Recently, there has been a spate of shop closings in South Africa. An often-recognized Central News Agent (cough), has given in to public pressure and closed its doors because hey, the economy is hard and people are spending their money on beer-bottle openers shaped like Baby Yoda from Wish instead of Avocado’s.
How I love the fact that us millennials fuck up brands by just being weird.
This chain is one of many book-oriented stores that is feeling the crunch of digital media. It is true, cellphones now do everything from allowing the Russian government to know how filthy your house is, to giving you a tutorial on making toast shaped like Baby Yoda. Until the next fad with diminishing returns captures our imagination, it is safe to say that our reliance on books will continue to shrink.
Though, there is one type of book which can be relied upon to remain on the shelves all year round – recipe books.
Yes, for some reason, our desire to throw off the shackles of tangible objects has not been extended to recipe books. In fact, were one to go to one of the last remaining bookstores in Durban, a considerable amount of shelf-space is dedicated to books on food. Standing in the isle, you look at their spines winking up at you, promising all kinds of arcane knowledge from chefs who will swear blind their grandmother taught them how to cook the best. All the topics are covered, including what has to be the second most depressing cookbook ever written, A Passion for Potatoes. The most depressing recipe book ever written is undoubtedly, Rawlicious: Delicious Raw Recipes for Radiant Health, for the same reasons you would need to reevaluate your life while sitting in a drum circle.
Everyone and their lice-colony has a cookbook these days. I have never seen as many obscure celebrities punting their hitherto unknown food-talents to the ignorant masses than now. Where nobody could be arsed to buy a hardbacked dictionary, they are queuing for Gary Busey’s My Summer in France: a Cookbook about Love, Redemption and Filing Your Teeth so That You Can Pass Yourself Off as Human. Other titles in this celebrity centric series include Nick Nolte’s, Knick Knack Knolte: How to Thrift While the Police Give Chase as well as Tonya Harding’s cocktail guide simply titled, On Thin Ice.
The next tier from this is the cookbook endorsed by the celebrity chef. Here they try desperately to show you how “down to Earth” their cooking is, because a celebrity chef who spent years eating assistants smeared in cocaine and frois-gras would eat like a normal person (naturally). The only one of these I might trust is that guy who looks like an Australian Doctor Octopus while wearing a cravat. This is purely because his diet is clearly everything, no exceptions.
Again, their grandmothers are given all the credit for teaching them everything they know, and again their petty ego is expressed by strange photo’s of them and food in a variety of compromising situations. My favorite of these is a local personality who regularly releases a self-titled magazine/journal where the front cover adheres to the following formula:
(Celebrity chefmanbrand™ + food) x (strange thing being done with food) = cover “photo”
The high point was him being doused with milk while a camera captured every agonizing moment. If you were dousing yourself with milk and your parents walked in, you better pray that there is a laptop nearby showing industrial-weeb-hentai on full volume to mitigate the embarrassment.
Ooh chef-kun, anata no man miruku de watashi o oi nasai.
The point is, most cookbooks are predominantly catalogues of recipes running the gamut from starters to puddings. A theme may be present, or used to loosely tie the whole thing together (such as Erwin Rommel’s, My North African Kitchen, or Billy Rae Cyrus’ baking compendium, My Pastry Flakey Tart), but at the end of the day, the book is bought, a recipe or two tried, and the whole thing forgotten about to collect dust publicly so as to maintain some bizarre façade that you are a person of culture and skill.
Recipe books exist, allegedly, to teach you how to cook. All they do at the end of the day, almost fleetingly, is teach you how to cook one or two things. Learning how Charlie Sheen likes to shape his Christmas puddings into the same dimensions as Denise Richard’s left boob (his favorite) does nothing but teach you the preference for the person writing the recipe. Yes, inevitably, if you read and follow enough recipes you begin to enjoy the benefits of experience, but that takes a great deal more time than buying your books cleverly, as opposed to what is fashionable.
Which finally brings me, drenched in milk, to the crux of my proposition. Buy your recipes books based on theme as supposed to endorsement. It is not a hard and fast rule, but heavens it makes the whole process of learning to cook from a book easier.
Treat your recipe book like a university reference book. Better yet, buy those recipe books which are used in culinary schools as reference books. The hallmark of a good recipe book is that it spends as much time explaining fundamental concepts of its theme to you as it does showing you how they are applied in the kitchen. Don’t buy a book that tells you to do something, buy one that shows you and explains why. There is no better example of this, that I have read, than Samin Nosrat’s Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat – a book dedicated to breaking down the fundamental building blocks of flavor and cooking and then showing you how they can be applied in the kitchen. You can almost hear her pottering around your kitchen, throwing expired bottles of condiments over her shoulder like a Persian Yoda rifling through Luke’s crap in a swamp. Every page has her putting in time and effort to outline the wisdom of food as supposed to its mere preparation. It is the best holotype for the kind of book I am describing, one that doesn’t teach you recipes, but teaches you food. You want to learn to cook Italian? Don’t buy Short Order Italian by Danny Devito, purchase Culinaria Italy, a book that explains recipes as much as their significance to Italian food. You want to master the ways of the spice train? Resist David Beckham’s Sucking on Posh Spice, and turn to Cariema Isaacs Spice Odyssey, a book whose first third is literally dedicated to outlining flavors and their uses.
Then the most criminally underrated book of them all, The Flavour Thesaurus by Niki Segnit. The woman writes like the cool teacher who occasionally told you something rude but did it in a way that made it PTA friendly. Hers is a reference book of the highest order (in my opinion), where everyone from the fledgling cook to the experienced culinarian can benefit from her advice on flavor pairing. If you are reading this, and know what is good for you, buy her book. Do it for the inspiration and for the love England’s Recently Anointed National Treasure, David Mitchell.
After having bought her book, David Mitchell will appear to you in a dream clad only in fine linen and touch your forehead, congratulating you on making the most logical decision for your cooking.