sauce for nights when you come home late to a dark apartment and a howling cat. And there are slower recipes — even "A Small Cassoulet" — for lazy Saturdays when you are the envy of soccer moms everywhere and have all the time in the world to browse at the farmers market. Jones has a sure sense of portioning, and she provides recipes for leftovers. She labels them "Second Round" or even "Third Round" — mashups that can make too much of a good thing, well, still a good thing. Warning: Jones' lovingly photographed collection of single-serving gratin dishes and adorable lidded casseroles will have you nursing a cookware jones even if you're feeding a family of five. Ask me how I know.


'Asian Dumplings' Book Cover

Asian Dumplings

Asian Dumplings: Mastering Gyoza, Spring Rolls, Samosas, and More, by Andrea Nguyen, hardcover, 240 pages, Ten Speed Press, list price: $30.00

Dumplings are temptation in a wrapper. They're the snack that makes countless well-meaning people ignore diets, cultural restrictions and the limits of their own appetites. This season, dumpling fever has exceeded itself: There's not one but two books devoted to the cult of Something Wrapped in Something Else. This one is for those of you who, no matter whether you're in Chinatown or Little Korea or the corner Nepalese, always order a side of spring rolls or chicken buns or momo. Some are simple and familiar (Fried Wontons); others are neither (Tibetan Beef and Sichuan Peppercorn Dumplings) but still irresistible.

What really intimidates people about dumplings is the wrapping. Guess what, guys! It's not that bad. Nguyen has great little illustrations that make the folds easy and straightforward. The instructions are wordy, like a friend who tells you every landmark to look out for on a 5-mile drive. But you won't get lost. Personally, I have always strictly believed that the effort of making dumplings yourself magically negates the calories you might accrue by eating them. With the help of this book, you may find yourself reaching the same conclusion.


'Clean Food' Book Cover

Clean Food

Clean Food: A Seasonal Guide to Eating Close to the Source with More Than 200 Recipes for a Healthy and Sustainable You, by Terry Walters, hardcover, 304 pages, Sterling Epicure, list price: $30.00

Recent years have seen more and more vegan cookbooks hitting the mainstream, and this one bristles with crossover charisma. Sure, there are a few ingredients your average omnivore will never buy — the ume plum vinegar, the agar powder, to name two — but in a year when there was no other significant vegetable book, Clean Food excels: You could call it a graduate course in meatlessness. The book celebrates the once-obscure, now-popular heirlooms, like Roasted Kabocha Squash and Creminis with Fresh Herbs. There are also minimalist luxuries, like Winter Green Salad with Sugared Walnuts, Crispy Pears and Pomegranates.

Despite its name (which may have you wondering, with a frown, what you've been eating up until now), Clean Food is a gateway book for the vegan lifestyle, not a hard sell. Who knows, it may end up on your kitchen shelf right next to your copy of The Meat Bible. But with its open, appealing design and rosy sense that anything is possible within the plant kingdom, Clean Food might just win you over.


'Gourmet Today' Book Cover

Gourmet Today

Gourmet Today: More than 1000 All-New Recipes for the Contemporary Kitchen, by Ruth Reichl, hardcover, 1,024 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, list price: $40.00

Gourmet Magazine, that recently extinguished flame, was many things to many people: For some, it was a cheap ticket to faraway food cultures, a menu for special occasions; for others it was pure food porn. But one of the things Gourmet did best can be found in what turns out to be the magazine's valedictory cookbook: weeknight dishes with an international flair. The magazine's correspondents may have roamed far and wide in search of culinary stimuli, but its kitchens had a knack for scaling and converting the recipes they brought back till they slid comfortably into the weeknight rotation back home. If dishes like Israeli Couscous with Mixed Mushrooms or Japanese Sesame Spinach are becoming household standbys in kitchens from Secaucus to Milwaukee, I dare say we have Gourmet to thank for it.

Like the 2004 Gourmet Cookbook, Gourmet Today is a good go-to reference for basic matters of technique, like making fresh pasta or how to make a roux. Though its slick, bright food fantasies may no longer arrive in the mailbox each month, Gourmet has found a way to deliver every night — a guarantee that though it may be gone, it won't be forgotten.


'Stir' Book Cover

Stir

Stir: Mixing It Up in the Italian Tradition, by Barbara Lynch, hardcover, 352 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, list price: $35.00

It can be nervewracking when a well-known restaurant chef issues a first cookbook. So often they're flashy, ambitious and about as useful to your home cook as, say, a biplane, which is why so few of them end up on my top 10 lists. But Lynch's recipes, while elegantly composed, are never overengineered. Lynch uses classic Italian structures — pastas, pizzas, roasted vegetables and fritti — and turns them sideways with flavors that are unexpected but never jarring. Why wouldn't you give polenta a silky cream infusion with mascarpone? Why not steam mussels with saffron? What are you, square?

I defy anyone to resist the Truffled Gnocchi with Peas and Mushrooms (made with truffle oil so they don't break the bank), unfolding layer after mushroomy layer in your mouth like the 400-thread-count sheets in a really good hotel. Lynch, who's never forgotten her famously working-class roots in South Boston, has mastered the trick of going upscale without talking down to people. Roasted Fennel and Green Beans may dress up for dinner with tarragon, currants and shallots, but at heart, they're still just hard-working weeknight veg.


'Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking' book cover

Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking

Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking, by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo, hardcover, 384 pages, Chronicle Books, list price: $50.00

Ever since Fuchsia Dunlop starting publishing her regional Chinese books a few years ago, it's been heady times for Chinese cookbooks. This year's offering is a doozy: a showstopping mix of the authentic, the ambitious and the accessible by veteran teacher and cookbook author Eileen Yin-Fei Lo's book. No more dumbed-down broccoli and beef! Even the easy recipes, like Hunan Hot-and-Spicy Shrimp have smart little secrets — in this case, a crisp egg-white coat and a surprisingly complex-tasting blend of ketchup and oyster sauce.

You're in the hands of a pro, so don't be afraid to make the famous char siu, or Barbecued Pork. You could wrap it into a pork bun — it's really not that hard — but if that's way too much authenticity to tackle in one go, you could just eat it with some noodles (say, eggless noodles with barbecued pork) and call it a day. An unforgettable, very delicious day.


'Savory Baking' Book Cover

Savory Baking

Savory Baking, by Mary Cech, paperback, 168 pages, Chronicle Books, list price: $24.95

This book claims it is the only book devoted to nonsweet baking, which I know for a fact to be untrue. However, the recipes are right on the mark. It's not that baking without sugar is anything new — can you imagine the world of hors d'oeuvres without a small army of salty little puff-pastry bites? Cech has plenty of those savory little sideshows, like Potato and Scallion Biscuits and Roasted Red Pepper Creme Fraiche Quiche. But not content just to open for the main act, Cech marches straight on through to dinner and dessert. There is something perversely satisfying about a cookie that refuses to play nice, like Thyme, Lemon and Sea-Salt Shortbread, or Black-Rimmed Pistachio Wafers.

You could think of this book as a United Nations of crustdom. Every dough that can conceivably be used as a container shows up here: puff pastry, phyllo, pate brisee (that's "pie crust" to us unwashed masses), pate a choux. They're marbled, flecked with tiny spices or seeds; they're sharp and cheesy or buttery and flaky. They're tender, they're crumbly, they're layered or leavened. The only thing they're not is sweet.


'Artisan Breads Every Day' Book Cover

Peter Reinhart's Artisan Breads Every Day

Peter Reinhart's Artisan Breads Every Day, by Peter Reinhart, hardcover, 224 pages, Ten Speed Press, list price: $30.00

When it comes to not leaving well enough alone, there's no one quite like Peter Reinhart.

Unsatisfied with having produced one perfect wholegrain bread after another in last year's book, the restless, bread-obsessed former monk is off again, refining and streamlining his techniques to make them yet more home-baker-friendly.

This year's book is a smartly collated grab bag of breads for the curious baker. There are sandwich loaves that are perfect for the lunchbox, classic baguettes, and many sourdoughs for those who enjoy keeping a pet starter culture. But there's also Crispy Rye and Seed Crackers, English muffins, and the kind of sweet, rich breads you don't expect to see in a book of austere artisanal loaves — the coffee cakes, the sticky buns, the babkas.

As luscious and worldly as his breads can be, Reinhart's devotion to the baker's art continues to have a monkish, even a self-sacrificing quality. The man spends every waking moment thinking about bread — and because he does, we don't have to.


'Craft of Baking' Book Cover

The Craft of Baking

The Craft of Baking, by Karen DeMasco and Mindy Fox, hardcover, 256 pages, Clarkson Potter, list price: $35.00

I love to read books by pastry chefs at famous restaurants, but I don't always love to use them — the day I make spun sugar and a gelatin mousse and puff pastry for one dessert is the day the kids get hot dogs for dinner. But The Craft of Baking is different. These are for the most part classic, homey treats; some are no-brainers, like make-your-own graham crackers and sugar cookies (vanilla and chocolate). Others hint at their restaurant roots with savory ingredients: Pine Nut Tart with Rosemary Cream packs a smart herbal punch; Gingerbread Cupcakes with Candied Ginger flirt with the dark side with beer, molasses, coffee and ginger you candy yourself (not that hard, actually!).

DeMasco and Fox are careful technicians — they tell you when to watch out for boiling-over syrups, how thickly the egg mixture should ribbon when you lift the whisk, and why you have to bounce the brioche dough from hand to hand 30 times. Exerting just a little extra effort is a hallmark of this book, and since I gained 5 pounds just reading it, I figure that's probably a good thing.


'Rose's Heavenly Cakes' Book Cover

Rose's Heavenly Cakes

Rose's Heavenly Cakes, by Rose Levy Beranbaum, hardcover, 512 pages, Wiley, list price: $39.95

Rose Beranbaum has more cake knowhow in her little finger than you will find in the entire Baking Needs aisle at your local supermarket, which is probably why you bought The Cake Bible 20 years ago and never felt the need for another cake book. Rose's new book is for the palate that wants to take a step beyond the pound cakes and yellow sponges and chocolate roulades of yesteryear. Graced with red currants, Seville oranges, pineapple caramel or blackberry mousse, these are cakes that trot down the runway with a sly, secret smile.

Chocolate Tweed Angel Food Cake is the sophisticated heir of angel food cake, its sweetness arrested and tamed by flecks of bitter chocolate. More exotic but just as grownup is the Sicilian Pistachio Cake, brilliant green blanched pistachios scattered over a golden buttercream. After a couple of years of less ambitious books devoted to cupcakes and quick breads for weekend bakers, it's nice to see that the Cake Queen's still willing to luxe it up.

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